When you consider how different the world was one year ago, it’s almost easy to feel like things are pretty much back to normal — delta variant aside. It’s really not so easy at all, however, when you operate a wholesale bakery with three locations across two states and one more on the way. Just ask Wenter Shyu, co-owner of Third Culture Bakery, the chromed-out Berkeley shop known for its signature mochi muffins, doughnuts, and matcha. Shyu, who runs the business with his partner and culinary counterpart Sam Butarbutar, says pandemic-related issues are pretty much wreaking havoc on the bakery’s supply chain — to the point where Third Culture Bakery could have to take its most popular mochi doughnut flavor off the menu altogether.
Here’s the deal: Third Culture Bakery sources its passion fruit from a farm in Hawai’i. The farm, however, didn’t harvest any fruit in 2020 (due to lack of demand and labor, Shyu says), which means there’s no back stock this year. Shyu and Butarbutar have purchased all of the passion fruit they can get their hands on but at current levels — the bakery sells about 20,000 mango–passion fruit doughnuts every month — they’re on track to run out of passion fruit by early November. And that’s the best case scenario, Shyu says. When they run out, the doughnut comes off the menu.
But couldn’t they just get passion fruit from another farm? Not really. The farm the bakery sources from doesn’t just provide the fruit, it also processes it into puree. Third Culture tried to do it themselves but once the business started scaling, it no longer made sense. Plus, Butarbutar is “very particular” about the specific kind of passion fruit the bakery uses. Then there’s also the fact that whoever they get the fruit from needs to be able to ship it to their locations in California and in Colorado, which not all suppliers can do. “All of the factors are kind of the perfect storm for this post-pandemic life we’re living in,” Shyu says.
To try to stretch the passion fruit the bakery has on hand, Third Culture Bakery took passion fruit beverages off the menu. But other problems with global supply chain are also impacting the business. Another example: The bakery was supposed to introduce its pumpkin-spice drink menu two weeks ago, but due to that whole ship-getting-stuck-in-the-Suez-Canal thing, prices for quality allspice are through the roof, making it difficult to find. Plus the Japanese matcha the company uses now takes almost a month to arrive when it used to take a week, and prices for everything from takeout boxes to gloves to parchment paper are creeping up. So really, the passion fruit thing is just a latest and biggest blow. “Passion fruit felt like I got punched in the face for it,” Shyu says, wryly. “There’s all these little things. Everything that used to cost this amount now costs double or triple. But then the passion fruit was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, that's the product we sell the most of.’”
Nevertheless, Shyu and Butarbutar are forging ahead with the opening of their newest location: A matcha cafe coming to Walnut Creek. It was supposed to open in August but due to a delay with the fire inspector, they’re now targeting an October opening. Keep your fingers crossed and there may still be some chewy mango–passion fruit doughnuts in the mix. “It’s just so fascinating how everything is so global,” Shyu says, joking that he and Butarbutar have become deeply invested in global trade news since of late. “Most consumers don't think about that.”