"Come for the muffins but stay for the social justice," says Wenter Shyu, co-owner of Third Culture Bakery, which just opened a cafe version of its mochi muffin and doughnut bakery that first landed in Aurora last year.
Shyu and his partner in business and life, Sam Butarbutar, are serious about both, even if their pastries and matcha-based drinks put grins on the faces of everyone who tries them. The couple, along with co-owner and chief financial officer Rachel Taber, opened their bakery at 9935 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora in February 2020 as a place to celebrate Asian flavors and ingredients while serving as a safe haven for both the LGBTQ community and people of color. After a challenging and tumultuous year — both socially and economically — they've now expanded to 2500 Lawrence Street.
Shyu and Butarbutar initially founded Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley, California, in 2016, opening a production facility after Butarbutar's cottage-industry muffin business took off at local coffee shops. Their mochi muffins, made primarily with rice flour, butter and coconut sugar, proved a huge success, and when they met Taber, a Colorado native, she persuaded them to take a look at Denver as a possibility for expansion. The couple loved Colorado so much that they ended up moving here as well as bringing their bakery to town.
"When we first opened in Aurora, it was our first sit-down location and showcase for our pastries, and the beverages were just a complement to the muffins and doughnuts," Shyu explains. "But there's been a growing awareness of matcha. The cafe is going to focus on matcha — but, of course, we'll still have the pastries."
Shyu's family is from Taiwan and Butarbutar's is from Indonesia, and the two have lived in and traveled all over Asia. Butarbutar's recipes combine with Shyu's fondness for Japanese tea shops to form a distinct, modern and blended concept, with matcha powder sourced from Uji, Japan; pastry ingredients purchased directly from small businesses in Indonesia and other countries; and bright splashes of color "done in a third-culture, queer, Asian cafe way," Shyu explains. "We can't go to Japan right now, so we're trying to bring Japan here."
Shyu's respect for matcha shows in the way he uses traditional tools to create a cup of tea, stirring the bright-green powder into hot water with a bamboo whisk. The cup and whisk stand are both handmade by a ceramics artist in the Bay area, and Shyu and Butarbutar even came up with a unique design for that whisk stand that includes a built-in drip tray — something they'd never seen in Japan.
You can purchase traditional green matcha (or some toasted matcha, if you prefer a roastier flavor) by the cup, or have it stirred into lattes and other hot and iced drinks. The new cafe will have a larger selection of beverages than the Aurora bakery, and Butarbutar is also expanding the food menu to introduce matcha soft-serve ice cream this summer as well as pandan waffles. "Pandan is everywhere in Indonesia," he says of the herb, which smells and tastes like a cross between fresh-baked bread, toasted rice and vanilla. "Every household has a plant in their backyard."
Butarbutar insists on using fresh pandan leaves rather than the more common extract; he also insists on other raw ingredients such as black sesame seeds, ube (purple yam), coconut, lychee and mango. Many of these have become difficult to source during the pandemic because of supply-chain interruptions, so he's started buying directly from the growers and producers.
Third Culture was just getting noticed in Aurora when the pandemic hit last March, Shyu remembers; he and his partners shut down for a week and then reopened with a new online ordering system for takeout. They also started shipping muffins, ultimately delivering their products to customers in all fifty states.
Then, just a few months later, word of George Floyd's killing broke and protests erupted around the country. "I was kind of scared to voice anything through our platform," Shyu recalls, adding that he "felt empowered" by the support of Butarbutar and Taber.
The Third Culture team decided to stand behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and when violence against Asians, especially the elderly, started making news, they decided to do even more. "At first I felt so helpless, but then we came up with the idea of making safety kits," Shyu says.
They began assembling kits that included a keychain alarm and pepper spray, and were designed for distribution to vulnerable members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community. The first batch of 100 went quickly, and was followed by a request from an organization of senior-living homes for 5,400 more. Third Culture has used proceeds from sales at the bakery to fund the kits, and has also started fundraising to continue the project.
"It sounds cheesy, but I just want this bakery to be a force for change," Shyu says.
While you won't find overt social justice messages inside the new cafe in RiNo, you'll encounter a shifting rainbow of colors created by floor-to-ceiling prismatic window treatments, reflective chrome wallpaper that softens the light with its bumpy surface, and the bold colors of the pastries themselves, especially the purple, yellow, orange, green and pink glazes on the doughnuts. A neon sign glows hot pink with the phrase "It was always you."
Even without overt social statements, Third Culture's message is clear. Each takeout box of pastries is sealed with a rainbow-flag sticker — which has caused complaints from a few customers, the owners say. But they've turned that around as a form of marketing, using Butarbutar's response to make their point: "If a tiny sticker representing love and harmony can so deeply offend someone, then perhaps we're doing something right."
"Sam and I started this thing with $3,000 in our pockets and nothing else — no loans and no debts," Shyu points out. The duo plans to continue to expand the business slowly following the same approach and using the RiNo cafe as the model for future locations, with the next slated for Walnut Creek, California.
"We're just unapologetically who we are now," he adds. "We want to be as loud as we can be and just be that gay-as-fuck bakery."
Third Culture Bakery & Matcha Cafe is open behind Uchi at the corner of 25th and Lawrence streets, with an entrance facing the courtyard of the S*Park development. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Visit thirdculturebakery.com for details and online ordering.
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