Mochi muffins fuel Aurora bakery's rebound

Pivot to delivery proves critical post-pandemic
third culture bakery
Posted at 4:14 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 18:14:13-05

AURORA, Colo. — Third Culture Bakery isn't just the home of the mochi muffin - it's the birthplace.

"It is the one recipe that we started the entire bakery on," said co-owner Sam Butarbutar. "Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside."

"I just feel a sense of gratitude," said co-owner Wenter Shyu. Wenter and Sam are business partners and life partners.

"I'm almost speechless," Shyu continued. "We knew that it was good. We knew that we loved it. We were hoping that so many other people would."

The couple opened their first Third Culture outpost in California in 2016. After strong sales, they started planning their Aurora location in 2019. The doors opened in February 2020.

"We had a line that was two hours long on grand opening day with the biggest snowstorm," Shyu said. "People were just waiting outside. It was the craziest thing. It was so, so touching. And then everything kinda shut down, and we had to deal with the pandemic then."

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis closed dining rooms on March 17, 2020. Within eight weeks, Third Culture lost almost all of their wholesale business. They could not survive without it.

"My gosh, I thought I was going to lose everything we had been building for the last three years," Shyu said. "We shed some tears here and there. It was tough."

"We had to close for a couple of weeks," said Butarbutar. "Just to re-assess and re-strategize. We pivoted toward more grab-and-go, takeout ... and also online."

Butarbutar and Shyu focused on turning the online business into a national option during the brief closure.

"We re-engineered the recipe a little bit so that, A, it travels well," Butarbutar said. "And then, B, there's ways that people can re-heat it at home to re-create that fresh out of the oven experience."

"Mostly, it was Sam," said Shyu. "He is just such a wizard in the kitchen for his balancing of flavors. His palate's amazing. He was able to extend part of the shelf life, and we're able to offer nationwide shipping for our mochi muffins."

"It was tough," Shyu continued. "It was a tough undertaking. But it has kept the ovens on. They always say, if you're a bakery and your ovens are off, then you're losing money or wasting time. This really kept the ovens on for us."

The signature mochi muffins – only available in Colorado and California pre-pandemic – have been shipped to 49 of the 50 U.S. states since the Governor's shut down order in March 2020.

"It's the recipe that I took from my mom's kit growing up," Butarbutar said. "It's kind of unassuming, but I think once people take a bite of it, they really get it."

"What really keeps us going is just our messaging," Shyu said. "Sharing our message of inclusivity and equality. Being a queer bakery, especially in this current political climate, we have no choice but to be who we are and be loud and proud about it."

"It's very intentional," Butarbutar said. "When you eat our pastries and you walk out of the bakery, you're kind of carrying a piece of us with you."

"It just feels really incredible," Shyu said. "I'm truly humbled by the response and the support."