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Mastering the art of making macarons is no easy feat. Mild-mannered siblings Calvin and Tina Su had almost as much difficulty launching Butter Avenue, a pâtisserie and café in one of Toronto’s toniest neighbourhoods, near Yonge and Lawrence.
Their specialty is the perfect macaron, a small, colourful French dessert that’s challenging the cupcake as the perfect treat or gift for the sweet at heart. The meringue-based confections are small, clean to eat and carry a level of sophistication with which other desserts can’t compete.
Ms. Su, the younger of the siblings, has worked at bakeries in France, and further pursued her education in the pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu’s institute in Ottawa. She made macarons at home for Calvin and his friends who thought they were good enough to sell.
“The macarons she made were the best I’ve ever tasted, so we started a Facebook page and an online shop to sell them,” says Mr. Su, who was working as a corporate account manager for FedEx Corp. before joining his sister. With a background in economics, Mr. Su says he always wanted to run his own business.
“One day we were talking and the timing was just right. We were in our late 20s and we wanted to take a risk before we hit our 30s,” Mr. Su says.
They took a year to do market research and build a fan base online. With a simple online shop and social media efforts, they started getting orders from people who had found them on Google searches.
Butter Avenue has expanded to a second outlet in Toronto, on trendy Queen Street West. (Quintessential Co.)
“We had to jump at the opportunity when we saw it,” says Mr. Su, who decided to quit his full-time job just before the store’s launch in 2011 to manage the sales and operation side while Ms. Su worked in the kitchen.
“We had only 10 fans on Facebook when we started, and within two years, we had 10,000 fans and after four years, we now have almost 20,000 fans. It really helped to have existing clients when we first opened shop,” Ms. Su notes.
However, being their own bosses came with its own growing pains and sleepless nights.
“When a client asked for 5,000 macarons delivered within just three days, I had no choice but to work overnight because I still had to produce macarons for the regular customers at the store,” Ms. Su says. Although Mr. Su has no kitchen experience, he would bring dinner and talk about strategy with Ms. Su on those nights.
They found the early days to be the most challenging because they were both new at being entrepreneurs and having to wear many hats.
“As owners, when there is a problem, we have to fix it ourselves.” Ms. Su says. For example, “… When contractors asked us where we wanted to install the oven, we had no idea but we had to figure it out.”
Some siblings would be frightened at the thought of working together, but these two say they’ve always gotten along well, even from an early age.
“We’ve never had a fight with work, only some arguments,” Ms. Su says.
“It took us three months to finally agree on our packaging design and at least a month to decide on the shade of yellow we use in our branding,” Mr. Su says.
As equal partners, they invested their own savings and bank loans to open Butter Avenue. The elegant shop has had steady growth since its launch and was profitable within two years.
Their quick growth may come from having a very clear division of labour. Mr. Su focuses on corporate sales and organizing pop-up shops in partnership with brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Jimmy Choo and Holt Renfrew, which is one of their most frequent corporate clients. With Mr. Su on board, Ms. Su says she can bake without the burnout that many new entrepreneurs face, especially after opening. Ms. Su typically starts her day in the kitchen at 6 a.m.
They shut down each year for a week in January to give themselves a mental break because they are in this for the long haul.
“We want to become a global brand, and have our stores all over Canada, U.S., and Asia,” Mr. Su says with conviction.
They are definitely taking steps toward fulfilling that dream, having recently opened their second location on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto.
What is the sweetest part of running their own business? “We feel most rewarded when people we never met have heard of us, and understand our brand,” Ms. Su says.