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Behind the Review: melding cultures one mochi muffin at a time

Behind the Review: Third Culture Bakery

As a business, when you have a product that creates a line out the door, you pretty much know you’ve made it. This essentially proves that what you’re offering is worth both a consumer’s money and time. And that’s exactly what Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu have achieved in their business Third Culture Bakery, with two locations—one in Berkeley, California and the second in Aurora, Colorado.

In this week’s episode, we talk with Sam about the story behind the bakery, their commitment to quality, and how the mochi muffin came to be.

Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu of Third Culture Bakery

We also spoke with Yelp reviewer Cherie C. about both of her reviews of Third Culture Bakery—the first from when they first opened. Cherie describes herself as someone who “doesn’t wait in lines.” So when she heard about the new bakery in town and its wrap-around-the-building crowd, she rolled her eyes, insisting to her husband that they wait to check it out until after the hype had dissolved. But when a friend shared that it was an absolute must-have-now, she gave in and soon found herself amongst those in line—and as you’ll hear, it was not only worth it then, but it brought her back time and time again.

Third Culture Bakery represents, in Sam’s words, “someone who grew up in a culture that’s different from their parents.” He and Wenter wanted to create a bakery that melds cultures—in their case, Asian and American. But they didn’t want to create a bakery that was strictly for people who are familiar with those flavors. They wanted to be the “bridge between two groups of people.”

The duo built their bakery from the ground up; the recipes, the brand, the design. Their goal was to ensure all aspects for their business matched in quality and consistency, from their marketing efforts to the flavor of each menu item.

“If you have a story, your product has to match up with it and be at the same level, otherwise people are just going to be like, ‘Yeah, it’s a good story, but the product is not as good.’ We wanted to make sure that our story and our product were equal and high-level,” said Sam.

In addition to learning from Sam and Wenter’s baking and business passions, here are a few other key takeaways from the episode:

  • Don’t lose sight of your purpose, even and especially during the pandemic. For the bakery, the experience inside the store is such an impactful part of their business. To ensure that feeling wasn’t lost when they moved to curbside pickup, they focused on person-to-person interactions, whether over the phone or safely over the counter. 
  • Environmentally conscious choices can attract more values-based customers. Third Culture Bakery prioritizes sustainability and environmentally friendly products, which appeals to a big constituent of people who want their spending to reflect their personal values. If you appeal to values, you’re more likely to create a loyal customer base.
  • Read reviews, and evaluate if something needs fixing. All negative reviews sting, but it’s important to think about how they can actually help you improve your business. Sam and Wenter read reviews with a critical eye, making sure that if there are red flags around service, safety or the product itself, they adjust accordingly.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Sam and Cherie, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday. 

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Soundcloud


Behind the Review, episode 11 transcript
Turning a passion into a product

CHERIE: I first heard about Third Culture opening up in Aurora, Colorado, from an article in the newspaper. Something came across my social media feed about people waiting in line for donuts. My husband is a self-professed donut enthusiast, so that caught my attention. And I heard that they were from Berkeley, and I was curious why a popular business in the Bay Area would decide to open their second location in Aurora. So my interest is piqued, and when I saw the lines, I’m the kind of person who says—ugh I don’t wait in lines. I’ll wait a few weeks, see if it’s worth it. 

But I happened to have a very good friend who lives in Berkeley, so I texted her and said, ‘Third Culture Bakery, worth it?’ And she texted back right away: ‘I’m eating a mochi muffin right now!!!’

EMILY: That’s Cherie—a cross-country Yelper who currently lives in Denver, Colorado. She’s telling me about her first experience with Third Culture Bakery after they opened their second location in Aurora. I was really enjoying how Cherie described the skepticism she and her husband had about this hyped up bakery (since it’s something I think we’ve all felt at one point or another). I’ll just let Cherie tell you herself. Here’s part of her first review. 

