Third Culture Bakery’s mochi muffin trademark ignites outrage, calls to boycott

The backlash was swift and fierce for Third Culture Bakery, the popular Berkeley business that’s been flooded with criticism and calls for boycotts following a Chronicle article detailing the owners’ trademark of “mochi muffin.”

Outrage exploded on social media, particularly in food communities, at the idea of ​​a bakery trademarking a common term and demanding other businesses stop using it. Third Culture employees started fielding “harassing” calls and messages on Wednesday, co-owner Wenter Shyu said. Yelp pages for Third Culture’s locations in Berkeley and Walnut Creek were flooded with so many negative reviews that they’ve been temporarily frozen because of “increased public attention,” reads a standard Yelp alert. People unearthed mochi muffin recipes that predated Third Culture’s founding, while social media feeds filled with appeals to boycott the business.

“Totally fine to trademark something to defend yourself from encroaching corporatism. It’s another to weaponize it against smaller, single owner businesses,” tweeted Australian actor Desmond Chiam.

Shyu did not respond to further questions for this article. Since obtaining the trademark to Third Culture’s most popular baked good in 2018, the business has been sending cease-and-desist letters to bakeries and food bloggers across the country to prevent them from using the words “mochi muffin.”

The debate has struck a chord in the Asian American community. Customers who appreciated Third Culture’s reputation as an inclusive, outspoken and community-minded business — one that’s proudly queer owned and distributed thousands of free safety kits after six Asian women were killed in the Atlanta spa shooting last year — were shocked that the same company would send cease-and-desist letters to small, Asian-owned businesses.

A customer picks up an order at CA Bakehouse in San Jose, which sells mochi cakes instead of mochi muffins after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Third Culture Bakery.

Josie Lepe/Special to The Chronicle

It’s left a bad taste in the mouth of customer Alice Hsueh. For years, Hsueh would drive from her South Bay home to Berkeley specifically to visit Third Culture. She loved their baked goods as much as the fact that the owners spoke out about anti-Asian violence and social justice issues.

She decided to stop frequenting Third Culture, and has been urging friends who live in Berkeley to do the same. “I feel like that’s actually going against their messaging,” she said.

David Menino, a Berkeley resident and former customer who grew up eating mochi baked goods in his native Hawaii, was shocked by the trademark.

“Mochi isn’t theirs. Muffins aren’t theirs,” Boy said. “Asian American fusion foods have existed in Hawaii for a long time.”

Meanwhile, CA Bakehouse in San Jose, one of the bakeries that received a cease-and-desist letter, was unexpectedly overwhelmed with messages of support on Wednesday. Online posters wrote that they plan to buy CA Bakehouse’s renamed mochi cakes instead of Third Culture’s mochi muffins. But the owners took to Instagram to urge people against demonizing Third Culture, particularly on Yelp.

“We definitely didn’t want this to negatively impact another local business,” the post reads. “It’s hard work to start a restaurant/bakery and their stance on the trademark should be kept separate.”

Many of the Yelp reviews reference the trademark and not an actual experience at the bakeries. (When this happens, Yelp temporarily disables reviews and later removes ones that aren’t legitimate.) Kat Lieu, founder of Facebook group Subtle Asian Baking, where outrage over the trademark spread in recent weeks, urged members against leaving dishonest Yelp reviews.

“Subtle Asian Baking does not and has never encouraged cancellation culture or any of our members to leave 1-star reviews,” Lieu wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Brenda Calamateo pours ube coconut custard cake batter into muffin pans at Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley in 2019.

Brenda Calamateo pours ube coconut custard cake batter into muffin pans at Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley in 2019.

Celeste Noche/Special to The Chronicle 2019

On Facebook, she floated the idea of ​​starting a GoFundMe page to raise funds to cover legal fees for businesses that want to fight the trademark. She’s instead crowdsourcing a list of small businesses that sell mochi baked goods to encourage support.

The Third Culture Controversy also spilled over into a local food-focused Facebook group, Bay Area Eats, where administrators quickly removed divisive posts. Comment threads spiraled into negative sentiments like “Asians hating on Asians,” said administrator Ken Ko.

Since East Bay resident Vania Chen’s first bite of a Third Culture mochi muffin in Berkeley in 2019, she became a super-fan. She stopped in to buy several boxes of muffins every few months. She raved about the bakery to friends and out-of-town visitors.

Now, she feels conflicted.

“It’s the morality of all this,” she said. “As much as I love their products and sweet employees, I don’t think I can bring myself to go back anymore.”

This story was updated to include another customer perspective.

Elena Kadvany is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: elena.kadvany@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ekadvany

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