//Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu, owners of Third Culture Bakery and life partners, prepare drinks and pastries at the opening of the Denver Matcha Cafe in Five Points on April 24. It’s the third location for the Third Culture brand and the second in the Denver Metro. Photos by Ali Mai | firstname.lastname@example.org
With sweet treats and tea beverages, two third culture kids are sharing flavors of Asia with Denver and using their bakery to promote social change.
The Berkeley, California-originated Third Culture Bakery opened the Denver Matcha Cafe in Five Points on April 24, its second location in the Denver Metro Area. A non-stop stream of customers patiently waited for hand-whisked matcha beverages and mochi-based pastries.
Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu, owners of Third Culture and life partners, named the growing chain after the term “third culture kids.” These are children born in a different culture than their parents’ origin culture and who form their own interpretation of those two worlds. Butarbutar and Shyu pull inspiration from Indonesia and Taiwan, respectively.
Shyu, a California transplant from Taiwan, studied fashion design and visual merchandising before embarking on a backpacking trip through Asia where he fell in love with baking. He started a catering company when he returned home, selling artistically crafted treats. Not long after, he met his husband and business partner Butarbutar. They started a whole-sale baking company that later grew into the Third Culture Bakery chain.
The menu emulates the third cultures Shyu and Butarbutar created for themselves. Asian flavors of matcha, black sesame and ube purple yam are combined with American and European baking. The pastries have a mochi, or rice cake, base giving them a light, chewy texture.
“It encompasses everything that Sam wants to create culinarily—showcasing flavors and foods from his childhood in Indonesia but fusing it with French or American techniques that he’s learned while being in New York and California. The name really is so perfect and fitting, embodying everything we stand for and want to create,” Shyu said in a written statement.
The Denver Matcha Cafe is the third addition to the Third Culture brick and mortar, but it’s a new concept. While it still offers treats found in the original Berkeley bakery showroom and the Aurora store that opened last year, including Mochi Muffins® and butter mochi donuts, it has a heavy focus on all things matcha. Using a tea blend sourced from a farm in Uji Kyoto, Japan, matcha is mixed with a bamboo whisk and traditional ware before it’s added to lattes and sparkling fruit-infused drinks. When the weather warms, the cafe will offer matcha soft serve and parfaits.
The interior, designed by Shyu, is crisp and bright. The chrome wrap on the walls reflects the holographic windows with rainbow hues that are both reflective and transparent. Shyu said they call the Denver design a “Dreamstate,” which visually takes customers to a third culture.
Customers Jim Dasch and Caitlyn Drews left with lattes in one hand and a variety of other sweets including the churro muffin, guava cheesecake, strawberry, matcha and dark chocolate donuts. The friends enjoyed the treats at the Aurora bakery and were excited to go to the opening in Five Points.
Dasch said that beyond the treats, he became a fan of the brand because of its social activism on their social media platforms. Third Culture has frequently expressed its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and its support for the rights of LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups. During opening weekend, pastry boxes were packaged inside of pink paper bags with a cartoon portrait of Shyu and Butarbutar. Inside is a letter from the owners expressing their goal for acceptance and inclusion and a heart-shaped Pride rainbow sticker.
“I think that they use their voice very, very well,” Dasch said. “They’re like very pro-women, pro-choice. They like to use their platform for positive changes. Which I think if you’re going to have a business these days, you should probably use it for something, so I enjoy what they’re doing.”
Tiffany Tran was introduced to Third Culture Bakery when she moved to the Denver Metro area about a year ago around the time the Aurora bakery opened in February 2020. She said she bookmarked the opening date of the Five Points location so she wouldn’t miss it. Tran appreciates the inclusive messaging from the brand.
“I love supporting a brand that is also part of that, and it makes me happy to support something like Third Culture Bakery,” she said.
She noted that the company has been vocal in its support of the AAPI community as hate crimes and related incidents have been on the rise since the outset of COVID-19. In response to the precipitous increase in violence, Third Culture started a fundraiser earlier this year to create safety kits for AAPI, other POC, those over the age of 40, and LGBTQ+ communities in Colorado and California. Each kit comes with a keychain alarm and pepper spray, as well as wrist and neck lanyards. Proceeds from the opening weekend of the Denver Matcha Cafe went back into making these kits.
“As a Queer and Asian-American owned business, the recent non-stop attacks on the AAPI community and ongoing attacks on trans and Black folks leave us feeling heartbroken and helpless,” Shyu wrote. “We started the safety kits as an idea between my partner Sam and I because we knew that we didn’t want to just donate money but wanted to offer a tangible item to make people feel safer and secure.”
Shyu said that when they first announced the safety kits, they thought that a few hundred requests would be made. They were amazed to see how great the need was for protection and have since had more than 5,200 requests for safety kits.
Third Culture is growing fast with support from like-minded customers. They opened their second location in Aurora in 2020 right before the pandemic weighed on local businesses and hit the foodservice industry. Shyu said that while constantly monitoring the changing state and local ordinances in California and Colorado, they set goals to come out swinging after restrictions eased. The Denver Matcha Cafe will be followed by another California location, the East Bay Matcha Cafe, scheduled to open this summer.
We are eternally grateful for our customers who support us through our products and messaging,” Shyu wrote. “With a love for both Colorado and the Bay Area, we’ve always known we wanted to expand and reach an even larger audience and continue spreading our mission for inclusion and acceptance.”
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“For people to make comments like that and show up, it’s disgusting and it’s bad,” Campbell said. “But it’s also very clear where their head is at. That they’re not here for Black lives.”
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