Donna L. Tokugawa, the co-owner and host of The Taste of Tea, wasn’t just known in Healdsburg as a restaurant co-owner, she was known as an outgoing and compassionate community member and a friend to all, the kind of friend who accepts everyone with loving arms and is a pillar of support and encouragement.
Tokugawa died peacefully on May 31 after suddenly becoming ill following a year of some health complications. She was 65.
While she may be gone, the happy morale that she carried with her to the eatery will endure in the cozy, family-friendly restaurant that’s been run for the last seven years by her and her husband Nozomu “Nez,” and their daughter Tai Tokugawa Ericson.
“She cared about people. Everybody that came in contact with her knew she cared,” said Nez Tokugawa.
He said ever since he knew her, starting in the 1980s, she always saw the potential in people.
“When she was working, she was always the boss. When she was working, she would see somebody, know their potential and push them to their potential. The saying in Southern California where we worked was that if you worked for Donna and you survived, you would get a job anywhere,” Nez Tokugawa said.
He said her goal was to always bring out the best in people.
Tai Tokugawa Ericson said her mother was always telling her about the tea houses in Japan and how they were a gathering place and a place to talk.
“It wasn’t about the tea, it was about the social engagement. They would talk politics, they would talk about personal things and that’s what she really wanted in our tea house and that’s really what she made it,” Tai Tokugawa Ericson said. “People would come — and me and my dad would always be amazed — and just tell her their whole life story and she would always have something to provide, whether it was counseling or advice or just being there. People knew that they could see her.”
Tokugawa’s warm and congenial disposition is what gave the restaurant a unique and familial atmosphere and Tai Tokugawa Ericson said because of that, The Taste of Tea has never been a typical restaurant.
“We’re not your average restaurant and it’s because everything that Donna has taught us and instilled in us about personal relationships,” Tai Tokugawa Ericson said.
Nez Tokugawa said they never planned on opening up a restaurant.
Tokugawa and her husband were in the finance field and through their work, saw the uncertainty of running a restaurant and the volatility of the restaurant industry.
“We used to finance restaurants, and we told people it (the industry) is crazy,” Nez Tokugawa said.
Tai Tokugawa Ericson said they originally started The Taste of Tea as a wholesale and internet sales tea shop and tea ware.
They eventually needed more space and a showroom for retail, so their realtor showed them the building on North Street and they decided to take it and use it for retail and as a tea bar.
“We kept evolving with it. My dad is an excellent chef, and he loves to see people and he would give them a taste of something, and they would say, ‘That should be on your menu,’ and things just kept getting added and now we are a full restaurant with a two-page menu,” Tai Tokugawa Ericson said.
“In starting this restaurant what she really enjoyed was designing it. This is her vision, and we made her vision come true,” Nez Tokugawa added.
He said after it was built, she loved coming in and seeing people.
“The COVID closure really did a number to her. We were at home and there was no place for her to go. I am so glad that the last three weeks she was active she was able to come in and talk to people and people came in to talk to her,” Nez Tokugawa said.
Tai Tokugawa Ericson said when they were closed due to COVID and were only doing take out, people would ask about Tokugawa and wanted to check in with her.
“I’m glad that she got to see us fully open with our parklet done and that she got to sit and enjoy it and talk to people,” Tai Tokugawa Ericson said.
Tokugawa was so well known and loved throughout the community that the Healdsburg City Council had a moment of silence for her during their June 7 city council meeting.
“The co-owner of The Taste of Tea Japanese restaurant passed away unexpectedly on May 31. Donna was a warm and welcoming presence at the restaurant for many years and she was loved by her customers, her co-workers and of course her family. She will be greatly missed in Healdsburg and we send our condolences to her loved ones,” Healdsburg Mayor Evelyn Mitchell said prior to the moment of silence.
On June 9, The Taste of Tea hosted a public remembrance event for Tokugawa from 3 to 5 p.m. A private event for family was held from 2 to 3 p.m.
“It was a really good turnout. A lot of regulars of ours (came) and a lot of family came out. She had a lot of family from Southern California. For the open house portion, it was really heartwarming to see people come,” Tai Tokugawa Ericson said.
Nez Tokugawa said the community made her grow and since they live in the small town of Bodega Bay, she would always want to come to work to see people.
“It was really great to see people (at the remembrance). It was what she intended to do, to bring the community together,” he said.
He said in the next two weeks he’s planning to arrange a dedication of the restaurant’s parklet to Tokugawa in her honor. He said he’s going to invite a Shinto priest to conduct the ceremony.
“When we first opened, we had a Shinto priest come and purify this building, so I want to do the same to purify the parklet and dedicate it to her memory and have a Shinto ceremony,” Nez Tokugawa said.