Cleveland Tofu

How a foreign car made a local crop a hit half way around the world.

Brian Gura is many things, but a hippie isn’t one of them. Even if he is making tofu in the basement of an old Stouffer’s factory at East 38th Street and Woodland Avenue. The factory’s location is about as nondescript as it gets. It’s in one of the many food service warehouses flanking the Northern Ohio Food Terminal on the east side, with little to no hint as to what’s going on in the downstairs of the vaguely named International Specialty Produce. But down there, Brian is serving as the steward of a small company that’s more than 35 years old.

Through those years the company has moved out of the city and back and owners have shifted, but the equipment, manufacturing process, and commitment to quality at Cleveland Tofu have remained the same. It’s a utilitarian operation, where four workers soak, grind, cook, coagulate, press, cut, cool, and package the tofu, which you can find in many local grocery stores and college cafeterias. Neither the process nor the machines have changed since the company started, and it’s all done by hand.

And it still all starts with the beans.

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When Cleveland Tofu was getting up and running in the late 1970s, the town of Marysville, Ohio, was just a twinkle in the eye of Honda Motor Company, where in a course that seemingly couldn’t be less related to a local tofu company, it was considering setting up a shop with an assembly plant. Honda went on to open the Marysville Auto Plant in 1982, where it’s still producing cars today.

Sticklers for efficiency, Honda found itself facing a dilemma at the plant. Many of the parts used in the assembly of their cars were shipped to the plant from Japan in large shipping containers. Those containers traveled across the ocean before being loaded on trains and eventually taken by rail to the plant. After the parts were used, the empty shipping containers had to make their way back to Japan, where the process of supplying the plant would repeat itself. The wastefulness of sending empty shipping containers halfway across the world was not lost on Honda. Perhaps more surprisingly, neither was the potential of the prime farmland surrounding the Marysville plant that was cropped with soybeans.

So Honda got into the soybean business. A new relationship was forged between the Japanese automobile manufacturer and local growers, resulting in the empty shipping containers being filled in Marysville with the highest quality Ohio soybeans ready for export to Japan. So strong was Honda’s commitment to Ohio soybeans (with some additional beans later coming from southern Michigan and eastern Indiana), that Honda was even growing and harvesting beans on the infield of its 7.5-mile test track at the plant.

But Honda wasn’t shipping commodity American-grown soybeans back home. They sought the finest that the region could offer, and worked with a local processor and growers to produce “white pearls,” non-genetically modified soybeans with a superior percentage of protein, shipped clean and cold to ensure the highest quality. The soybean operation, designed to produce a product that would satisfy the most discriminating Japanese palate, was, and to this day is, fully integrated from field to fork, with research, seed production, contracting primarily with Ohio growers, and processing all coming out of Marysville. For the growers, it meant a premium price for their labor. For Honda, it meant less waste and more involvement in the community it had become part of.

As Honda has begun producing more parts in the United States, there are fewer and fewer shipping containers that need filling for the return trip to Japan. With the change in supply paths, another Japanese company, Kanematsu Corporation, recently purchased the soybean operation. But while the parent company may be different, things in Marysville remain the same. The same group of people and farmers are still working to produce the ideal soybean.

These days around half of the soybeans processed in Marysville are exported to countries such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Finland, with the remainder staying in the United States and going to companies like Cleveland Tofu, where we benefit from the strange bedfellows made when an international automobile corporation seeking to maximize its efficiencies joined forces with Ohio farmers willing to break from their cycle of commodity farming.

Back here in Cleveland, Brian Gura has tried other beans for the raw ingredient for his tofu—they typically cost half the price—but he hasn’t deviated from the white pearls, as in addition to being local and completely traceable in a way commodity products rarely are, nothing is comparable. And when your finished product consists nearly 100% of a single raw ingredient, that ingredient is pretty important.

If you’re familiar with tofu, but haven’t tried any from Cleveland Tofu, be prepared for something different. This isn’t the creamy, gelatinous soy product typically used in Asian cooking. Unlike the destined-for-export soybean developed by Honda, Cleveland Tofu’s product has been developed for American palates. In describing it, Brian puts it this way: Asian-style tofu is like paté, whereas his product is more of a meatloaf.

That might not be the most flattering articulation of how Cleveland Tofu is different from its Asian counterpart, but there’s some truth to it. Seen in its round container with homey green lettering, the product is as likely to remind you of cottage cheese as much as anything else.

While the texture of Cleveland Tofu may be different, the taste is the same as the more traditional version. Mild and slightly vegetal, crumbled or cut into chunks this tofu is great anywhere you’re seeking texture and protein without upsetting a dish’s delicate balance of flavors, particularly when you’re not looking to add an appreciable amount of fat. Puréed, as it is in our accompanying recipe from chef Matthew Anderson of Umami Asian Kitchen in Chagrin Falls, Cleveland Tofu forms a bulletproof emulsion that’s perfect for salad dressings, sauces, dips, or anywhere else you’re looking to substitute for things like sour cream or cream cheese.

There’s really nothing out there like Cleveland Tofu, and we’re pretty lucky to benefit from the confluence of international trade, innovative growers, and local food producers that resulted in its availability to us. It’s a unique product handcrafted in Cleveland, and it utilizes some of the highest quality soybeans in the world, most of which come from right here in Ohio. And in case you think this is just for all the vegetarians and vegans out there, you should know—crumbled up it’s great stir-fried with ground pork.

Cleveland Tofu is available at Annemarie’s Dairy at the West Side Market, Heinen’s, and Zagara’s Marketplace, as well as several other area grocers. For a full list of locations visit ClevelandTofu.com.