Third Culture Bakery Launches a Mochi Empire from Berkeley
The innovators of the Mochi Muffin® were ready to expand. Today, with help from SFMade’s expert advisers, they are building a mochi empire.
The name of Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu’s Berkeley bakery comes from the term “third culture kids,” which was coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s for children who grow up in a culture different than their parents.
They both identified with the term: Butarbutar was born in Indonesia and grew up in New York City, and Shyu was born in Taiwan and grew up in Los Angeles. The discomfort of not fitting in was magnified by the fact that they were also queer. The two food entrepreneurs met in Berkeley and fell in love. And when it came time to start a food business together, they decided their Third Culture identities would take center stage.
“We wanted to create this space where we can tell this story—a story of happiness and love, but also pain,” said Butarbutar.
Their signature baked good, the Mochi Muffin®, is also a reflection of that identity. Its genesis began in Butarbutar’s apartment. He had recently graduated from UC Berkeley with an environmental toxicology degree, “studying pesticides and insects,” but he had always loved cooking and baking. He worked by day in the health field, and at night he would bake at home or take shifts at several Bay Area restaurants, including the renowned Lazy Bear.
Butarbutar started experimenting with the flavors he missed from his childhood, and after a couple of years, he was ready to launch a wholesale bakery called Sam’s Patisserie, which specialized in French-inspired treats with an Asian twist. His most popular item was the mochi muffin, which he created in 2014, and it quickly caught on, especially with people who didn’t eat gluten (it’s made with rice flour).
Shyu, who had his own food business, believed the mochi muffin was so good that they could “build a bakery on it.” It took some convincing, but in 2017, Butarbutar decided to quit his health department job and closed Sam’s Patisserie. Together, they opened Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley.
It was an instant hit.
“The mochi muffin is very much an Indonesian palate, but so many people from different cultures—Philippines, Japan, Hawaii, and even Germany—told me it reminds them of their mom’s cooking,” said Butarbutar. “People resonated with our name and our products because the Bay Area has a lot of third culture kids—people who come to this country with their parents but don’t feel attached to one specific culture.”
Third Culture’s first location was a shared space at Berkeley Kitchens. Within a couple of years, they saw a huge increase in demand for their mochi muffins, donuts, and waffles; and their wholesale orders rapidly increased to 50% of their business. They were not only outgrowing their space but also thinking about expanding to other cities. They needed help to grow.
Butarbutar learned about SFMade from a neighboring business owner and was introduced to Martine Neider, Director of Manufacturing Operations at SFMade. Neider provides operations, production efficiency, supply chain management, and modernization consulting support for manufacturers throughout the Bay Area.
“We worked with Third Culture on a lean manufacturing assessment and an efficiency review and recommended ways to make production easier on them and their staff,” says Neider. “Since they did both retail and wholesale, they were running into some tension between those two activities. We also did a mapping project looking at their high-volume and time-intensive products to understand how they moved around the kitchen and to see where they could make things more efficient.”
When Butarbutar and Shyu were ready to move to a larger space, SFMade helped find them another location in Berkeley and made sure there were no red flags in the lease.
The consulting services were provided at no cost thanks to SFMade’s relationship with the California’s Manufacturing Network’s California Manufacturing Accelerator Plus Program. The program, designed to help small and medium sized manufacturers succeed, matches expert advisors like Neider with businesses that need help operating more efficiently, developing their workforce, and optimizing their real estate.
“As a small business owner, especially in the Bay Area, it’s easy to feel helpless and that your problems are unique,” said Butarbutar. “But in fact, there are a lot of other small businesses that are experiencing the same thing. SFMade is a wonderful connection, and their programs have been incredibly helpful,”
During the COVID-19 crisis, Butarbutar leveraged SFMade’s real-time guidance on how to plan for and secure PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans.
“It was so, so helpful because there was a lot of confusion about the strategy on getting the PPP,” he said.
Although business was slow during the first few months of the pandemic, Third Culture experienced a summer surge. Demand in their Berkeley retail location tripled, which meant they could retain their staff, hire additional team members, and even give raises to their managers.
As for the future, Butarbutar and Shyu are putting their energy into building their retail operations and expanding to new locations.
In February, they opened a production space and retail bakery in Aurora, CO, and designed the space based on the results from their efficiency assessment with Neider. They also plan to expand to more locations in the Bay Area in 2021.
No matter where they grow, their ethos as “a symbol of diversity, inclusiveness, and acceptance” will go with them.
“We are able to expand and have an impact on a lot of people because of our story,” said Butarbutar. “People can buy cheaper muffins and mochis somewhere else, but when you step into our bakery and eat our muffins you get a piece of us.”