TikTok sparks growth for Sparta Candle Co.
SPARTA, N.C. — Who knows why a video featuring a 70-year-old Sparta man wearing an Allman Brothers T-shirt and cutting a bar of peaches-and-cream soap registered 9 million views on TikTok?
Maybe it was his soothing voice, his tender story of his late wife’s love of peaches or the inexplicable calming effect of watching him slice a colorful bar of soap into dozens of pieces. Whatever it was about that 40-second video of Duane Swenk, it has turned him into a minor TikTok star and led thousands of customers to Sparta Candle Co., a candle- and soap-making business that his daughter Jennifer Swenk started three years ago in a spare bedroom.
Fueled in large part by the business’ TikTok videos, the company has tripled sales, doubled its workforce from four to eight fulltime employees and added more work space over the last eight months, while bringing fresh, youthful energy to this mountain town of 1,700 people.
One customer told Swenk he traveled from Orlando, Fla., to the shop on Main Street in Sparta, based on his love of the videos.
“It’s been a crazy year for sure,” Jennifer Swenk said the other day inside the stylish and contemporary retail space that some folks have said reminds them of Rose Apothecary from the Netflix show “Schitt’s Creek.”
That similarity, of course, became fodder for one of their daily TikTok videos.
A 30-year-old who studied social media marketing in college, Jennifer Swenk was savvy enough to know that pushing fun, original content onto social media was the best way to grow her business and connect with young audiences.
She didn’t anticipate that it would explode the way it has.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to the videos on what hits,” she said.
Swenk stumbled into candle-making and later, soap-making, after her mother learned she had late-stage breast cancer. A longtime candle lover, her mother wanted to switch to burning soy candles after her diagnosis but couldn’t find any for sale in the Sparta area.
So Swenk, working in real estate at the time, decided to learn how to make them.
“It was a lot of googling and YouTube university,” Swenk said.
Friends and family loved the hand-poured candles, giving Swenk the courage and confidence to start selling at pop-up shops, including the Muddy Creek Music Hall and Cafe, a block down Main Street.
From there, Swenk set up at farmers markets and festivals. But that was a tough road.
“It’s so much work. It’s getting your name out there, and I’m glad I went through it,” she said. “But to be out there on a 100-degree day and not really sell anything? I don’t miss it.”
During the pandemic shutdown, Swenk learned that TikTok usage was up as more people flocked to the platform for a laugh and to while away the time.
That planted a seed in Swenk. After opening a retail shop on Main Street in 2021, Swenk continued to explore ways to spread the word about the business beyond its website and Instagram page.
Earlier this year, she and her staff began making videos to put on TikTok.
“We made so much random content to see what would stick,” Swenk recalled. “And nothing was doing well.”
Her secret weapon turned out to be her dad, Duane.
Retired from jobs in construction and business consulting, her soft-spoken father projected a sort of folksy charm that connected with TikTok users.
The team made 25 or so videos that failed to land. Then one day in the spring, Duane appeared in a video cutting up a block of soap. There really wasn’t much more to it.
“People were just so into it, and we tried to expand on that,” Swenk said. “It’s really just about trying stuff and not being self-conscious. Eventually, if you do enough, something will stick.”
From there, “Cutting Up with Duane,” a weekly segment featuring Duane, was launched. They are the most popular of the business’ videos.
Sporting sandals, shorts and a band T-shirt — the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic and the Allman Brothers are well-represented — Duane spins a short tale in his gentle voice then signs off with a big, friendly wave.
In a recent video, Duane waxed nostalgic about how the star- and moon-shaped pieces embedded in a bar of soap called the Millennial, reminded him of the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of his daughters’ childhood bedroom.
“Half of what I talk about is sentimental and the other half is silly,” said Duane, who is not above dressing as a mermaid for a video.
Of all the videos, about 10 have reached in excess of 500,000 views, Swenk said. Meanwhile, the number of TikTok followers has grown from about 300 in the spring to about 445,000.
As a result, the business expanded into a space beneath the retail shop, where all the soap is made, packaged and shipped across the country. Its online sales now make up 70% of its business, surpassing Swenk’s expectations.
Many of the candles and soap pay homage to the area with products named after the Little River, Muddy Creek, Roaring Gap, Mahogany Rock and High Country. Scents range from earthy to floral to fun, such as Brownie Batter and Soda Fountain.
Local downtown merchants have taken note of how Sparta Candle used social media to build brand awareness, according to Lisa Bottomley, the executive director of the Alleghany Chamber for Economic Development. A workshop on how businesses can use TikTok and other social media platforms to boost their business profile is in the works, she said.
She credited the shop with drawing people to Sparta. Once in town, they may stop at a restaurant or pop into other shops.
Shana Whitehead, one of the owners of Muddy Creek Cafe and Music Hall, has seen proof of that. Recently, she noticed someone in her restaurant with a bag from the candle shop.
“She was traveling from Atlanta to Virginia and knew the shop had to be on the way,” Whitehead said. “It’s fun to see that people are making it a destination to see a cute, little candle shop.”
On a broader scale, Swenk’s success serves as a model for other young entrepreneurs in the area, Bottomley said.
“Some people think you have to move away, and this shows you can build something at home if you want to stay,” she said. “She paid attention to trends and what was fueling other businesses and is a great example of what happens when you do the work.”
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