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To bean or not to bean?

18 December 2008

Superior Tofu/Rita Cheng

That was the question for 25-year-old Rita Cheng when her then husband Percy asked if she would leave her computer programming job and join his parent’s growing manufacturing business that turned soybeans into tofu.

Cheng certainly had the knowledge to do the job: she had come from two generations of Chinese tofu makers. Both her grandparents and her parents had run a tofu manufacturing business in Vancouver.

“I saw that making tofu was hard, back-breaking work. Both my grandparents and my parents had to get up at three o’clock in the morning. They did that every single day of their lives until they retired,” Cheng recalls.

“So when I was a teenager, had you asked me if I would go into the tofu business, I would have said ‘absolutely not.’  I had no interest in doing that kind of work.” However, in the end, Cheng was persuaded to leave behind her flourishing career and join the family business. Today she is president of Superior Tofu, and although she is no longer married to Percy, they continue to run the business together.

Superior Tofu has come a long way: it now has sales in the millions and is still growing in size and reputation. The company makes everything from tofu blocks to specialized, creamy tofu desserts and lots of products in between.

They are negotiating to expand into China where tofu from Canada is thought to be of better quality. “They believe our water is more pure and pristine,” notes Cheng. “The Chinese are particularly impressed that our tofu is manufactured to such high standards that our products have a comparatively long shelf life. In China, you usually have to use up your tofu the same day, otherwise it starts to go bad.”

It’s obvious when speaking with Cheng that she is proud of the work she’s doing to bring healthy food to the market.

With the growing interest in and research on the benefits of soy in the diet, Cheng foresees a strong future for the company. However, this dynamic and energetic vegetarian has not forgotten her humble beginnings.

Cheng enjoys describing how her grandfather would handcraft blocks of tofu, and then delicately place the tubs of tofu into his little red kid’s wagon. Every day he would shuffle around Chinatown, water spilling over the sides of the tubs as he negotiated the sidewalks and curbs, and would deliver his product directly to stores and restaurants. Today, Cheng still uses that little red wagon in her marketing materials for Superior Tofu.

As well, her company’s website proudly displays sepia-toned pictures of her grandparents, and black and white photos showing her relatives manufacturing tofu the old-fashioned way, even using cinder blocks to squeeze the excess water out of the tofu.

Although her love of the past is appealing, what strikes you most about Cheng — apart from her youthful looks and business savvy — is her genuine warmth and generosity.

Cheng has made a point to share her success with her community. Over the years, Superior Tofu has not only sponsored several community events, but has also donated money to many local organizations such as SUCCESS, Richmond Hospital, Red Cross (for tsunami relief) and United Way, to name just a few.

As well, she donates a significant amount of tofu to local schools for their lunch programs.

“I inherited my business sense from my father and I got my heart for my mother.  My mother was incredibly generous person.  She would give you the shirt off her back.”

Cheng grows sentimental when talking about her mother Nancy, who died several years ago.

She describes how Nancy experienced incredible poverty when her father (Rita’s other grandfather) died in China, leaving his wife with three children to raise.

Eventually the widow headed for Canada, but left her three children, including Nancy, with the grandmother. The poverty was so great that eventually it became impossible to feed everyone.

As a teenager, Nancy was forced to become a servant to another family, but later escaped and made her way to Canada.

Cheng wells up when reminiscing about her mother. “Despite all my mother had gone through, she remained the most generous and caring person I’ve ever known. She was always doing something for somebody: finding them a job, giving away clothes, money or food.”

Perhaps because of her mother’s influence and because her own retirement is now in the back of her mind, Cheng recently made a serious commitment to ensure that she and her company will continue to give back to the community for many years to come.

In 2007, Cheng’s company established the Superior Tofu Community Fund with Vancouver Foundation. The Fund is like a savings account that will grow, and each year a portion of the income generated will be used by the company to offer grants to non-profit groups of their choosing.

“I wanted to give back on a permanent basis. So I did all the research myself and selected Vancouver Foundation,” notes Cheng. A community foundation focuses on addressing all kinds of needs in the local community as well as building legacies in those communities. A community foundation can offer advice to its donors on emerging community needs, innovative projects, and opportunities to make a real impact.

Although Cheng admits to having a soft spot for issues that impact new immigrants, she is open to any projects and charities that need her support.

“We’re all here as part of the bigger community of humankind. My goal is to work to improve people’s lives — whatever that may be or whatever they may need — whether that is music lessons, a place to live, or whatever.”

It is clear that Cheng is well on her way to making that goal a reality.

“We’re all here as part of the bigger community of humankind. My goal is to work to improve people’s lives — whatever that may be or whatever they may need — whether that is music lessons, or a place to live, or whatever.”

(Originally aired: 2008)

(Story written: 2008)

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