Our Town

Ohta Wafer Factory


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Herb and Kathy Ohta hand-fold fortune cookies while they are still warm and pliable. photo: Karin Kovalsky

The sign above a little shop on a side street near mccully zippy’s reads, “Ohta Wafer Factory.” It’s enough to make one wonder. Communion wafers? Candy wafers? What’s cooking in there?

As it turns out, Wafer Factory owners Herb and Kathy Ohta (photo above) are whipping up hand-folded fortune cookies and crunchy senbei (Japanese tea cookies).

Why wafer? Owner Herb Ohta says it’s a holdover from the politically sensitive atmosphere that existed when his father, Masao Ohta, founded the business in 1940. “During war time, you couldn’t really use a Japanese word like senbei,” he says. “I think of ourselves as Ohta Senbei. Wafer is just an English translation.”

Wafer, senbei—call it what you want, Ohta’s delicate, hand-folded treats are tastier than the average fortune cookie, and the senbei come in flavors such as green tea, strawberry, chocolate and ginger. “I try to bake things that people enjoy eating,” says Ohta, who has been tweaking his recipes since he took over the company in 1973.

He and his wife, Kathy, prepare their cookies in small batches, using one of two specialized senbei machines. The larger one, a long, shiny conglomeration of automated plates and belts, is so complex that Ohta has to fly in a mechanic from Japan when it breaks. It was handy in the ’70s, when the Ohtas needed to bake thousands of fortune cookies for Pan-American Airlines, but these days, their smaller, semi-manual baking machine gets more use. The well-oiled rig may be more than 50 years old, but it’s simpler for day-to-day use, and Herb Ohta is able to make all the repairs on it himself.

Ohta also comes up with the fortunes tucked inside each cookie. “Whenever I see something good, I’ll take a note or clip it,” he says. His collected sayings range from the inscrutable to the droll. Our two fortunes? (We couldn’t eat just one.) “You are handsome and will soon be inheriting more good looks,” and “You REALLY believe in fortune cookies?”'

Ohta Wafer Factory, 931 Hauoli St., Honolulu, 949-2775.

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