I had the pleasure of meeting Jenny Yang, owner of Phoenix Bean, at a French fall market in Chicago last year. And, as crazy as it may sound, some of the biggest buzz at the artisan goods and gourmet food event was for the amazing array of fresh tofu and soy milk products sampled there by Jenny and her team. Jenny, who also conducted a standing-room-only chef demonstration at the event, won everyone over with her passion, stories and personality - not to mention her delectable, nutritious recipes that starred the artisan tofu made at the Phoenix Bean factory in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood.
Up until that time, I had no idea there is a tofu factory right in the heart of Chicago's north side - just down the street from the popular Asian food haven of Argyle Street. I am a huge fan of tofu products and soy milk so I had to find out more about this local producer - and stock up on more Phoenix Bean products right away. And, that I did.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to spend a morning with Jenny touring the Phoenix Bean factory, seeing how some of their products are made, and hearing about the company's plans for the future.
Chicago's Oldest Operating Tofu and Bean Sprout Factory
All you have to do is take one look at the Phoenix Bean factory (located at 5438 N. Broadway Avenue) to know that something big is underway. Late last year, Jenny and her team began work on the renovation of the more than 100-year-old building that has housed its factory since Phoenix Bean began production more than 30 years ago. While the renovation project is still underway, and the final design of the exterior signage is being approved, the Phoenix Bean team buzzes with activity from early in the morning until late in the afternoon.
The large windows in the factory's bright, sun-filled lobby allow you to look in and see the diligent work being done by the team, including Phoenix Bean's own "tofu master," Mr. Louie. On average, Phoenix Bean uses more than 1,000 pounds of soybeans each day to make a wide variety of soy milk and tofu products, which are sold fresh or in prepared meals at restaurants, grocery stores, markets, schools and hotels across the Chicago area.
While the Phoenix Bean factory is filled with cutting-edge, stainless-steel equipment, the team still uses many of the traditional handmade methods that has set it apart from other manufacturers and ensured the production of a high-quality, artisan product for more than three decades. That's why the company continues to earn high praise from local chefs and a prestigious place in the kitchens of some of Chicago's most popular restaurants.
Another secret to the company's success is the soybeans Jenny sources directly from a farm in a Rockford, Ill. Jenny hand-picked the farm due to the high-quality, non-GMO soy beans it cultivates on its fields as well as its close proximity to her factory. Phoenix Bean gets a shipment from the farm every three weeks, ensuring it has a constant supply of fresh soybeans ready to be turned into soy milk and tofu - by artisans who work their magic on small batches each day.
The oldest operating tofu factory in Chicago also grows and sells an average of 1,500 pounds of mung bean sprouts each day. Jenny gets her mung beans from China and sells the fresh, locally grown product to restaurants and markets across the city.
Fresh, Artisan-Crafted Soybean Products - Made and Sold in Chicago
Each day, Jenny is able to regulate production at her factory based on anticipated retail, wholesale and consumer orders. And, thanks to the popularity of the Phoenix Bean products, its remarkable reputation, and the increasing number of people looking for healthy, vegan, local foods, product orders are trending up across the board.
Phoenix Bean's distributors sell its tofu and soy milk products to local restaurants including Lao Sze Chuan, Slurping Turtle, Big Bowl, Flat Top Grill, Chicago Diner, Takashi and Arami, with new ones added on a regular basis. In addition to enjoying Phoenix Bean products in your favorite dishes at some of Chicago's most popular restaurants, you can purchase them at local grocery stores and most area Asian markets including Golden Pacific in Edgewater; Joong Boo Market in Avondale; Hyde Park Produce and Treasure Island in Hyde Park; and Korean mega grocery stores Super H-Mart in Niles, Ill. and Naperville, Ill. and Assi Plaza in Niles.
Even during these cold winter months, you can purchase Phoenix Bean products at the indoor Logan Square Farmers Market, held Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Congress Theater at 2135 N. Milwaukee Avenue (through March 24, 2013). Come springtime, you'll be able to find Phoenix Bean products at the Andersonville, Glenwood, Independence Park, and Logan Square farmers markets.
Throughout the year, you can purchase Phoenix Bean products straight from the factory. Retail orders are welcome during the factory's regular operating hours, which are typically Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. While the Phoenix Bean website is in development, you can email the company about any product questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether you purchase Phoenix Bean products at the factory or a local farmers market, be sure to pick up one of Jenny's tofu-centric recipes, including Phoenix Tofu Noodle Salad, Phoenix Tumeric-Ginger Tofu Stir Fry, and Phoenix Bean Spicy Tofu Stir Fry. The recipes, created by Jenny's mother (grandma Yang), reflect the family's belief that tofu should play an important, nutritious part of your diet. The recipes showcase how easily soy products can be incorporated into any delicious, sure-to-please meal.
A Working Mom with Big Plans and Ideas - and a Firm Focus on Family
While Jenny grew up eating and enjoying tofu as a child living in Taiwan, she hasn't always been in the tofu business. The mother of two school-aged children likes to joke that her ownership of Phoenix Bean is a result of a mid-life crisis - seven years ago. All kidding aside, Jenny was fortunate at the time to learn that the owner of the local tofu factory in her neighborhood was interested in taking on a partner as he prepared for his own retirement - and she jumped at the chance to get involved.
Jenny bid goodbye to her days in the finance departments of big local corporations like United Airlines and Sara Lee to set up shop at Phoenix Bean. And, while it hasn't always been easy going or meant less hours at work, Jenny has relished the opportunity to take the helm of a local company and be able to spend more time with her family - especially while her children are still young. But, even though Jenny is closer to home, she's always looking ahead. And, she's set her sights on big, new opportunities for her growing company.
With the end of the current factory renovation project in sight, Jenny is planning ahead for the opening of the Phoenix Bean retail store just a few doors down the street from the factory later this year. In addition to selling all of its soy milk and tofu products, Jenny plans to sell fresh prepared meals made right there at the store. Other aspirational plans include ultimately opening a cooking school where students of all ages can learn about soybeans and try their hand at making soy milk and tofu.
But that's not all for this local working mom. Jenny also has new products and tofu varieties in the works - some of which are being developed at the request of local "foodies" and market owners.
Personally, I am glad to have had the opportunity to meet and get to know Jenny. To me, she is a true inspiration - as a wife, mom and entrepreneur. I respect her tireless efforts to build a thriving company dedicated to producing local, high-quality and nutritious products for Chicagoans to enjoy. She is truly someone to watch. And, I know the future will be bright for Jenny and her local tofu and soy milk factory.
Here's to world citizens!