By 8 a.m. at Bui Natural Tofu, Minh Bui and his team have already been at work for several hours. Steam wafts through the air as large tubs of soymilk bubble and sesame balls hiss in the fryer. Like a well-oiled machine, workers move around the small space with purpose, turning out trays of freshly made tofu with ease.
A beloved Locally Crafted partner at Reed College and a mainstay for tofu enthusiasts in Portland, Oregon, Bui Natural Tofu had rather humble beginnings. The tofu operation began in Minh’s garage with help from his sister and two brothers in 1996, two years after they immigrated to the U.S. For the Buis, tofu making has been in the family for decades — their parents started producing tofu in Vietnam in 1980.
What started as a small operation in Portland just for friends and family has developed into a continually growing, successful family business. Today, with multiple facilities and the prospect of further expansion, Minh and his team can still hardly keep up with the demand due to the unmatched freshness and taste of their tofu and other assorted offerings.
During a recent visit, Reed College Executive Chef Jesse Fairman and Bon Appétit Fellow Elise Kulers toured the facilities to witness the tofu-making process, hear Minh’s story, and meet his hardworking team. Six days a week, the Bui Natural Tofu team produces an assortment of fresh tofu, as well as soy milk and an array of Vietnamese delicacies, attracting huge crowds of regulars every week.
Before each production day, the team soaks 1,000 pounds of soybeans overnight. At 5:30 a.m. the next morning, workers start the process of washing, rinsing, and draining the softened soybeans, which are then fed through a grinder with water to make soy milk. (A cool sidenote: the solid byproduct is separated and set aside for a local farmers’ animal feed.) Next, the soymilk is brought to a boil before the key ingredient — naturally occurring organic acid which began as a simple mixture of vinegar and salt — is added.
During the tour, Minh explained that what sets Bui Tofu apart from competitors is the use of the naturally occurring acid to form soybean curds instead of chemicals, which are commonly used by other tofu producers. Using the acidic soybean water from the previous production day, they coagulate the soy milk to produce soft curds that are then pressed and sliced into blocks of tofu.
Across the street from the tofu-making facility and retail store is their second production facility. Here, they make fresh rice paper rolls that are filled with either tofu or shrimp and stuffed with rice noodles, lettuce, and Thai basil and served chilled. Refreshing and satisfying on their own, the rolls are served with a tantalizing hoisin-peanut butter sauce that ends up stealing the show. Students at Reed are the lucky recipients of these fresh rolls in their grab and go café, along with several other natural grocery stores in the area.
For over a decade, Bui Natural Tofu has been a reliable Locally Crafted vendor, providing the freshest (and tastiest) tofu on the market for guests at Reed College and other Bon Appétit accounts in the area. Beyond that, they exemplify how a family operation with humble beginnings can eventually become a respected institution with a tremendous amount of hard work and local support.