3 LGBTQ+ Couples Taste Success in the Food Industry

by Lawrence Ferber

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 3, 2022
Originally published on October 13, 2021

(l to r) Freya Estreller and Natasha Case
(l to r) Freya Estreller and Natasha Case  (Source:Coolhaus )

For some LGBTQ+ couples, being partners in both life and business turns out to be a recipe for success.

From ice cream to dumplings to pastries, it takes more than an idea and wishful thinking to maintain a healthy relationship and profitable business model. EDGE chats with three such couples about their respective endeavors.

Natasha Case and Freya Estreller

Coolhaus Ice Cream

Los Angeles, CA

Boasting a national presence through Whole Foods, gourmet grocers, bicoastal ice cream trucks, and a Culver City flagship shop, this popular artisanal ice cream brand was founded in 2009 by Los Angeles natives Case and Estreller. Legally married in 2012 and parents to two (a four- and one-year-old), they first launched Coolhaus via a Craigslist-sourced $2,500 "piece of shit postal van"-turned ice cream truck at the Coachella Music Festival.

Today, their pints, sammies, and cones balance decadent flavors and textures like Take The Cannoli (a mascarpone base with chocolate-covered cannoli shell bits), and dairy-free options such as Salted Caramel and Cookie Dough Lyfe.

Case admits that not every adventurous flavor passes the testing stage, like a Thai-inspired peanut butter pickle concoction — "a pregnant woman's biggest craving, or nightmare, it looked really gross and an intern opened the batch and screamed because she thought it was infested or something," she recalls. Remarkably, the Fried Chicken and Waffles, a brown butter ice cream with caramel chicken skins, waffle pieces, and Cajun black pepper proved a smash.

Some flavors have benefited specific organizations: The carrot cake Currency Cake, in partnership with Black Girl Ventures, helps create a grant for Black and Brown female entrepreneurs, while EnjoyMINT proceeds went to The Okra Project, which provides free meals and resources to Black trans people.

Although Estreller officially left her Coolhaus post in 2013 (she's currently COO of another women-led company, Tea Drops, she serves as unofficial First Lady and sounding board for Case.

"To have someone in [your] home who understands what [you're] doing and why, and gives honest feedback and understands, is incredibly valuable," Case says. Along with Amy Atwood and Mary Bartlett, the power couple co-founded a second acclaimed F&B company in 2018, the L.A.-based Future Gin.

As of this fall, Walmart stores in 13 states added Coolhaus cones to their freezers. Case says that the brand is shifting to even more plant-based products, using both rice milk and yellow pea-based formulas. "Now you don't have to be able to tolerate dairy to enjoy ice cream," she adds.

(l to r) Chih Lin, Mike Dorsey
(l to r) Chih Lin, Mike Dorsey  (Source: Dumpling Dudez)

Mike Dorsey and Chih Lin
Dumpling Dudez
Houston, TX

Bringing a rainbow of colors and mind-blowingly delicious and creative East-West fusion flavors to Asian-style dumplings, Dumpling Dudez was founded in 2019 by Taiwan native Lin and Texas native Dorsey. Having met in 2015 at a dumpling-making party (they legally married in 2019), and hailing from corporate backgrounds ("We were miserable in our corporate environment," Lin admits), the couple first conceived of their Houston-based company as an experiential one that replicated the fun they first bonded over.

But when the pandemic hit, they shifted from in-person workshops to retail sales of prepared, ready-to-bake dumplings for individuals and corporations, shipping nationally in some cases, along with virtual dumpling-making classes. (The required $99 kit for two includes seven varieties of dough and two types of filling for 30-40 dumplings, plus rolling pins and aprons). The pair have also become in-demand corporate keynote speakers about LGBTQ+ and BIPOC issues over the past year.

