Why A California Bakery Gave Up Its Pursuit Of A Messy Muffin Trademark

Desserts and baked goods made with sweet sticky rice flour or "mochi" can be found across most Asian cultures. Indonesia has several, including the brightly colored kueh lapis, made with rice flour and tapioca flour, as well as klepon, a grated coconut sweet treat filled with palm sugar, per Asian Recipe. The Malaysians, as Makan with Cherry explains, have the steamed pandan custard-and-rice cake known as kuih seri muka. The Vietnamese have banh bo hap, a steamed cake made with sticky rice, according to Takes Two Eggs, which is similar to the Filipino puto, per Kawaling Pinoy, or the Chinese sponge cake bai tang gao, per Daily Cooking Quest. Even Hawaiians have their own sweet butter mochi cake, as covered by The New York Times

Given that mochi-based desserts appear nearly everywhere, it came as some surprise to bakers across the country when they found out the term "mochi muffin" had actually been trademarked in 2018 by Third Culture Bakery, a Berkeley, California establishment, reports SFGATE. The discovery came about because the bakery's lawyers were issuing cease-and-desist letters to both bloggers and family-run bakeries, who might have either created their own take on muffins made with mochi flour and tried to share recipes online or sell a similar product at their own stores. As one San Jose, California, bakery owner put it: "It's like trademarking plain bread or banana muffin," via the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet, all those who had been threatened with legal action had complied, and changed their products' names.

Social media took issue over the muffin trademark

Third Culture Bakery's owners said their decision to trademark came about after a coffee shop it was supplying muffins to, had told them it would make their own mochi muffins and use the same name, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're not trying to claim any ownership (of) the word mochi or mochiko or muffin," co-owner Wenter Shyu told the newspaper.

Added Shyu: "It relates back to the one singular product that started our bakery and put us on the map. It's how we pay our bills and how we pay our employees. If anyone else makes a mochi muffin that looks like ours and (is) selling it, that's who we go after." The recipe is said to be inspired by one that Shyu's partner and chef Sam Butarbutar and his mother made together.

Unfortunately, many of the cease-and-desist letters Third Culture's legal team were reportedly sending, were aimed at small, family-run bakeries, whose plight was amplified by social media group Subtle Asian Baking. The group had taken issue with what was seen as Third Culture's moves against small family businesses, and it had even set up a GoFundMe page to raise money that would help these businesses "cover legal fees as needed [and to] help with rebranding/marketing as needed."

Third Culture Bakery severs its ties with legal team

The backlash that ensued on both social media, as well as the negative publicity that came with it, eventually pushed Third Culture Bakery to announce it had ended its relationship with the legal firm that had pursued the cease-and-desist orders with such vigor. In an Instagram post, Shyu and Butarbutar said they "[had] realized their [legal firm's] recent strategies did not align with our values and why we pursued and wanted the trademark in the first place."

The bakers added: "We have severed ties with the legal firm and our legal counsels as of writing this. 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."

Some were appeased by the action and the statement — and they took to social media to express their appreciation for what the owners of Third Culture Bakery had said and done. "To be fair, their instagram apology sounded like a very good apology. I'm interested to hear everyone else's thoughts on this," one Facebook user wrote. 

But others appeared less inclined. Said one Facebook user, "Ever since I learned how to make butter mochi when I was a kid in Hawaii many decades ago (longer than the two bakery owners have been alive), I made my butter mochi in muffin tins to maximize the 'edges' that I liked. I called mine Mochi Muffins way back then! Hrmph."