Japantown’s Benkyodo and Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop preserving sweet traditions

 In San Francisco’s Japantown, two family-owned sweet shops have been preserving traditional confections that hold a treasured spot in the hearts of many San Francisco natives and in the history of the city.
Benkyodo and Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop are among the diverse businesses that have been honored by San Francisco’s Legacy Business Program. 
Benkyodo was founded in 1906 by Suyeichi Okamura at the original location on Geary Boulevard. It was one of the original businesses in Japantown, making traditional Japanese wagashi mocha and manju confections. 
Three generations of the Okamura family have persevered, making sweets through bitter times. The shop was forced to close during World War II when the U.S. government ordered the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese American citizens. After the war ended, Benkyodo reopened and was passed on in 1951 to Suyeichi’s son Hirofumi Okamura. The shop moved eight years later to its current location at Sutter and Buchanan Streets. Then in 1990 Hirofumi Okamura passed the business on to his sons Ricky and Bobby Okamura. 

Customers line up early along the counter at Benkyodo, which often sells out of its most popular confections. The glass cases display the traditional Japanese sweets, nestled in neat little rows on the shelf.

"If it gets busy it's hard to keep up sometimes because it's all done by hand. Everything's done by hand,” said Bobby Okamura.

Customers line up early along the counter at Benkyodo, which often sells out of its most popular confections. The glass cases display the traditional Japanese sweets, nestled in neat little rows on the shelf.

In the back kitchen, Bobby and Ricky fold the sweet beans into small pillows of handmade mochi, just the way their father taught them.

“My brother started first. It's been since the late 70's I would say, so going on like forty years,” said Bobby Okamura.
Over the years, they have introduced new flavors such as blueberry, mango and peanut butter, to the traditional offerings. Benkyodo was named a California Small Business of the Year award in 2008 and has received numerous awards and honors. 
"It just reflects our parents and our grandparents before, that the work they put in to continue the legacy of the business,” said Bobby Okamura.

Just across the street from Benkyodo there is another business that is passing on a San Francisco tradition and family legacy to a new generation.
Yasukochi's Sweet Stop is tucked inside a corner of the Super Mira Japanese market, the glass case displaying a tantalizing array of pastries and cakes, including the famous Blum’s Coffee Crunch cake that is legendary in San Francisco’s local culinary history. 
Inside the kitchen, Kenji Yick, 29, is working hard to fill his grandfather's shoes. His grandparents Thom “Moses” and Hatsuye “Hatsy” Yasukochi, the bakery's founders, passed the spatula to their grandson a few years back. 

"He just said, ok, just watch me. I want you to do what I do,” said Yick. 

The job, however, wasn't about baking just any cakes. 

For 45 years, the Yasukochis have been preserving a slice of San Francisco history, by continuing to serve up the beloved Blum's Coffee Crunch cake.

Thom Yasukochi learned the recipe from a fellow baker named Antoine who had been the candy maker at the old Blum’s restaurant chain. The cake was invented by master baker Ernest Weil and became a favorite at the restaurant.

"Antoine used to work for Blum’s,” said Yasukochi, “He used to be the candy maker, the crunch maker and he gave me the recipe." 

After Antoine retired, Yasukochi opened his shop in 1974 and decided to keep the tradition alive, even getting accolades he says when the Blum's daughter dropped by.

“She said it's exactly like Blum’s used to make and I was very pleased about that. And she said she's glad that someone was continuing to make that cake because nobody was making the cake after Blum’s shut down,” said Yasukochi.

The candy topping is temperamental, but the results are so sweet. 

Japantown in San Francisco.

"You let it go too long it'll taste all burnt. If you don't let it go long enough, it'll get a little airy and it's no good,” said Yick, patting handfuls of the coffee candy onto the four-layer, light and airy sponge cake with fresh whipped cream frosting.
Yick, ironically, says he doesn’t eat sweets very often but enjoys making something that brings so much joy to so many people. 

“Something I've always liked is how I can help other people. How I can make them smile,” said Yick. 

For Thom and Hatsy Yasukochi, there's peace of mind, knowing the family bakery, designated a legacy business this year, will continue in their grandson’s hands. 

"The harder I work. I figure I accomplish something. And Hatsy was instrumental in building the business,” said Thom Yasukochi. 
“I love meeting people,” said Hatsy Yasukochi, with her sweet smile that has greeted generations of customers at the store counter, "I was decorating all their little children's cakes, Minnie Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Winnie the Pooh…Now it's their children and their grandkids.”

The future is not as certain for the Okamura brothers, who are still searching for a successor before they retire.

"Japantown at one time there were a lot of Japanese-owned businesses. But it's just totally changing now so we're the last few that are still surviving,” said Bobby Okamura.

The two businesses, for three generations now, have been pillars in the business community. And the hope, for both the confectioners and their customers, is that they will continue to preserve those traditions and sweeten the lives of San Franciscans for many generations to come.