The tofu-making process is a mystery to most people, so getting to visit an artisanal tofu maker is a special treat. When Bon Appétit Catering Director Jen Kozy, Marketing Manager Colleen Maul, Resident Dietitian Christine Cliff, and I were invited to Farm to Fork vendor Phoenix Bean Tofu, we decided to share the experience and bring some University of Chicago students along with them.
Owner Jenny Yang greeted us with fresh soy milk samples and a warm welcome. Although Phoenix Bean Tofu has been a local staple for more than 30 years, its current iteration is only five years old. Jenny explained that she had originally discovered Phoenix Bean Tofu as a new resident of Chicago and quickly became a loyal customer. When she learned that the owners had decided to retire, she offered to buy the business. She now caters to a robust lineup of local restaurants, small scale aggregators, and large grocery stores. The essence of Phoenix Bean Tofu begins with the farm from which the soybeans are sourced. Located only 40 minutes away from the factory, Mueller Farm is a multigenerational farm that began growing even more soybeans organically for Jenny. When Jenny first took over the business, Mueller devoted only 18 acres to organic soybeans, but as Phoenix Bean’s popularity has grown, so has Mueller’s organic soybean acreage — to 360 acres!
As we toured the factory in hairnets, booties, and aprons, we learned how the locally grown soybeans are first washed by hand and soaked overnight at 65 degrees. Sprouting soybeans, a traditional practice dating back thousands of years, initiates a sequence of metabolic changes in the bean that increases protein levels and aids in digestion. From there the soybeans are coarsely ground in a stone grinder, which helps retain a fresh nutty flavor in the final product. Phoenix Bean tofu is different from others in that it is pressed and packaged with only a small amount of water, which its customers prefer. Jenny offered everyone pieces of tofu curd and warm, freshly pressed tofu so we could taste the differences in flavor and texture she was describing.
We ended the tour in the new facility next door, where Phoenix Bean salads are prepared. As we munched on a colorful array of spicy stir-fry, smoked five-spice, and Sriracha-peanut tofu salads, Jenny shared some of the challenges of being a minority-woman-owned small business and the successes she has enjoyed despite them. All the students and the Bon Appétit team left the tour full of both inspiration and tofu!