You know you have a valid business idea making sugar-free, grain-free and all-natural baked goods, when you end up serving a customer the first slice of cake she’s had in 50 years.
“Fifty years is a long time,” says Michelle Moraes, co-owner of the newly opened The Butternut Baking Co. on Dundas St. W., east of Keele St.
That customer was a longtime diabetic — and wrote Moraes and business partner Chris Curtis a thank you note after eating a cake slice, which did not impact her insulin levels.
The Butternut sells baked goods based on the paleo diet, so they don’t include any grains or sugar. Many are also dairy free or completely vegan (so no eggs or dairy). So it appeals to those on a limited diet, including gluten free, ketogenic (an anti-cancer diet) and paleo.
The partners met years ago when Moraes began dating Curtis’s son Mike. “To be honest, I knew she was a keeper before I knew he was a keeper,” she jokes.
About three years ago, Curtis developed some health issues. She had worked at the Hospital for Sick Children as a physiotherapist for 35 years and used to run marathons, so she responded with action. She tried a variety of things and soon found eating the paleo diet — which focuses on close-to-nature foods our ancestors would have eaten, avoiding things like processed grains and sugars — made her feel better. “It changed everything for me,” she says.
Then Moraes tried it too, and her skin problems cleared up.
Both found eating out not terribly difficult. Except for dessert. “You can’t get a treat,” says Moraes.
Meanwhile, professionally, as Curtis was pondering retirement, Moraes was still on the hunt for a meaningful career after working mainly in offices. “I was looking for a job I was passionate about,” she recalls.
She had, however, worked on and off in bakeries, and loved being creative.
Last summer, the two of them hunkered down at the rustic Curtis family cottage and baked something new every day, thinking it could maybe lead to something.
They had a toaster oven and a miniature doughnut pan bought at a local hardware store. As an extra hurdle, there’s no running water at the cabin.
To the project, Moraes brought baking experience and a creative hand — she’s behind the gorgeously decorated treats at The Butternut. Curtis, a compulsive researcher, read up on the baking properties and health upsides of various ingredients.
“We had the time of our lives baking in our bathing suits,” says Moraes. “We fell in love with everything we did.” They posted pictures of their creations on Instagram, and Mike and father Len helped out with taste testing — and converted to paleo eating themselves.
The following fall, a friend’s mother did a private artisan market at her Rosedale home and asked the duo to sell some baked goods. The pair then did some selling at the Toronto Green Market and the Evergreen Brick Works’ Saturday market.
After seeing the street name Butternut Ave. in the east end, they took on the name — it just felt right and described favourite ingredients.
Through last winter, with the brand developing a solid client base thanks to social media and the markets, Moraes and Curtis rented this space — they both live in the Junction. Mike works in construction and helped clean out and convert the old print shop into a bright, open space. A $ 17,000 fundraising on Kickstarter helped with the costs.
They opened in mid April. While they thought they had enough goods for about four days, they sold out in hours and had to close at 4 p.m. The same thing happened at their May grand opening.
Already, the business has regular customers coming in for Mini Carnival Donuts, which sell for $ 1.50 each. The Marshmallow Brownie Squares, $ 3.50, look as pretty as they taste. New savoury items include pizza rolls ($ 3.50 for the vegetarian version) and dinner rolls ($ 18.75 for 6).
The prices are rich, reflecting the ingredients they use, some of which are pricey and hard to get in bulk — and often require extra labour to use — including cashew flour, cassava flour and coconut milk.
Everything at The Butternut respects dietary needs, but they’re not diet foods. “We don’t really care about calories,” says Moraes.
Instead, taste, looks and a respect for real ingredients drive this business.