It’s been more than 40 years since Rudy Canale immigrated to the United States, settled in Jamaica Plain, and opened 21st Century Foods on Germania St. His wife, Sookdei, and their daughter, Luana, help run the business, even more so recently as Rudy is reaching retirement age. The family is worried about losing their beloved business to their landlord, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), which wants to build a Center for Equity and Prosperity (CEP) in that building.
21st Century Foods produces tofu and tempeh, and supplies many local restaurants, colleges, and stores, such as Bon Me, Purple Cactus, City Feed, MIT, Emerson College, and Emmanuel College, among others.
“We are part of this community,” Sookdei said. “We have lived here. Me and my husband are both immigrants.”
The Canales said that the JPNDC first approached them in 2019, telling them they had to vacate the space. “We were shocked because it came out of nowhere,” Luana said. She said that they were shown an alternative space within the Brewery Complex—where their current location is—but Luana said “it turns out it was a storage room of another tenant’s space.”
Sookdei said that this space “is not suitable for an office, let alone our business.”
Luana said “we felt like we really were not welcome here. They never had any complaints about us,” adding that they have always paid rent on time. She said that they had not heard anything from the JPNDC after that, until recently.
“Now, a month ago they came and they told us they wanted us out of here,” Luana said. She said they were told they had until April to vacate the space.
The JPNDC said that they are looking to renovate their headquarters space in the Brewery, which includes the Canales’ business. The total square footage of the headquarters is 11,000 square feet, according to the JPNDC.
More than 6,000 square feet will be renovated, the JPNDC said, to create the CEP that will include “all public-facing services on one floor that is fully accessible.” It will also include training space and an area for childcare. People will also be able to access resources for obtaining employment and managing money.
According to a December 1 statement from the JPNDC, “Long-time tenant 21st Century Foods occupies 1,900 SF on the first floor of 31 Germania Street. JPNDC occupies the rest of the building – literally to the left, to the right, and above. Relocating this business will allow the JPNDC’s Center for Equity and Prosperity to occupy a continuous and fully accessible first-floor space.”
The JPNDC also confirmed that they had reached out to the Canales in 2019, “when the goal of creating the CEP was prioritized in JPNDC’s 2019-2023 Strategic Plan,” and said that a capital campaign began in 2020 with a goal to raise $2.7 million for the center.
“More than 250 donors have contributed nearly $2.3 million so far, bringing us to 85% of our campaign goal…and giving certainty we would be able to raise the full amount,” the JPNDC said in the statement, adding that they are looking to start construction next summer. “We would need 21st Century Foods’ space approximately six months before.”
In a letter to city councilors and some state elected officials dated October 26, Luana wrote: “While their initiative is wonderful, they want to help other families, other people of color, other immigrants, and minorities (as stated on their website), build financial stability and they want to take away ours. How is that fair? How is that right? Doesn’t this go against what this center goes for? Why must my family’s financial security and assets be sacrificed in order to help other people build theirs?”
Sookdei told the Gazette that she feels that the JPNDC should locate their center in another one of the office buildings they own.
“They could easily start this program and have it be a virtual thing,” Luana added. “We don’t have money to relocate…this business is our daily bread and butter.” She also said in the letter that “most of our equipment is old and will not withstand moving and some of the companies that made them are no longer in business due to the pandemic.”
Additionally, any new location would require approval from the FDA and the health department, she said.
She said that they are proud of the impact 21st Century Foods has had on the JP community and beyond, and that she has given up her career to take over the business from her parents.
“We have people coming and telling us their kids love our tofu,” Luana said. “They go to school and recommend our tofu to their teachers” and classmates. “That is a really big accomplishment and compliment.”
Luana added that the business is still trying to recover from the pandemic, as many restaurants shut down and could no longer be 21st Century Foods customers.
“We lost a lot of money from that,” she said. “All throughout the pandemic, most weeks there was nobody working in the building. Any order we got we would take to make ends meet. They have no sympathy; no compassion for us.”
On December 1, Sookdei said that the JPNDC mentioned another shared space that has become available and asked the Canales if they would like to see it.
She said that while they will check out the space, she has reservations because there are so many requirements to operate 21st Century Foods. Their products are kosher, so no meat or milk can be present, and they “can’t share a space with people who have certain things in the space.”
In their statement, JPNDC said that “JPNDC takes its commitment to small businesses very seriously.” It continues, “as a community landlord, JPNDC does not take lightly the prospect of displacing any small business tenant. We try to work with all businesses to find the most optimal and mutually beneficial outcomes for the small business tenants and the Brewery Complex that we maintain.”
It also said that “we will continue to sit down with 21st Century Foods to strategize on a mutually acceptable transition plan.”
Luana said that “if you want to help the neighborhood, we have no problem with that. It doesn’t mean that they have to put us out of business to help others.” The Canales said they hope that something will change JPNDC’s mind about removing 21st Century Foods from its current location.
“We have been living and working in this community for decades; my father alone for almost 50 years,” Luana wrote. “Now, as an immigrant, minority and woman owned business thriving for over 40 years is something to celebrate and applaud, not stop.”