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Columbia tofu lovers' prayers were answered this month when a Taiwanese company set up shop in town.

But in the rough-and-tumble worldof tofu trading, the company has its work cut out for it.

Wen's Food Inc., thought by Maryland trade representan the Baltimore-Washington area.

Company president I Wen, who operates a factory in Ping-tung, in southern Taiwan, said he also hopes to do a little retailing from the front of his factory on Red Branch Road near Route 108.

In his steamy 2-week-old factory (the exhaust fans were being fixed), the rubber-booted Wen spoke some English but was helped with the language by Lily Chang, a local accountant from Taiwan.

Besides the tons of plain tofu Wen expects to churn out each week, thefactory also will produce fried tofu, dried tofu, spiced tofu and tofu noodle salad. Several other soybean-based products also are on theagenda, including imitation ham, imitation sausage and a soy proteindrink, plain or sweetened with sugar.

Before becoming tofu, soybeans are soaked five hours or more in gleaming aluminum vats. They arethen drained, washed in cold water, and blended into a paste, which is steamed in a large kettle and pressed through a filter to separatefiber from liquid protein. The fiber is discarded, although Wen saidthat in Taiwan it is fed to livestock.

The liquid protein is thenmixed with calcium sulfate and poured into trays. It solidifies in five to 10 minutes. The plain tofu is packed in plastic tubs with water. The other tofu products are vacuum packed.

Wen explains all of this as he strolls across the factory's ceramic-tiled floor, damp from the constant washing, steaming and boiling of the soybeans.

He estimates that his factory, at full tilt, will be able to produceabout10,000 pounds of tofu a day, about the same as his factory in Taiwan.

His start-up staff totals only eight people, including Wen and his wife, Hsiu-Lan. Wen said he expects the operation to peak at about20 employees.

Wen, 40, said he decided to come to the United States after attending a 1987 seminar that was conducted by U.S. trade representatives about doing business here.

At the same seminar, he said, he was impressed by the pitch from representatives of the Maryland Department of Employment and Economic Development's International Division. They persuaded him to set up his new business in Maryland.

Wen chose Columbia as his new home because of its proximity to Washington and Baltimore.

He plans to sell his products to grocery stores, restaurants and wholesale food distributors, and said he does not want to limit himself to Asian groceries, a traditional customer for tofu makers.

Cutting a new niche in the market might be the only way to prosper, considering the competition.

Oriental grocers import many of their soy-based products frozen from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, and those items often sell for half the price of fresh, locally made tofu products because of higher labor costs here, said C. Wang, manager of the Oriental Market in Rockville.

Still, Wang saidhe is buying everything Wen has to sell and will let his customers decide if the products are worth it.

"I think maybe he cannot do itbecause this import product is here for 10-20 years now." Wang said."In New York, they still cannot replace it."

But Wen points out that Asian food wholesalers as far away as North Carolina and Pennsylvania are trying his products.

To help attract American customers, Wen said he plans to distribute a free cookbook with his bean-curd.

"We're trying to sell this product to American families, so they know how to use the soybean products," Wen said.

And for local soybean aficionados, he said, "maybe in the near future we will have a party to introduce soybean products.

"Most products will be finished,like instant food that you can put into the microwave," Wen said. "Maybe you American people would come to try it, even though you don't know how to cook Chinese food."

Curt Matthews, a spokesman for thestate development department's international division, said divisionemployees helped Wen find a building, equipment and supplies, a process that included a cost analysis of soybean sources.

Soybeans maybe Maryland's second-biggest agricultural product and its biggest field crop, but it also is expensive here, says Wen. The best Maryland price he could get was $16 a bushel, so he's buying his beans from Illinois at $9.75 a bushel.

In deference to his new home state, he said he'll keep looking for local sources for his ingredients.

Wen said he also is trying to adjust to the American way of doing business.

"You like to earn money in the beginning," he said, compared toTaiwan, where "you develop business relationships first, then you can make money later."

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