CHERIE: I was excited to try Third Culture but also skeptical that the hype was manufactured. They had a lot of media attention for their opening, and it’s a pretty slick looking store, but my friend in Berkeley gave it her endorsement. So my husband and I got in line just outside the door and waited. How good could these donuts be? Were we just falling for the latest food fad? Did we really want to pay $3 per donut? Short version, we did pay, and it was worth the money and the wait. We ran into friends who also waited and together we tried a lot of donuts with such a long wait. We ordered a bunch to make it worthwhile, thinking we’d take them home. All of us ate everything onsite. 

The mochi muffin—good. This is what I came to try. But my favorite were the mochi donuts. So freaking delicious. Ube was sweet and crispy and chewy. Black Sesame was not very sweet, but in the best way. It, along with the Vietnamese donut, were the favorites of my group. The fruit frostings had intense fruit flavor, not just sugar flavor, noted my group. On its own, I might’ve really liked the mochi brownie, but next to the donuts, it was just fine.

A friend said the roasted matcha latte was rich and tasty. They use sugarcane straws and compostable cups, which is great. They said that you can also bring your own cup if you like, and I’ll remember that for next time—yes, there will be a next time. We’re lucky to have this nearby. It’s a splurge but a delicious one.

EMILY: Cherie had high expectations, but her experience during that first visit was incredible. Her review really highlighted the unique and interesting menu items that Third Culture was serving, and it also hit on a few other elements of the business that connected Cherie to the brand, such as prioritizing sustainability with sugarcane straws and compostable cups. We’re going to dig into all of that and more, but first I want you to hear some of the backstory of the business. Here’s one of the owners, Sam.

SAM: We met at a bakers brunch. A group of bakers who would kind of meet once a month just to chat, connect, talk about baking, and figure out some common problems. I had been going to the meetings for three months, and he all of a sudden showed up, and I was like, who is this person? Coincidentally, we’re all gay in that group. And I was like, ugh, another, you know, stereotypical cupcake maker who’s gay. So I was eye rolling when I met him. But I thought he was cute. And so I asked him out, and we just started chatting about our own bakeries. One thing led to another, we started dating. And for nine months when we were dating, we were still running our own bakeries. 

I would bake up until like one o’clock in the morning and would try to meet up with him. And he was kind of the same and at one moment, Wenter, my partner, was just like, Hey, you know, we kind of are doing the same things. We’re buying the same ingredients. We’re renting double spaces. Do you ever want to create a bakery together? And I said, absolutely not. I said, no, there’s no way I’m going to do that.

And it’s just because my family had such a bad history of combining business and personal together. And so that was my first instinct, and he actually asked me four separate times about opening a bakery together. And then I was like, you know what, let’s just do it. Let’s try it out, and we’ll figure it out as we go.

EMILY: Such a heartwarming story of how Sam and Wenter went into business together. That was back in April of 2017 that they opened their Berkeley location. Fast forward to present day. They officially tied the knot this past year, and Third Culture now has its second location in Colorado. Wenter and Sam even relocated—they loved Colorado so much! 

I asked Sam about the hype and how they built up such a strong following that allowed them to open in Aurora and have lines out the door from day one. 

SAM: So when we started the bakery, you know, I’m kind of like an old soul. I wasn’t even on Instagram, I wasn’t on Twitter. So my partner Wenter, before baking, his previous job was working for Armani, so he was in fashion, and he did all the window designs and he managed the store. So when he told us that we have to open a social media account, I was like, that’s for posting pictures and I’m like, who reads these pictures? And he was hashtagging. I thought it was corny, and I made fun of him for it. But early on, basically when we started the bakery, it was kind of decided that I was in the kitchen. And so I was making products and testing and training, and he was taking more of the operation side. So all the branding and the design, the logo is all him. He’s just such a creative person, and he loves doing it. 

So I don’t know what happened. but he took our products, he did his early designs, all the colors, and he had a very specific color palette and very specific messaging. He just put that out in the universe and on Instagram, and people just responded, and it was all organic.

