Photo: Legally blind for two decades, Dennis Kulbert hasn’t allowed his handicap to stop him from pursuing his passions and finding love. (SCOTT LINESBURGH/STOCKTONIA)
Life throws us a bluebird sometimes. That’s what an old friend calls it when, out of the blue, something unexpectedly good happens.
This happened while researching the latest edition of “A Slice of Stockton.” It ended up turning into a rather large sweet slice, in this case, a story within a story.
During an interview with Dennis Kulbert, the owner of Sunset Sweets ice cream shop, he leaned in and said “before we go any further I want to tell you something. Sometimes it may not seem that I am looking at you when you are talking. I don’t want you to think I’m not listening. I just can’t see you.”
His crystal blue eyes were clear as ever. but he said “at 17 I was diagnosed with Stargardt Macular Degeneration. Been legally blind for 20 years. I can see the shadow or outline of your face but no details.”
This diagnosis may have been a reason to lay idle for some people, but it had the opposite effect on Kulbert, 69. He became involved in developing single family homes and learned how to frame and build. He decided he better “get while the gettin’ is good.” With the help of great friends and partners he learned carpentry skills and put it all to memory.
In 2007, Kulbert was working in Sacramento with his business partner refurbishing a car wash they were going to sell. He went to a nail salon weekly and became friends with the owner, a Vietnamese woman named Nina. He told her he was planning a trip to Thailand with his business partner and she said you should really consider Vietnam.
“It is so beautiful and I have family there who would love to help you and show you the sights.” she said. Kulbert ran this idea past his friend and they agreed on a trip to Vietnam.
When the two arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, eleven of Nina’s relatives greeted them at the airport. Enter “Tuyen, the cutest of Nina’s cousins,” said Kulbert. Understanding his visual challenges, Tuyen Duong paid extra attention to him.
“Tuyen stayed by my side for five days explaining the sights and telling me what I was eating,” Kulbert said. “Her English was minimal, but we got along just fine and I (thought) she is someone very special.”
Kulbert and his friend continued on their tour of Vietnam but stopped back to see Nina’s family before they departed. He returned a month later to visit Tuyen, and stayed a month. Six trips to Ho Chi Minh City in a year. They were in love.
“Twice we were denied Visitor Visas for Tuyen by the US Embassy,” he said. “In 2009 we applied for a 90 day Fiancee Visa, and were approved. On the 89th day, we were married at Harvey’s Hotel in Lake Tahoe with Nina as our witness.”
Tuyen settled in, learned English, began baking with a vengeance and the two of them opened Sunset Sweets in Lodi. They sold the shop during Covid and between 2020-2022 they designed and built the space of their current location at 6649 Embarcadero Dr. at Village West Marina, nestled nicely between Garlic Brothers and Bob’s At the Marina.
Kulbert further explained that the interior dimensions of Sunset Sweets are the exact size of his garage at home. He was able to construct the shop’s framework, cabinets, shelves, countertops, and menu boards in their garage and then install them in the new space. Tuyen took charge of the interior design characteristics and color coordination.
“Of course my contractor friends helped me with many details. And the one area everyone asks me to stay away from is the painting,” Dennis said with a grin.
Tuyen’s Mother Minh arrived from Vietnam this spring and took over making the waffles cones and assisting with baking. Shop manager Destiny Stretton started at the Lodi location and remains a valued employee. She oversees daily operations while attending Delta College. Kulbert likes to put it another way: “Destiny is taking business classes at Sunset Sweets.”
Multiple tasty delights are offered all day long at Sunset Sweets. Trail Coffee leads the way, with a variety of beverages. Only Gunther’s Premium Ice Cream is served in the sundaes, floats, shakes, waffle cones and scoops of all sizes. Add in Tuyen’s freshly baked scones, Oreo and peanut butter brownies, cookies, banana bread, smoothies, acai bowls and you have scrumptious goodies to satisfy cravings from sunrise to sunset.
Dennis Kulbert works as the front man, official greeter and ice cream scooper and says “this is a great business. It’s a happy place. People come in happy, they leave happy.”
How sweet it is.