Editor’s note: Since this story was originally published, Third Culture Bakery announced the closure of its RiNo and Aurora stores at the end of 2021, citing pandemic- and supply-chain-related issues, labor shortages, and racism. “We signed our leases with full intention to expand in Colorado, but nothing could have prepared anyone for what the pandemic did to the world and the people,” said co-owner Wenter Shyu, in an announcement on December 13. “It’s a different world now and the challenges in Colorado have been crushing. Facing racism, COVID-related prejudice, and other unsavory events have been heartbreaking.”
“As cheesy as it sounds, this bakery started because we fell in love with each other. And it is our love story,” says Wenter Shyu, co-owner of Aurora’s Third Culture Bakery, while reminiscing about how he met husband and business partner, pastry chef Sam Butarbutar. With that, Shyu perfectly sums up the topic at hand: how his relationship with Butarbutar shaped the powerful messaging of unconditional love and acceptance that lies behind the California-based bakery’s mochi muffins, doughnuts, and matcha tea drinks.
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But first: If you haven’t tried Third Culture’s famed mochi muffins and doughnuts yet, we must introduce you. The delightfully chewy, gently sweet treats are a hybrid between Hawaiian butter mochi and Indonesian cake inspired by the flavors Butarbutar grew up with in Indonesia. Each style of mochi dessert comes in a wide range of vibrant flavors, and once you taste one, you’ll be hooked. Shyu and Butarbutar opened Third Culture Bakery’s first Denver-area store on East Colfax Avenue last February, but their story began long before their mochi confections landed in Colorado.
In late 2015, the couple met at a Bay Area bakers’ brunch, a gathering of local bakery owners from Berkeley and Oakland. At the time, Shyu had a dessert catering company that supplied cupcakes and other goodies to golf courses, hotels, and other venues, while Butarbutar sold French-style pastries and mochi muffins produced in his home kitchen to beer gardens, coffee shops, and pop ups. For Shyu, it was love at first muffin.
“At the brunch, I found out that [Butarbutar] made mochi muffins, which I’d had at a local coffee shop. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, those are so good. You’re the mochi muffin man,’” says Shyu. Despite earning a visual merchandising degree from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Shyu had been inspired to teach himself how to bake after a yearlong soul-searching trip across Asia. He had also recently secured a contract to provide baked goods to a hotel and Butarbutar wanted to hear more—so he asked Shyu out on a “business date.”
“We had dinner and drinks, and I was openly flirting with him at that point. I was laughing at his corny jokes. But he told me later that he didn’t know I was flirting with him,” Butarbutar says. “A week later, I asked him out on a non-business date. He said yes.”
Over the next nine months, the two bakers spent a lot of evenings together in Butarbutar’s kitchen, where Shyu helped him bake, pack, and deliver pastries for wholesale accounts until the early hours of the morning. “It was very practical,” Shyu says of how working long hours together helped the couple grow closer, as well as troubleshoot flaws in each other’s respective bakeries. Butarbutar gave Shyu feedback on how to improve his recipes, and Shyu helped Butarbutar understand the errors in his business structure (such as his failure to invoice customers) and the value of the mochi muffin. In fact, Shyu thought the treat was a million-dollar idea, but Butarbutar disagreed. “He kept pushing the idea that we need to get this mochi muffin in people’s mouths and just share it with the world. And I just didn’t understand it,” says Butarbutar, who studied toxicology at University of California Berkeley but became infatuated with baking after a summer volunteering at a French bakery.
Another eight months passed before Shyu officially proposed that the duo combine forces, offering to take care of their business’ financial aspects while Butarbutar focused on the culinary side. Butarbutar refused. “I said no, actually three separate times. I just had a very bad history of combining business and personal. I wanted to do my own thing and do things my way, but he was so persistent that I said, ‘You know what? Let’s give this a shot.’ I can’t do this on my own.”
In 2016, Shyu and Butarbutar pulled together $3,000 and launched Third Culture Bakery, named as a nod to their upbringings as children who grew up in a different culture than their parents. All was not smooth sailing from there. “The first eight months were brutal. It was just me and Sam, and I still had another full-time job,” says Shyu. After Shyu would leave his day job as the marketing director for a nonprofit in Oakland, he would nap for a few hours and then join Butarbutar in the kitchen for the remainder of the night. The two delivered mochi muffins to accounts until 5 or 6 a.m., often working up to 20 hours each day.
“I don’t know how we got through those first few months. We were delivering in Sam’s 2005 Toyota Matrix that had no back bumper and the windows wouldn’t go up or down,” Shyu says. “We were damn poor making mochi muffins.” But despite the fatigue and long hours, Shyu and Butarbutar shared a faith in Third Culture that brought them closer. “Back then, we didn’t know what was going to become of it and that we were going to be OK. But we were committed and wanted to see it through. And I think, in a way, that commitment helped our personal relationship also thrive, knowing that this was all or nothing for us,” Butarbutar adds.
Eventually, Third Culture hired its first two employees, which gave the couple some room to focus on the next chapter of their personal partnership. Shyu and Butarbutar decided to come out to their families, who lived in Taiwan and Pennsylvania, respectively, at the same time. “With Sam by my side, I felt I had the strength to come out to my mom and my immediate family, who was very conservative [and living] in Taiwan,” Shyu says. “I was expecting the worst, but I kind of got the best.” Shyu’s mom needed time to process the news, but after a couple of months, she warmed to the idea and accepted Butarbutar as her son.
Unfortunately, Butarbutar had the opposite experience with his conservative Indonesian family, who didn’t take the news well and demanded that he return home—where Shyu feared they would want to take him to conversion therapy. “In the beginning, it was very negative and I was very angry, but with Wenter, I was able to transform that into the power of having a chosen family,” says Butarbutar. “I realized that after meeting Wenter’s mom and having our growing staff and team members. My bakery is my family and his mom is my family. And there are people in this world who will accept you for who you are. That was such a touching moment for Wenter to teach me.”
Their experiences inspired the couple to begin using Third Culture as a platform to share their story and beliefs. “The message of acceptance comes from us using the bakery as a vessel and as a platform to share our love story—and possibly change people’s minds one delicious baked good at a time,” says Shyu, referring to Third Culture’s mission to reach those who might be resistant to accepting every person’s sexuality or identity.
“In the beginning, I think we just wanted to have a bakery and make drinks, but ever since coming out…we decided we wanted to share our experience and use it to empower others,” says Butarbutar.
Third Culture decided to amplify its positive messaging after a homophobic customer at the Aurora store commented to Butarbutar that the bakery shouldn’t expose the public to pro-gay ideas by putting rainbow stickers on its boxes. Instead of heeding that advice, Butarbutar and Shyu created a new takeaway that now comes with every order, in the form of a postcard detailing their love story with an inspirational quote on the importance of speaking your truth, “even if your voice shakes.”
In August 2020, Butarbutar and Shyu married in Colorado, which allowed Butarbutar to acquire a visa and join Shyu on a trip to Taiwan to care for his mother. There, the pair formed a mutual attachment to a Formosan Mountain Dog named Liang Liang (“bright light” in Chinese), who had been rescued by Shyu’s mother. They brought the pup home, thus completing their family, says Shyu. The trio split their time between Berkeley, California, and Aurora, and are planning to open new Third Culture outposts in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood (coming in March) and San Francisco’s East Bay area.
“The reason why Sam and I try to build new stores is because, yes, we want everyone to taste the mochi muffin,” explains Shyu. “But also, too, we want to keep building spaces where people are welcomed and accepted and feel safe. I want people to see our pink sign and know that you’ll be OK here, you’ll be safe. We’ll take good care of you.”