We didn’t have the budget to hire anyone to do social media or for a PR release or anything like that. We started the bakery with $3,000 each from our savings. And so, I think it was just word of mouth and people resonated with the message. That was, for both of our bakeries, the first time that the product and the message and the storytelling was together, and neither one was better than the other. Because if you have a story, your product has to match up with it and be at the same level, otherwise people are just going to be like, yeah, it’s a good story, but the product is not as good. We want to make sure that our story and our product are equal, high-level, and it just kind of snowballed out of that. 

EMILY: Social media was the tool they used to spread their message, but it was the message—the story behind their business and the background behind their baked goods—that resonated with people. 

SAM: Why don’t we create a bakery that tells a story of our upbringing and all the flavors that we grew up with and make pastries out of that. That’s how this bakery started, and the one item that we launched that wraps all of our story is our mochi muffin. The mochi muffin was inspired by my mom’s baking. I had this cake that she would always make growing up, and it had coconut sugar, coconut milk. And in Indonesia, you would steam it. So it’s this rice cake that steamed. It’s soft and chewy. But growing up here, I love my brownies, and I love the edges of brownies—the crispy, crunchy edges. And I thought, why don’t I just put it in an oven and see how it is. And I loved it!

So I took inspiration from that and just led with all the flavors that I grew up with, that my mom used to make for me. And I am still shocked to this day that people resonate with that message and resonate with that flavor. Everything that we make even nowadays, all the drinks and all the pastries, our intention is to tell a story, either if it’s our story growing up or our story of traveling, there’s always a little bit of that personal bits in those things. 

EMILY: It started with a mochi muffin, but Sam and Wenter’s enthusiasm for sharing tastes and flavors from their cultures, combined with baking techniques and influences of their American upbringings, has expanded their offerings into tons of donut flavors, muffin flavors, and even unique beverages. 

All of those things went into Cherie’s first experience when she and her husband both tried various drinks and polished off a half dozen flavors in one sitting. The thing I didn’t mention in the very beginning is that Cherie and her husband have been back to Third Culture during the pandemic, and it was THAT second review that actually first caught my attention and connected me to Cherie.

CHERIE: In the pandemic, we’re trying to be very safe and cautious. We’re not comfortable with indoor dining or going into places. So we opt for curbside pickup. When we heard there was curbside pickup at Third Culture, we headed over. So here’s my review. 

Still delicious. Called in an order for curbside pickup. I just asked for half a dozen, and they chose the assortment. We loved every one. I tried the cold brew caramel latte and liked it. Not as much as the coffee plover though. I love that, and we’ll get it again next time. Pickup was easy. They ran our order out to the car and gave us compostable straws for our drinks. I like their commitment to sustainability. I can put their cups in my city compost pickup, which is a bonus. We’re so lucky to have Third Culture in Colorado. 

EMILY: Let’s start with Cherie’s second mention of the compostable straws and cups. Consumers like to spend and support locally, but they also like supporting businesses that align with their beliefs and values. Cherie is intentionally environmentally responsible, so when she finds businesses who feel the same, it matters!

CHERIE: In my household, we really try to be environmentally responsible. At home, we use cloth napkins and we don’t use paper plates. Even when we used to have parties, we have a lot of plates and a lot of glasses. During the pandemic, with so much takeout, the effects on the environment in so many ways are pretty severe.

So knowing that Third Culture uses sustainable or compostable products is a deciding factor in where we order curbside pickup. I actually started a collection on Yelp of places that use compostable packaging. And when we decide that we want to do takeout or curbside pickup, places that have compostable packaging rate higher, and we tend to return to those places.

EMILY: That’s called values-based spending, and it’s not just something people do for sustainability. Sustainability is usually an additional cost for a business to take on, but the impacts you have on the environment, as well as the loyal customers you’ll create in those people who are environmentally conscious, is important. You may remember in an earlier episode when one of our reviewers left some feedback in their review about the sustainability of packaging a new juice bar was using. The business owner ended up making a change to their operation and supplies and has seen the impact, not only on customer loyalty, but also their own environmental footprint as a business. 

