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Mochi ice cream maker Mikawaya is sold to private equity firm

Mikawaya, a 105-year-old Little Tokyo confectionary company known for inventing mochi ice cream, has been acquired by private equity firm Century Park Capital Partners.

The El Segundo-based private equity firm plans to bring mochi ice cream to a wider audience, said managing partner Marty Sarafa. Mikawaya's mochi ice cream can already be found in grocery chains such as Trader Joe's, Safeway, Albertsons and Ralphs.

"In the frozen novelty ice cream category, there hasn't been too much innovation," he said. "That's the opportunity — to change that."

Founded in 1910, Mikawaya started off as a single store in Little Tokyo. The company, which sells traditional Japanese sweets known as wagashi, was named after founder Ryuzaburo Hashimoto's hometown in the Mikawa province of Japan. When World War II broke out, the Hashimoto family had to close their store for three years while they were forced into an internment camp in Poston, Ariz. In 1945, they reopened in Little Tokyo next door to their pre-war location.

In 1970, at age 27, Frances Hashimoto took over the company.

"I was teaching third grade, and my mother wanted me to give it up," she said in a 1978 interview with The Times. "It took me six months to decide, but what do you do with a business your family has had for 50 years?"

Under her leadership, the company expanded to include multiple retail locations in both Southern California and Honolulu. The company now has two stores — one in Little Tokyo and one in Torrance — as well as a factory in Vernon.

In the early 1990s, Hashimoto realized her husband's idea of putting balls of ice cream inside soft, sweet rice cakes, creating mochi ice cream, according to the Rafu Shimpo newspaper. The invention is now the company's top-selling product.

Sarafa said consumer surveys his company conducted indicate that only 20% of the U.S. population has heard of mochi ice cream, but that 9 out of 10 who try it like it and buy it regularly. Mikawaya is the largest seller of mochi ice cream products, he said.

Hashimoto died of lung cancer in 2012 and her husband, Joel Friedman, took over as president and chief executive. The plaza at 2nd and Azusa streets in Little Tokyo is named after Hashimoto, who was one of the community's most influential business leaders. Friedman could not be reached for comment.

Sarafa said Friedman would still be involved in the company. The name of the company, along with the product name, mochi ice cream, will not be changed, he said.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Century Park Capital Partners also owns companies such as Dickinson Frozen Foods Inc. and Lynx Grills Inc., which makes outdoor kitchen products.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

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