By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
The curtly worded paper sign taped to Mikawaya’s front door in Japanese Village Plaza hardly seemed a fitting end to Little Tokyo’s 111-year-old Japanese confectionery business, but there it was: Effective 6/29/2021 Mikawaya will be closed permanently.
Today, questions remain as to exactly why the only remaining Mikawaya location shut down even as observers are quick to chalk up the demise of the wagashi (Japanese confection) store to obsolescence or gentrification. The fact is: Mikawaya may have become a victim of its own success.
At its height, Mikawaya starred in a Cinderella fable about a sweet shop that grew into a small factory, then expanded into a much larger factory, and soon redefined how Americans eat ice cream.
Frances Hashimoto Friedman quit her job as a teacher to take over operation of the family manju (sweet rice cake) business. She and husband Joel Friedman modernized production and soon opened locations in other parts of Southern California and Hawaii. It was at the Little Tokyo Mikawaya location where, until the age of 102, Frances’ mother Haru Hashimoto delighted in introducing young customers to the traditional Japanese delicacies.
Joel hit upon the idea of inserting ice cream into a pillow of mochi, and Frances developed the new product. By 2010, mochi ice cream soon caught the attention of national chains like Trader Joe’s, Albertsons, Bristol Farms, Ralphs, Gelson’s, Pavilions, and 99 Ranch Markets. The operation outgrew its Arts District factory and moved into a 103,000-square-foot facility in Vernon, just south of Downtown L.A. Although Frances was often pressured to change the brand name, she was adamant that the name “Mikawaya” be retained.
Two years later, Frances passed away, leaving a palpable void within the family business. Yet, Mikawaya continued to grow, focusing more on its ice cream line than **wagashi.** (Joel’s remembrance of his late wife and the journey they shared is printed elsewhere in this edition.)
In July 2015, El Segundo-based private equity firm Century Park Capital Partners acquired 100 percent of Mikawaya and launched The Mochi Ice Cream Company and My/Mo frozen novelties. Despite the emergence of copycat manufacturers, My/Mo remains the largest branded manufacturer of mochi ice cream in North America, available at over 20,000 retailers.
In 2019, the brand single-handedly generated 15 percent of the growth within the entire $2.4 billion frozen novelty niche, according to Martin Sarafa, Century Park managing partner.
But the story doesn’t end there. In January 2020, Lakeview Capital, Inc. acquired The Mochi Ice Cream Company. At the time, Jake Freeman, Lakeview’s director of investments, announced plans to “deploy significant capital to continue to build a leading, global branded mochi snack platform.”
On Tuesday, the company provided a statement to The Rafu concerning the closure of the Little Tokyo location:
“After an unprecedented year of pandemic-related challenges, nearly all restaurants, food service and hospitality establishments were impacted in some way. The iconic Mikawaya storefront in Little Tokyo was not immune to these challenges, and sadly we had to make the difficult decision to close its doors this week. We’re fully committed to preserving the legacy of Frances Hashimoto and the amazing mochi ice cream she brought to not just L.A., but to the world. That’s why fans of the original Mikawaya brand can still find the delicious mochi ice cream at retailers nationwide.”
Frances would undoubtedly shudder at the loss of the JVP store, as many did when they learned about the unceremonious closing. However, she was also a visionary who saw Little Tokyo as a place where a small idea, like putting ice cream inside a rice cake, can change lives and minds.