LONGMONT— Americans have gamely tried soy substitutions for decades with varying degrees of success.
Though tofu never will pass for a T-bone steak — no matter how protein-rich and fat-poor — soy candle sales in Longmont alone brighten this product’s potential.
Mountain Essentials Etcetera co-owners Melody Jauregui and Jan Martin credit soy for launching them in late April from the 800-square foot gift shop at 668 W. Fourth Ave., then called Mountain High Essentials, to an 8,000-square foot spot at 1507 Nelson Ave.
Their zoom from hanging a shingle in February 2003 to filling orders today for Celestial Seasonings and Cabela’s has been a love/hate experience with a bumpy mix of growing pains and growing profit.
“We no longer have a business plan,” said Mead resident Jauregui, 37. “We no longer have time to sit around and revise the business plan.”
Since January, she said, the debt-free company has grown 50 percent monthly.
The ramped-up workload is especially taxing since the two still hand-pour every candle with 8-cup Pyrex glass pitchers. That is after heating small batches of wax and scents in standard Presto deep-frying pots and makeshift electric chafing pans. They then center the wicks in jars and tins with clothespins placed across the rims before the wax cools.
The 2-ounce votive candles, on the other hand, must cool first. Then the duo use a hammer and nails to create a wick hole before threading each one.
Last week, Mountain Essentials Etcetera poured 1,500 candles along with 1,200 votives.
“We’re very blessed,” Jauregui said, with a weary smile.
“Blessed and stressed,” said Brighton resident Martin, 40.
The overnight success, like most, took them off guard — especially since they considered soy candles an afterthought. They figured on spending $2,000 each for makeshift equipment, wax, wicks, scents, jars and tins to clear $200 each for monthly shopping sprees, Martin said.
In reality, it took tapping $40,000 of life savings and pouring buckets of sweat equity into the enterprise to make it go, they said.
Both cooked 40 fragrances of soy candles in their basements and boxed orders on the gift- shop floor at midnight. They lugged hundreds of candles thousands of miles to regional craft shows every weekend last fall and winter and got their husbands to convert their garages into glass warehouses.
In January, it all took off, they said. That is when they launched a home-party division similar to the tier-structure sales opportunities offered by Avon and Pampered Chef, which has attracted 60 consultants in nine states.
Shortly thereafter, a sales representative organization started peddling the candles without waiting to sign a contract and brought Cabela’s on board with enthusiasm.
“The CEO said, ‘Why are we selling fru-fru candles when we could be selling this?’” Martin said. The privately labeled tins will include manly man scents like pine.
Celestial Seasoning signed on after Mountain Essentials matched the fragrance of a freshly opened box of its best-selling tea — Sleepy Time.
In April, four tea-inspired fragrances in privately labeled candle tins debuted for $9.99 at the Boulder headquarters store with online sales pending.
“I am so excited, so happy and so jealous of these women,” said Andrea Butler, the Celestial Seaonsings buyer who bought into the concept. “It’s everyone’s dream to start such a great item on their kitchen table.”
Ultimately, however, it seems Jauregui and Martin knew where to place their bets.
“It’s a better candle, plain and simple,” said Michael Bryja, Indianapolis-based Indiana Soy Bean Board spokesman. “They burn more completely and they don’t leave the black carbon soot on the (candle) glass, the walls, the curtains and your lungs.”
Besides burning cleaner than paraffin, soy wax burns almost twice as long. It also offers more “scent throw” — fragrance strength — because soy’s lower melting point creates a bigger puddle of melted wax, the key to fragrance strength, he said.
Challenges remain. In the past two months, soy prices jumped from $5 to $10 a bushel, Jauregui said. And soaring steel prices have created a threefold increase in tins this spring.
Yet, soy candles continue edging-in on the annual $2 billion U.S. candle industry, Bryja said.
Only 10 years have passed, he said, since a Purdue University professor and his students introduced soy wax for a New Uses contest sponsored by the Indiana Soy Bean Board. The group’s edible birthday candle project resulted in two soy wax patents in 2001, which will help standardize the new industry, he said.
“The National Candle Association has been slow to become cheerleaders for soy candles because paraffin has been king for so long,” Bryja said.
“But there’s a new kid on the block, and consumers want this better candle.”
And most can have it.
“Even when the economy is bad, it’s a luxury you can afford,” Martin said.
“It’s like comfort food,” Jauregui said.