Let’s switch gears and talk about the COVID operations at Third Culture. The first thing that stood out to me was curbside pickup. I know for myself personally, more times than not, a business will say they’re offering curbside pickup, but I end up having to go inside to get my order anyway. That was not the case at Third Culture. They ran the order right out to the car, and that’s something Cherie found important to mention. 

It’s also worth noting that when Cherie called to place their order over the phone, it was a “chef’s choice” if you will—Third Culture chooses the flavors. I figured this was an operational thing, and it’s actually a great learning and takeaway for anyone dealing with managing inventory and meeting demand.

SAM: At this moment, what we’re doing right now is that people can call in, ask us flavors of the day, just because on the weekends we make 12 flavors of donuts and six flavors of muffins, and we have people coming in, they’re like, “I want that, all of your passion fruits,” then we would be completely out. And so just to streamline the operation, we just make sure people are transparent about what pastries are available and what they’re getting into. We tell them that if you’re ordering curbside, you can order a bakery selection of the day, just a box of it. We want to make sure that, as much as possible, we accommodate them.

EMILY: I really respect and appreciate this approach. Everyone probably doesn’t love that they can’t pick all of their own flavors, but it serves the customers overall by keeping options and variety for everyone. It also simplifies what the Third Culture staff has to deal with. They’re not constantly overselling ube for example and upsetting customers who think they have one guaranteed, and they can still provide that personalized and customized approach if certain customers ask. Sam also shared some other changes COVID has had on their business.

SAM: It was so hard in the beginning. I think late February, March, we had to completely close down just for two weeks to regroup and think about the best safest way moving forward, just because we’ve never been in this position before. And so I have to give credit to my partner Wenter who basically was the one who pivoted the business because our bakery is, well, like I said before, a lot of it is the storytelling. We want to have the experience of when people walk into our store, they’re walking into our living room and that we treat them as such, and they interact that way. The experience is a big part for us, so it was really hard to pivot in the beginning and just trying to figure out shipping, online shipping. We’ve never done that before. And how do you even ship muffins across the country?

That was a hard lesson in the beginning, but he had a plan, and he wanted to do online shipping and curbside pickup—and following all the guidelines to still have that person-to-person interaction, whether it’s over the phone or over the counter in a very safe way. And so that was something that we had to do—it didn’t come to us immediately, but we had to take time. 

EMILY: Person-to-person interaction. That was the most important. And that message has rung true in many of these episodes. The way people remember your business has so much to do with how your business makes them feel. How your team makes them feel. Sure, at Third Culture, it’s all about how everything tastes, but the feeling you get when you go there or do curbside pickup is personal, and that makes a difference. 

As always, I want to close out with reviews. First, let’s hear from Cherie about what makes her review—particularly about what’s been calling her to update her reviews like she did—with Third Culture.

CHERIE: I tend to only review places that I really like, partially because especially in this day and age, I’m not looking to hurt a local business. Nobody needs me trashing their business. Unless there was something so horrible that I think people need to be warned. If I have something to say about a place, I’ll review it. When I’m trying to decide what to review or why, it’s usually because I’ve had such a great experience, and I think other people need to know about it or if there was something specifically spectacular about a place—like there’s a review that I plan to update next week about a restaurant that during the pandemic has done a great job with to-go food. It was a great restaurant before the pandemic, but now they’ve really knocked it out of the park. And I try to update reviews when things like that happen, which is why I updated my review for Third Culture.

EMILY: Two things that stood out to me here. Cherie is updating reviews for businesses she’s previously reviewed to let consumers know what they’re offering and how they’re operating during the pandemic. She also mentioned that she hasn’t been writing negative reviews. Yes, during the pandemic in general, businesses could use more of our support, and to be honest, grace, to be operating with all of the challenges and regulations. But Cherie doesn’t write many negative reviews at all. In her time on Yelp, she’s written over 2,000 reviews and less than 30 of them have been 1-star. And that’s true for Yelp in general. In fact, nearly 80% of the reviews on Yelp are positive, and there are more 5-star reviews than 1-, 2- and 3-star reviews combined

I understand that the negative reviews sting, but for most businesses, it’s a sting that you feel far more than a consumer notices when they’re looking at your online reputation. And that’s not to diminish that feeling at all. For some perspective, here’s Sam sharing how him, his partner Wenter, and their third partner and CFO Rachel all approach reviews so differently.

