A gay-and family-owned bakery in Berkeley, California, released their trademark on mochi muffins after receiving heavy criticism and poor Yelp reviews from baker netizens in an uproar over cease-and-desist letters.
In 2014, Third Culture Bakery chef Sam Butarbutar started baking his mochi muffins to immortalize his memories of growing up and cooking with his mother in Indonesia. Butarbutar says he wanted the dessert to capture the cross-cultural marriage between the flavor profiles of Indonesian desserts and Western baking techniques.
His mochi muffins are made from California-grown mochiko rice flour, organic French-style butter and a house blend of pandan and coconut milk. They have a slight crunchy exterior with a chewy interior and are topped with black and white Japanese sesame seeds.
After coming out in 2018, Butarbutar no longer speaks to his family, so he honors his identity as a Queer Indonesian man with his mochi muffins.
“It’s something so beloved by so many now but comes from a happy-sad past of realizing and sharing his true self and sharing that truth with the world,” Wenter Shyu, Butarbutar’s Taiwanese partner who co-founded Third Culture Bakery in 2016, tells NextShark.
In addition to symbolizing their multiple identities, the muffins also brought communities together. Butarbutar and Shyu use their bakery as a platform to support and empower LGBTQ-plus and Southeast Asian and Asian American communities. During the pandemic in 2020, they provided financial support to an emergency relief fund for queer and trans people in San Fransisco. In 2021, with the help of family, friends and volunteers, they assembled and distributed over 22,000 safety kits with safety alarms to communities and senior homes in Chinatown and other cities in response to the AAPI hate attacks. They say they plan to continue to distribute safety kits for as long as they are needed.
“We sincerely believe in our convictions that our little Mochi Muffins and pastries can bring about change for the better for all those communities,” Shyu says.
Butarbutar and Shyu say they decided to pursue the trademark of mochi muffins under the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2017 because they were advised that trademarking the product would protect their business.
“We originally pursued the trademark as a means to protect our business, our livelihoods, and the one singular product that was driving our sales at the time when it was just us two baking and running everything,” Shyu says. “We were selling our products to a large cafe chain at the time that told us they are actively seeking for someone to bake their own ‘mochi muffins.’ We were advised that trademarking our product could ward off the threat so we pursued it and was awarded it a year later.
“The intention was always to protect ourselves with the trademark and never was to ‘cancel’ anything or anyone else.”
Butarbutar and Shyu say they were unaware that their legal team had sent cease-and-desist letters to several bakeries for selling mochi muffins until it was too late.
CA Bakehouse was one of the bakeries that received a cease-and-desist letter, and when their story went viral on popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Baking baker netizens were in an uproar. One of the Subtle Asian Baking admins wanted to fight the trademark but dropped the case after learning of the cost.
Soon, heavy criticism disapproving of the trademark flooded Third Culture Bakery in the form of phone calls and low ratings on Yelp reviews.
“If you’re innovative and the product speaks for itself, you don’t have to use legal powers to set yourself apart from competitors,” one Yelp reviewer argued.
Another Yelp reviewer commented, “Karma will come for your business for the actions taken against innocent people trying to make a living over big corps.”
The Third Culture Bakery Yelp page is still temporarily disabled due to the “increased public attention, which often means people come to this page to post their views on the news.”
Baker netizens also set up a GoFundMe in support of bakeries that have been affected legally by the trademark.
On June 4, Butarbutar and Shyu released a lengthy statement on their Third Culture Bakery Instagram account.
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In their statement, they claimed the uproar resulted in false claims and harassment. They stated that they never sued, litigated or asked for payment from other businesses over the trademark.
“We are reevaluating what it means to own such a trademark and the relevance of this trademark to our core mission of starting Third Culture Bakery,” Butarbutar and Shyu stated. “We apologize to those that felt hurt by our ill-advised and petty actions and we promise to follow up in coming days.”
Butarbutar and Shyu also declared that they had cut ties with their legal teams.
“We feel like what once served us, may not serve us anymore and we change and grow,” Shyu says.
Featured Image via Third Culture Bakery