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“I went viral within the hour”: This Toronto bake shop owner turned to TikTok and her business boomed

“I posted a reel right before I went to the gym. By the time my session was done, it was viral”

By Marchelle McKenzie, as told to Kate Dingwall| Photography by Ryan Nangreaves
“I went viral within the hour”: This Toronto bake shop owner turned to TikTok and her business boomed

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Marchelle McKenzie’s baking business, Butter and Spice, started the same way many pandemic businesses do: she was out of a job, and the city was in lockdown, so she started a one-woman virtual bakery, delivering her cardamom buns and fudgy brownies to customers across the city.   She had Michelin-star credentials but no marketing budget, so McKenzie started coaxing in new customers with TikToks showcasing treats or sharing the hurdles of running a small business.   Then she went viral. Within an hour of posting an impromptu video, she had customers streaming into her east-end shop. Hundreds of thousands of views later, business has boomed. But the biggest benefit? Her TikTok account has helped her connect with the community.

Butter and Spice owner Marchelle McKenzie poses with a chocolate cake

I grew up in Toronto, but in 2012, I moved to New York to start my career at the Culinary Institute of America, in the baking and pastry program. After I graduated, I worked in various Michelin-star restaurants around the world, like Eleven Madison Park in New York and Restaurant Story in London, England.

In 2019, I was still working in London when I decided to take a trip to visit my parents, who were living in Malaysia at the time. Then the pandemic hit. Borders were closed. I was stuck in Malaysia for six months with no way to get home.

In the summer of 2020, I finally made it back to Toronto. But the hospitality industry was shut down. I needed to make money—I needed to find a job.

I had hit that point in my life when I needed to figure out what was next. I’d just come back from living abroad, and I knew it was time to put some roots down and start my own business. So I got a part-time job working in a North York bakery to make ends meet, but in September of 2020, I started my pandemic baby, Butter and Spice, a virtual bakery.

My baking style is a little bit of everything. I have Michelin-star training, but I’ve also worked at bread bakeries—mostly I just make stuff I want to eat. If I’m in the mood for savoury croissants or sweet cupcakes, I make them. But I also make brownies. Toronto has so many cookie shops, croissant shops and doughnut shops, but no brownie shops! I decided that I wanted to be the one to bring gourmet brownies to the city.

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Marchelle McKenzie, owner of Butter and Spice bakery, decorates a tray of brownies with icing
One of the team members at Butter and Spice bakery cuts a tray of brownies
A tray of brownies at Butter and Spice, a Toronto bakery with two locations

In the beginning, I would make my Butter and Spice deliveries before and after my shifts at the bakery. I was working wild hours—lots of early mornings and late nights. My mom stepped in and told me that, if Butter and Spice was my calling, I should commit to it 100 per cent, because only then would the business grow.

Those were the words I needed to hear. A year into the business, I quit my part-time job at the bakery and committed to Butter and Spice.

As predicted by my mom, Butter and Spice flourished. I spend every waking hour pouring myself into my business. I feel like it’s the healthiest—yet also probably the least healthy—way to operate. But I’m working for myself and doing what I love.

I didn’t start taking TikTok seriously until about this time last year. The app had been on my radar since 2020, but I thought it was just for kids making dance videos during the pandemic. I’m a millennial—Why would I need to use TikTok? What did the app have to offer me?

But the more research I did, the more I saw other businesses around the world using TikTok as a catalyst for attracting customers and increasing their sales.

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The exterior of the west-end location of Butter and Spice, which they share with Death in Venice Gelato

By this point, we had two small locations and a delivery business. Our set-up is unconventional. In the west end, we’re located in the basement of Death in Venice, a gelato shop. It’s cohesive—we’re often inspired by their gelato, and they put our brownies in their display cases so customers can purchase them. Gelato and brownies are an excellent combination.

In the east end, we have another shared kitchen at Mess Hall Collective, a collaborative workspace for food entrepreneurs. They brought me in to run the front of house, so I’m responsible for the pastry case. Meanwhile, they handle coffee, and Magpie Bakery offers baking classes in the back.

One of the reasons I finally started a TikTok account was because our east-end location was located in a space that used to sell—wait for it—gourmet dog food. When we first opened, I was handing out brownie samples on the sidewalk, and people thought it was dog food. I knew I needed to get myself out there more—if only to tell people that we made treats for human consumption.

So I downloaded TikTok. I went in not knowing how to use the app or edit a video. But I’d open it every day to film moments, trying to figure out what my niche would be and what felt natural for my business. I started filming everything—just super-quick behind-the-scenes videos. Honestly, you have to show up every day on the app for the algorithm to reward you. You have to post every single day, even when views are low—like, five-views low. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone a lot.

Then it happened: one of our videos did well—really well.

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I filmed it in my car. It was a video of me talking about how hard it was to get customers to come out to our east-end location. I didn’t know if I’d ever use the clip—I was upset when I filmed it—but I’ve been getting in the habit of filming everything I can, just in case.

A few weeks later, around mid-August, I posted that video one morning right before I went to the gym. By the time my session was done, it had gone viral. I was shocked at the speed. I immediately went over to the store to tell my manager to prepare for more customers. I thought maybe the next day would be busy and that more people would trickle in over the week.

But, by the time I drove to the shop, we already had people coming in saying they had seen the video. We sold out of everything that day. We went from seeing a handful of people walk into our shop to having over 100 customers a day. It’s been busy.

I’m a one-person show, right? Yes, I have staff who help during the day, but everything I know about business is what I’ve learned in the past three years. I don’t have a business degree. I don’t know how to do these things—building a website, marketing—off the bat. I’m learning as I go.

I now have people reaching out to me and offering helpful pointers about how I can keep growing my business. They’ve shown us—in the kindest way possible—where we have holes. We didn’t even realize that we hadn’t listed all of our locations on our website until someone reached out to tell us.

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A team member at Butter and Spice, a Toronto bakery, pipes icing onto brownies
A chocolate, brownie-topped cake at Butter and Spice, a Toronto bakery
Cookies and a tart from Toronto bakery Butter and Spice

Since I uploaded that video, so many people have come into our store to let us know they’re excited to have us in the neighbourhood. The community has been so supportive. Many people who saw the viral video then shared it in our local Facebook groups to keep getting the word out. I didn’t realize the strength of the online community until now.

I think TikTok works because viewers find us relatable. Gone are the days when we worshipped celebrities. Now, people are looking up to creators—regular people down the street who are doing something cool or just being themselves. I talk a lot about my vulnerability in my TikTok reels, and I’ve spoken to a lot of other small business owners struggling with the same hurdles I’ve faced. I’ve also received so many messages from people saying they wanted to start their own business but weren’t sure how, and that our videos helped them.

Next up, I’m going to be more intentional with our messaging on TikTok. We’ve learned that we can’t post a video of a particular baked good if we don’t have enough stock—there’s no point getting people excited about something if there’s not enough to go around. And we’re bringing more creators into our east-end space—we’ve recently hosted pop-ups with POPpadum and Lami by Mama Linda’s. Now that Butter and Spice has gone viral and we have everyone’s attention, I want to keep it.

Butter and Spice, 1418 Dundas St. W. (inside Death in Venice Gelato) and 1125 Gerrard St. E. (inside Mess Hall Collective), butterandspice.ca, @butterandspicebakeshop

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