SAM: Between the three of us—Rachel, Wenter, and I—we read reviews pretty differently. Rachel reads every day, just because she wants to. For her, it’s that she wants to know if there are any problems that are recurring, so we can fix it. And for us, we read it probably a couple times a month. It’s hard to draw the line because we know there are people who are just generally not into the texture or the flavors that we present, which is totally fine. But we also want to make sure to read reviews to make sure that it’s not anything on our side in terms of service, safety, or the product itself. Like if it was something that’s one-off, how do we fix that? We try to make sure things are ok. And especially with us being in Colorado and living here, I think that’s very important—to monitor and to get feedback on. 

The other great thing is that I think our staff—who works so hard and who connects with customers a lot—sometimes they do all of the hard work, but they don’t see the comments and reviews to see what’s going on. But we actually filter all the praises and good stuff about specific staff, and we would forward that to them and be like, “Oh my gosh! This person said you made their day, and they were having a bad day, and you were so fantastic.” And for us, that feels so good to be able to give that to them and have them have pride in connecting with people. 

EMILY: I absolutely love that Sam and Wenter share positive reviews that mention their staff with them as a form of praise. I also think it’s great advice to leverage review content for insights and as your eyes and ears in your business when you can’t always be there. 

I’m going to let Sam share a bit more about how they make flavors approachable for folks who have never tried a mochi muffin or ube donut before. 

SAM: That’s a third culture. It basically means someone who grew up in a culture that’s different from their parents. And so you incorporate these two cultures, like an Asian culture for us in our instance: Asian culture and American culture. We know that we don’t want to be a bakery that’s just strictly for people who are familiar with the flavors. When you go to a French restaurant or a French bakery, it’s strictly for people who are familiar with that specific pastry item. And we want to kind of be the bridge for these two groups of people that normally wouldn’t come to a bakery, and I think that’s the beauty of it. And I think for us, it’s all about training our staff. We always tell them, ask [customers], have you been here before? And have you had mochi before?

Anyone who comes walking into the bakery, we would give them a quick refresh or even a little bit of a snippet of the basics of—what is mochi? Mochi is rice that’s Japanese variety and that’s grown locally in California. And we really, really work hard to try to make sure that people don’t feel out of place of asking, what ube or matcha is. It’s okay to ask those questions, and at the end of the day, we just want to make sure that people have a good experience and a good time and eat some good donuts.

EMILY: To close out, I want to highlight Sam’s perspective on criticism. He mentioned it briefly when he was talking about everyone not always enjoying or appreciating the flavors or textures of their items, even though they’re made exceptionally and authentically by Third Culture standards.  

SAM: That was years of hard work on removing ourselves. We do a lot of yoga, so that helps—just trying to separate yourself from the emotion. But I think it had to do with, when we first started the bakery, both of us—any of us who start a business—we have imposter syndrome. And so we were questioning ourselves. We were like, is this good? I mean, me being in the kitchen, I would ask myself like, is this pastry even good? Would people even buy this? And you’re very critical. But over the years, I’ve become comfortable with who I am as a baker and who I am as a business owner and what we stand for and my flavor palette. And I know that I make products that I would myself want to eat at home, whether it’s the source of ingredients and the farms that we choose carefully and making sure that they have good farming practices or even the flavors. I would only make a product that I enjoy and excites me. Whenever we’re developing donut flavors, I would tell my partner, I’ve been eating this donut five times in the last hour. I think this is a go.  So for me, it took us like four or five years now to be comfortable and to be certain that what we offer is what we love. And so for us, we read the reviews in that lens, right? And it’s a hard step, but it’s a good step. 

Photos from Third Culture Bakery

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