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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.”
A flood of anti-Asian sentiment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic—and most disturbingly revealed in the Atlanta shooting on March 16, when a gunman killed eight people—has been felt across the Front Range dining scene.
Fear for their own safety and that of loved ones and other community members inspired the owners of Kokoro, Third Culture Bakery, and Yuan Wonton to do something about it. Here’s how you can help, too.
Masaru Torito, the owner of Kokoro in University Hills and Arvada, always separated his political views from his management of the fast-casual Japanese restaurant brand. That is until several of his more than 45 employees—the majority of whom are of Asian descent—expressed how they were affected by the news of the mass shootings in Atlanta. “We had a staff meeting at one of our stores the day after the shootings and I told my employees that the restaurant is a safe space,” says Torito, a Colorado native who took over operations of the 35-year-old company from his father in 2008. “That’s when [we had] a big outpour with the employees, where they just really let it out about how it’s been so hard for them in many different ways, including dealing with BS from customers.”
Torito says Kokoro has always suffered occasional nonviolent racist episodes, including patrons speaking in fake Asian accents after too many drinks or asking for “wonton soup or sesame chicken,” even though the restaurant serves Japanese fare. But things have gotten worse since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. “It’s just escalated,” he says. “We had one employee get spit on for asking a customer to put on a mask.”
The reaction from his employees at the meeting inspired Torito to send an email on April 5 to Kokoro’s customers condemning the rise of anti-Asian racism across the country and expressing the restaurant’s efforts to celebrate diversity, culture, and love in Denver and Arvada. The email also mentioned Kokoro’s donation of $1,000 total to the Go For Broke National Education Center, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Human Rights Campaign—and a new promotion at both of its outposts. Customers who use a special code on their online orders will receive 20 percent off, and in turn, the restaurant will donate that same amount to organizations dedicated to stopping Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate. Torito isn’t sure how much the promotion has raised so far, but hopes it’s at least $2,000.
After he sent the email, Torito says he received 30 to 40 positive replies from customers—and three to four “really vile” messages, including a concerning one he had to report to the police. But the desire to support his employees during this “heavy year” outweighs any fear of negative feedback. “I needed to show them I got their back, that the restaurant needs to not just be an apolitical place, it needs to be a safe space,” Torito says.
How you can help: Through May 15, use the promo code “STOPHATE” at kokororesturants.com and receive 20 percent off your order; an equal amount will be donated to AAPI organizations (May’s proceeds will go to Asian Avenue magazine, Colorado’s only publication dedicated to covering AAPI issues).
Third Culture Bakery
In March, particularly after the Atlanta shootings, Wenter Shyu, who co-owns Aurora’s Third Culture Bakery and RiNo’s Matcha Cafe with husband and pastry chef Sam Butarbutar, says he felt lost. “We’re gay. We’re Asian. I was like ‘What if we get targeted?’” says Shyu.
Shyu and Butarbutar—whose shops serve mochi muffins and doughnuts and matcha drinks inspired by the couple’s Taiwanese and Indonesian roots, respectively—decided to channel their feelings of uncertainty toward a new project. In late March, the couple began collecting donations to purchase, assemble, and distribute safety kits to community members in Denver and the Bay Area (home to the first Third Culture Bakery), with priority given to people of color older than 40 and LGBTQ individuals.
Each safety kit includes a key chain alarm, pepper spray, lanyard, wrist lanyard, and directions translated into several languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Thai. Since launching the initiative, Third Culture has received requests for more than 5,400 kits from various organizations, about 4,000 of which it has fulfilled via donations from supporters and matching contributions from Shyu and Butarbutar. But Shyu says the business’ goal is to distribute 15,000.
Since its earliest days in 2016, Shyu and Butarbutar have used the bakery as a platform to share their beliefs and experiences as Asian-American and LGBTQ individuals, but the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 pushed them to enhance the positive messaging via Instagram and at their stores. The design of the Matcha Cafe, which opened behind Uchi at 25th and Lawrence streets in late March, aligns with that mission.
Upon entrance into the space, patrons are greeted by a neon pink “It Was Always You” sign and a “dream-state”–like ambiance complete with walls wrapped in reflective silver vinyl and rainbow tinted windows—features Shyu and Butarbutar hope helps customers feel safe and welcome. “Whoever you are, we hope that you can come in here and just be,” says Shyu. “Come for the muffins. Come for the pastries. But stay for the social justice.”
How you can help: Donate to Third Culture’s safety kit campaign here. And visit the new Matcha Cafe at 2500 Lawrence St., Unit 200, where you can sample Butarbutar’s latest lineup of drinks and treats, including delicious three-cheese-infused Japanese curry mochi muffins, banana dulce leche mochi doughnuts, and strawberry lynchee matcha lattes.
While Yuan Wonton is renowned for its chile-oil-slicked pork and shrimp wontons, crispy-bottomed sichuan eggplant pot stickers, and other cult-favorite specialties, chef-owner Penelope Wong also wants the food truck to be a symbol of community. “We are a company that believes in community and supports humanity and the good in people. That’s really important to us,” says Wong, who owns Yuan Wonton with husband Robert Jenks.
Wong says the increase in hateful rhetoric and violence directed at individuals of Asian descent in March has led her to be more cautious when venturing out with the food truck. “For the past couple of months, there’s been some fear in going out for me and my sous chef, who is Vietnamese,” she says. “The truck is like one giant target. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but we muster up the courage, get out there, and get to it.”
Wong often uses Yuan Wonton’s Instagram account to share her views on the topic, which has led to an outpouring of support from customers and restaurant industry members, many of whom wanted to help but didn’t know how, she says. As a result, Wong partnered with Caroline Glover, chef-owner of Annette, and Carolyn Nugent, pastry chef-owner of Ulster Street Pastry, to launch Better Together, a fundraiser to support AAPI causes.
As of May 10, Better Together’s GoFundMe page has raised $8,489 of its $10,000 goal and will continue collecting contributions through May in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Wong has also separately donated more than $2,500 in sales to AAPI organizations using sales from her pop-ups and proceeds from selling Yuan Wonton T-shirts. “The silver lining in all of this is I’ve been able to connect with many members of the AAPI community and many industry members, too,” she says. “The support that we’ve gotten is just like a big warm hug.”
Wong encourages individuals to show compassion to members of the Asian-American community by checking in. “It’s not just this moment. We’ve lived this. Asian Americans born in this country, this is what we’ve endured most of our lives. We’ve just been taught to look the other way and let it go.”
When she feels fearful or discouraged, Wong says she remembers the sentiment of actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim, who testified before Congress in support of this year’s Asian-American hate crime bill. “We’re going to be heard. We’re going to be seen,” she says. “We’re tired of this.”
How you can help: Donate to the Better Together fundraiser here; a minimum donation of $25 will enter you into the raffle drawing to win one of four yet-to-be-announced prizes. You can also order a Yuan Wonton T-shirt here.