Walnut Creek-based lovers of Third Culture Bakery’s deliciously chewy and buttery mochi muffins and donuts don’t have to wait much longer for the popular Berkeley bakery to open in their own back yard. Originally slated to open in August, the East Bay expansion of the iconic bakery had been delayed by the pandemic, but its owners say they hope to open within the next few weeks.
The Walnut Creek Third Culture has been planned since last year, after the Berkeley Third Culture staff noticed an influx of far-flung customers during the early pandemic months of 2020. “We had a lot of folks coming from Walnut Creek telling us they would make the drive once or twice every week. This was during a time when there was hardly any traffic at all, and they basically became regulars,” co-founder Wenter Shyu told Nosh.
Third Culture signed a lease on a storefront at 1310 S. California Blvd. last October, but the pandemic slowed the opening way down, Still, “we were planning to open in August, but we got delayed from the city side,” Shyu said. “Fire inspection and inspectors were difficult. They basically said ‘you followed the rules, but we want you to do this instead.’ Also, there’s only one inspector right now for Walnut Creek and Contra Costa,” a staffing issue that slowed things down even further. “We’re now looking at the end of September or early October for opening.”
The advent of the new location has prompted another big change for Shyu and business and life partner Sam Butarbutar. The pair had moved to Colorado shortly before the pandemic hit to open Third Culture locations in Aurora and Denver. Now they’re moved back to the Bay Area to get the Walnut Creek shop up and running.
When it finally opens, customers can expect Third Culture’s trademark Asian and Southeast Asian flavor profiles — such as pandan, coconut milk, and passionfruit — in gluten-free, rice flour-based baked goods, made with high-end ingredients like organic French-style butter with higher fat content, Tcho chocolate, and Koda Farms rice flour. “Sam’s in charge of food and sourcing, and his standards are really high,” Shyu said. (After Nosh spoke with Shyu, Third Culture announced via Instagram that a current shortage of passion fruit might mean that items made with that ingredient might not be available at all locations until the “next successful harvest.”)
Customers will be able to see the baked goods in production at the Walnut Creek showroom, which will also feature a matcha cafe with drinks, matcha soft serve and matcha desserts. “[During the pandemic,] a lot of people came in for the pastries, but a ton of regulars came in for our matcha,” Shyu said. The matcha Third Culture uses is their own blend of ceremonial matcha and second harvest matcha, which uses leaves that are a bit aged and lends a slightly bitter flavor to the tea. “Sam and I spent so much time searching for the right matcha,” he said. “We’re really proud of the matcha, which we get from an organic farm in Kyoto.”
On the design side, which Shyu directs, you can look forward to a fun and colorful space to match the food aesthetic and values of the business: “I wanted the space to be more queer-centric and even more different,” he said. “After surviving and figuring out our business during the pandemic, I thought why look like another coffee shop or cafe? I started thinking about how to make the space gayer and even more queer-centric and have it really be a safe, queer, and sober space that everyone can come to.”
To that end, the windows at the Walnut Creek space will be floor to ceiling rainbow colors, so the multicolored light will be reflected against the surfaces inside, most of which are metallic. “It’s gonna be rainbow everywhere you go,” Shyu said. “It will be an immersive and light-filled space.”
He calls the design theme “Dream State” because when you enter the cafe, “you’re stepping into our dream of third culture.” The term “third culture kid” is sometimes used to reference those children who grow up in a culture different from that of their parents. Many also use the term to describe people who spent their formative years in another country from the one they currently live in.
Those who identify as third culture often speak of feeling as if they don’t belong in either culture. Both Shyu, who was born in Taiwan and moved to San Francisco to study fashion years ago, and Butarbutar, who grew up in Indonesia and moved to study at UC Berkeley, identify as third culture, with their queerness as another key aspect of their cultural identities.
The co-founders’ voices continued to develop during 2020, with their vocal support for Black Lives Matter and their support for Asian American communities in the wake of anti-Asian sentiment across many levels of American culture. “When we started, we didn’t think to be a platform for change,” Shyu said. “But as we got bigger, we realized that we have this platform, and we should use our voice for something.”
Feeling like they needed to do something more for the community, they created safety kits for elders in queer communities and Asian American communities. The safety kits, consisting of a small keychain pepper spray, alarm, lanyard and instructions in nine Asian languages and Spanish, were provided to nonprofit partners and community groups. The safety kits came out of a sense of frustration “especially after the shooting in Atlanta, and with seeing Asian businesses being targeted,” Shyu said.
Shyu said that “At first we were going to give the kits to just their friends and their families, and local Oakland organizations, like Asian Health Services and Chinatown Chamber of Commerce [and others]. But then the organizations came back with requests of over 6,000 kits. A lot of senior homes have come to us, too.”
They’re also vigilant about stereotypes and bias directed toward their business. For example, they fired their PR firm over an interview that ran on a local Denver television news program, Shyu said. “The interview was great, but the segment that aired had this ‘Oriental’ string music to it,” he said. “The piece was on Asian Heritage Month focusing on Asian businesses, and when we saw the story, we were shocked the station had added that music in.”
Shyu said that they called their PR firm, wondering what they could do about the news report. “Our PR firm got back to us recommending that we keep the interview up because the content was good,” Shyu said. The agency didn’t understand the stereotype perpetuated by the music choice, Shyu said, so they fired the firm. (At most broadcast news stations, as well as most print and online media outlets, the subject of a reported story or its PR agency does not have the power to remove or otherwise dictate the content of an interview or journalistic report. They can, of course, request changes or corrections after publication or broadcast.)
Another time, the first month after opening in Denver, an older customer came in and bought a bunch of pastries, then noticed the rainbow sticker. Shyu said that “she asked Sam ‘Do you support gay people? Is this sticker gay? You shouldn’t be exposing people to such things.’ Sam had to explain to her that if she was unhappy, she could leave.”
Shyu said that Butarbutar told staff about the exchange that day, saying that he needed “to speak my truth even if my voice is shaking,” a message they now incorporate into postcards distributed with orders.
Despite these experiences, Shyu said that the Colorado stores are doing well and that continued expansion is in the works. In addition to the Walnut Creek location, the Third Culture team, including CFO Rachel Taber, want to continue to build out the company and create opportunities for everyone in the organization to grow. An effort to expand into Los Angeles, which had been in the works pre-pandemic, then dropped during 2020, is now starting up again. Hawaii also is under consideration for a new outpost. Above all the shifting possibilities, Shyu said he wants the company to expand as quickly as possible while still remaining profitable and giving back to their communities.
It’s been a wild ride for these two since officially starting as Third Culture Bakery in April 2017. Shyu recalls that when they first opened the bakery, their biggest concern was how to pay the bills, how to make the business viable. He had a full-time job at a nonprofit doing marketing work and would help with deliveries after his regular work day was done. “When we opened the retail store [the showroom in Berkeley], then we got more attention. We realized it was important to differentiate and find our own voices. Then we each came out to our parents in 2019. I had a great experience. Sam did not. As a result, we really have created a chosen family with our work and our bakery.”
Despite the difficulties with family acceptance, Butarbutar continues to seek to honor the good feeling and memories generated when cooking with his mother, which formed his early interest in baking and inspired him to start professional baking. Shyu said it became part of their goal in running the business: “We wanted to be families to people coming in. It’s really validating when queer parents come in and say ‘I love bringing my kids here because you are validating our family and giving us a safe place to go to.’”
When it opens this fall, the new Third Culture location will be located at 1310 S. California Blvd. (at Botelho Drive), Walnut Creek.