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Sam Butarbutar on Being an Indonesian American Entrepreneur and Spreading Love

Sam Butarbutar is a Queer Indonesian Baker and co-Founded Third Culture Bakery with his now-husband, Wenter Shyu. Third Culture Bakery is the home of the original Mochi muffin® and mochi donut. With locations in both Berkeley, CA and Denver, CO ,Sam oversees Third Culture Bakery’s production and culinary developments. Sam was born in Indonesia and raised in New York.

Sam in the kitchen of Third Culture Bakery's production center in Berkeley, CA. (Photo by Faye Saechao/SEAT)

Sam talks to us about diverging from the "traditional" path and overcoming the odds- using hate and discrimination as a fuel to create inclusivity and a safe space for others who may be facing a similar situation. Through his positive energy, he created a community and found family through his bakery. Read his full interview below.


How do you identify yourself?

I was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, but also grew up in New York City for a good chunk of my childhood. Spending time equally in both places, I’ve always felt like I was stuck in between two cultures growing up. I’ve had to relearn English and Bahasa Indonesia multiple times, and it was hard for me to get properly adjusted and rooted anywhere. I tell people nowadays that I’m “Indonesian-American” but that word really doesn’t do it justice in explaining my upbringing, and to this day I still try to make sense of where I come from and how to explain to people when they ask “where are you from?”.

While I had a pretty good childhood and was proud of my Indonesian identity back then, that identity started to become a bitter one as I became an adult. I came out of the closet at 25 years old, and my identity as a gay man clashed with my identity as an Indonesian; Indonesia and most Indonesians, even the ones that live in the US are still very conservative and very religious. So, as a matter of safety, I’ve had to figure out how to compartmentalize my identity and be more selective when I’m answering questions from people.

"...we realized that we needed to be bolder and louder on what we stand for as a bakery--inclusivity and creating a kind, safe space where everyone can be whoever the heck they want to be."

There was an incident at the bakery that illustrated this. On the opening day of our bakery in Aurora, Colorado, there was a conflict with an older Indonesian lady that came in to buy pastries. As I was packing her pastries and ringing her up, she confronted me about why I was putting rainbow stickers on her takeout box (we put a small rainbow sticker on all the to-go boxes to seal them) and asked why we are exposing her to “such things”. She then asked me if I “supported the gays”. Immediately, my blood boiled, my face turned red, and I was shaking. But, I had to take a deep breath and explained to her that “we support EVERYONE --gays, immigrants, people of color. It doesn’t matter who they are”. That was truly a painful experience for me, especially since she and I came from similar cultural upbringing, so the comment really hit home for me. That incident was a turning point for our bakery & we realized that we needed to be bolder and louder on what we stand for as a bakery--inclusivity and creating a kind, safe space where everyone can be whoever the heck they want to be.

Sam and a staff member hard at work baking mochi muffins for Third Culture Bakery's #StopAAIHate fundraiser in Berkeley, CA.. (Photo by Faye Saechao/SEAT)

How did you decide on the name and for a bakery?

“Third Culture” came from the sociological term “Third Culture Kids” coined in the 50s to describe kids who immigrated to the US with their parents. The researchers found that these kids were neither particularly attaching themselves to the culture of their parent’s (or where they came from) nor to the American culture. So, they ended up forming their own “third” interpretation of the two cultures and did their own thing. When we found out about third culture kids, Wenter and I immediately resonated with this idea & identity. Wenter was born in Taiwan and grew up in Los Angeles. And I was born in Indonesia and grew up in New York City. We always felt we were too white for the Asian crowd and too Asian for the white crowd; we didn’t feel like we belonged in either group, so we just did our own thing.

Pictured: Third Culture Bakery's mochi donuts in all flavors! (Photo courtesy of Third Culture Bakery website)
"And so, we created this bakery to pay homage to our upbringing as third culture kids, and we want to showcase all the flavors we had growing up in two places--passion fruit, coconut, matcha, brownies, and muffin. "

When you were growing up, what did you want (or still wish) to be?

Like any Asian parents, my parents of course wanted me to be a doctor. As immigrants, they saw it as a key to a financially stable career in America. But, I’ve always been a rebel, and I wanted to do exactly the opposite of what people told me to do. I knew there were other ways to help people and be “successful”, whatever that word really means.

I was a super nerd growing up, and in high school, my biggest goal and dream was to get into college. I took all honors courses, and after school even went to community college as a full time to rack on stuff for my application. But when I finally got into my dream college UC Berkeley, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had worked so hard to get to college that I had not thought about what I wanted to do! I was in college to prove to myself and my parents that I can do it, but what I really wanted was to be in a kitchen and cook. I graduated in 2011 in Environmental Toxicology (studying the effects of pesticide), but had a really hard time finding a job in the field because it was such a specialized and niche field. So, after not finding anything for 9 months, I took a leap of faith, pivoted, and asked some restaurants and bakeries if I could help them out. It has been a love affair ever since!

"I had worked so hard to get to college that I had not thought about what I wanted to do! I was in college to prove to myself and my parents that I can do it, but what I really wanted was to be in a kitchen and cook."

What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?

Early on, I knew that I had to prove myself and work harder than the white American kids growing up. I knew I was smart, but they had more access to expensive tutors for their SAT, sports lessons, and even their own car to go to more social outings. My parents both had full-time work growing up, and couldn’t spare any money for my activities. I had to get creative, and sometimes fundraised some money on my own.

As an adult and now as a business owner, I see this jarring difference even more. As a business now, we are cognizant of this, but what we can only do is just try our best to be genuinely 100% ourselves and practice what we preach down to the way we treat our employees and customers.

What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?

Strong Asian, LGBTQ role models were almost non-existent growing up (even now!). But, I was fortunate to meet some great mentors along the way early in my baking career, such as Minh Tsai of Hodo Foods, who kept me on my toes to think ahead about the future.

"As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get lost in the minute day-to-day details without any end in sight. But, if you are fortunate, you get someone to grab you and take you up to see things from a mile high perspective so you could have a plan 1, 3, 5, 10 years out, even if those plans change dramatically!"

What would you say to young girls, women and LGBTQ+ individuals such as yourself that you wish you heard growing up?

I want them to know that their LGBTQ identity is NOT a crutch but a freakin superpower. Even if your biological family disowns you (like mine), you can have an entire village of chosen family members that will take you so far in life that you can ever imagine. Your LGBTQ badge is a passport to a more caring, loving, and compassionate world, and never forget that. Love yourself first, and love others in your life even harder!

Pictured: Sam and his husband, Wenter, outside of the Third Culture Bakery showroom in Berkeley, CA. (Photo courtesy of Third Culture Bakery website)


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