The way Joel Friedman tells the story, mochi ice cream was the greatest ice cream invention since the ice cream sandwich.
And without his wife, it would not exist.
It was nearly 30 years ago when Friedman was in Japan and his friends had given him a local treat that he didn't like.
"I'm thinking, and I'm thinking, and I'm on a bullet train going from Tokyo to Nagoya and I realize what I don't like and I realize what I would want to do," Friedman said.
The idea struck him: What about inserting ice cream, the most American of treats, inside mochi, the most Japanese of desserts, made of a sticky ball of sweet rice flour?
He told his wife, Frances Hashimoto, the owner of a beloved Japanese sweet shop in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.
"She told me, 'Go play with it. Go work with it,'" Friedman said.
He did and mochi ice cream was created. The treat that catapulted the family business to national recognition. One of the most popular Asian American fusion desserts to be mass produced, mochi ice cream is now found across the country, at grocery chains like Trader Joe's and Raley's.
But now the family company – L.A.-based Mikawaya – is at a crossroads following the death of Frances Hashimoto. She died in November at the age of 69 from lung cancer. Hashimoto was the face of the business, and now her widowed, white husband is taking over the company's reins, just as the firm attempts a risky expansion, launching a new line of fusion ice cream products.
In taking over Mikawaya, Friedman is the first person of non-Japanese descent to run the family shop, which has been handed down through the Hashimoto family for more than a century. The lion's share of the business comes from its sales of its commercialized mochi ice cream at national grocery chains.
Taking over the company alone has been a hard transition for Friedman, who not only lost his wife, but his business partner. If the business had a challenge, the two of them would discuss it and figure out a solution.
"I get a great idea now. Who am I sharing it with?" Friedman said. "I have to sit on two sides of the table. It's like playing with chess with yourself. That's really hard."
TRIAL AND ERROR
Putting the dough of sweet rice flour, or mochi, around a ball of ice cream was not easy. The delicate dough kept falling apart around the ice cream, leaving a sodden mess.
It took 10 years time to find a solution. In 1994, it was ready to test – but it was unclear whether the American public would be ready for such a radical reinvention of ice cream.
So they decided to test the product at a place that might be amenable to an Asian American ice cream fusion: Hawaii.
Within 90 days, their invention blew the competition away, capturing an astonishing 15 percent of Hawaii's ice cream market.
“Everybody was surprised,” Friedman said.
The new treat was so popular, Mikawaya couldn’t keep up with the demand. They even turned down a deal with convenience store chain 7-Eleven.
The problem was, the company’s machines could only produce 1,800 mochi ice creams per hour. So Friedman and Hashimoto found a company that could build a machine to make triple that amount. They bought three of those machines.
“Now we went from nowhere to all the where,” Friedman said. “It really was a great marriage of East and West."
Harry Balzer, a chief industry analyst with research firm The NPD Group, said it makes sense that consumers loved the confection. Ice cream lovers like seeing the flavors they enjoy presented in different ways. In this case, consumers didn’t know what mochi was, but they knew what ice cream was.
“We’re not looking for new things,” Balzer said. “We’re looking for new things of things we already know.”
Today, Friedman leads a staff of 91 employees at Mikawaya, which includes sweet shops in Los Angeles, Gardena and Torrance that sell mochi ice cream, mochi and Japanese pastries. (The sweet shops also sell "mochilato," where gelato – with flavors like toasted almond and sweet plum wine – is infused in the mochi .)
Friedman also oversees the firm's large mochi ice cream factory in Vernon, where trays of chilled mochi ice cream balls trundel on conveyer belts. More than 100,000 mochi ice creams get made there daily.
And how, exactly, does he get the mochi to surround the ice cream?
"Ah ha! That's the secret, dear," Friedman said.
In another room, a visitor can inhale a whiff of caramel here, pistachio there, and then be seduced by the aroma of coconut.
"This is, as I say, the flavor room," Friedman said. "Isn't that a great smell? I think it's a pleasant trip. I think it probably lets endorphins release."
Friedman waxes happily about Mikawaya's strict vision of quality control: his refusal to use lower-quality artificial ingredients that would prolong the mochi ice cream's shelf life. This might be seen as advantageous to some grocery chains, who want to see longer expiration dates.
MORE THAN MOCHI
But the success of mochi ice cream has spurred the growth of competitors, who, according to Friedman, have sought to accommodate these demands.
So to preserve his company's competitiveness, Mikawaya is in the middle of launching a new line of ice cream products. It's called "Exottics," selling Asian-themed ice cream flavors like black sesame, and lychee sold in pints, ice cream sandwiches and bars.
They're being sold at ethnic grocery stores such as Hong Kong Supermarket and H-Mart where there are a high population of Asian Americans in areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle. The concept is essentially bringing Asian flavors in a more conventional American format.
Whether it will top his invention of mochi ice cream is unlcear. Friedman declined to give sales figures.
Friedman calls work his savior, because when he gets home at night, memories of his wife Frances linger.
“I lost a half a person, because I always felt the two of us were just one entity,” Friedman said. “So now, I’m just kind of a half. It’s hard.”
He hopes in a few years, he can hand off the company to his sons. His sons have kept Hashimoto in their names.
“The future goes with the next generation,” Friedman said. “I will warm the seat for a little while longer, and then the Hashimotos will have it again.”