"One thing we didn't expect this year was in May, AAPI Heritage Month, we taught people how to make dumplings but also spoke about what it was like growing up Asian and being here," says Chih. "And what people can do to stop Asian hate." Going even further for their communities, in June, they donated 50 percent of their net proceeds to help LGBTQ+ homeless youth through Houston's Montrose Center.

Regarding how they divvy up responsibilities, Lin focuses on marketing while Dorsey conceives new flavors (which debut quarterly). These have included kimchi bacon cheeseburger with bulgogi sauce, ham and cheese with tomato soup-infused dough, a Mexican hot chocolate and churro-inspired "Chocolate Caliente" dessert dumpling, and the occasional ambitious failure like Skittles ("You can't taste the rainbow!" Lin admits).

On the pros and cons of being in business together, Dorsey admits, "the best and worst is he always calls me on my BS. I can't pull one over on him. I can never bluff! But it's good, too!"

Lin, meanwhile, concedes that their relationship has gotten stronger thanks to even the less-idealized realities of being together 24/7. "If we get in a fight or argument, we figure out how to work around it. The pain is good because it makes us stronger. It's a lot about learning from each other and not controlling too much."

(l to r) Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu
(l to r) Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu  (Source: Third Culture Bakery)

Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu
Third Culture Bakery
Multiple locations throughout California and Colorado

Although they've both lived in the U.S. since childhood, Indonesia-born Butarbutar and Taiwan-born Shyu bring Asian influences and flavors to their company's delectable, distinctive sweets, including a signature Original Mochi Muffin and ingredients like yuzu, ube, matcha, Vietnamese coffee, and lychee.

Initially selling goods wholesale to coffee shops in 2016, the modest two-person operation soon blossomed into a full production staff of more than 20, dozens of wholesale clients, four Third Culture Bakery brick and mortar shops, plus national shipping for select goods and merchandise. Besides addictively toothsome glutinous rice flour and butter-based varieties of gluten-free mochi donuts, mochi muffins, and brownies crafted with top-notch local and organic ingredients to customers, their product line also includes chocolate bars, teas (including small farm-sourced matcha powder and oolong), and merchandise.

The Walnut Creek, Calif., location opened in Fall 2021, with floor-to-ceiling windows designed to create a rainbow through filtered light, which Shyu says is part of their raison d'etre of "finding ways to make TCB more unapologetically gay." This mission is driven by the fact that Butarbutar's religious family disowned him when he came out; each purchase is accompanied by a postcard with the quote, "Speak your truth even if your voice shakes."

Appalled and deeply concerned about the wave of hate and violence towards the AAPI community in early 2021, the pair got proactive, assembling and donating over 22,000 free safety kits containing pepper spray, a keychain alarm, and multi-lingual instructions to organizations, facilities, and individuals in California, Colorado, and New York.

On the pros and cons of being in business together, Shyu muses, "aside from all the hair flips and dramatic fights?" while noting that navigating issues and problems while scaling up was easier (and successful) thanks to their shorthand with one another. "In those moments, it felt really nice having my partner right there," he affirms. "But you either sink or swim. Your relationship either does amazing, or ends in separation. We had to set rules and boundaries, and sometimes those were forgotten. Every friend said, don't get into business together, don't cross that line. But we still did it and trusted each other and took that leap of faith, and it worked out in our favor."

Shyu admits that before COVID, they were scoping out a possible New York City location, while L.A. will likely see its first TCB in the coming year. And they'd love to see their pastries also end up in some very specific places — and mouths. "I would f*cking die if I got our pastries on the craft table of any of Ryan Murphy's productions," Shyu admits. " 'Queer Eye' and the Fab Five. Jonathan Van Ness. Any of the 'Drag Race' queens and RuPaul. It would be amazing if we could sponsor the prize money! And Chrissy Teigen."

Lawrence Ferber's travel and arts journalism has appeared in Passport Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, New York Post, Fodors.com and other publications. Based in NYC, he is also co-writer of the 2010 gay romcom BearCity and authored its 2013 novelization.