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10 Years in a Flash

Owner and founder Adam McFarlin poses inside the Kalamazoo Candle Co.’s storefront in downtown Kalamazoo.
After a decade, Kalamazoo Candle Co. continues to shine

For a business that started in a crockpot 10 years ago, Kalamazoo Candle Co.‘s growth has been anything but a slow burn.

Adam McFarlin’s business venture has been a glowing success — from producing his first candle in a slow cooker in the single room he rented in 2013 to now having four storefronts, selling his products in large grocery stores around the Midwest such as Whole Foods, and making custom candles for customers that include Papa John’s (garlic sauce candle, anyone?).

McFarlin, who in 2016 quit a day job working for a nonprofit to run the candle company full time, says his time working in nonprofits prepared him for the world of small business. “I would actually say the thing that helped me the most from the nonprofit world is the fact that nonprofits and small businesses are basically the same, because there was no profit in this company for a while,” he says, laughing.

Kalamazoo Candle Co. has become a staple of downtown Kalamazoo over the last decade. After selling candles in a handful of stores and at farmers markets, McFarlin moved production to a studio in the Park Trades Center. As he began to experience success, the candle-making company expanded to include additional employees.

“We moved to two other spaces in the Park Trades Center. At the last one, we ended up having to add storage next to the loading dock just because we just kept needing more and more space,” McFarlin says.

In 2018, Kalamazoo Candle Co. moved production again, this time to a 5,700-square-foot warehouse elsewhere in Kalamazoo. But for McFarlin the thought of leaving downtown Kalamazoo was bittersweet.

“I realized I was going to miss the connection to downtown and the vibrancy of Kalamazoo,” he says, “but I never wanted to have a retail store. I kind of actually fought that idea because it was suggested over and over and over to me that I should have a store.”

McFarlin opened his brick-and-mortar storefront at 166 S. Kalamazoo Mall in July 2018, the first of what has become four storefronts — the others are in South Haven, Portage and Byron Center. His downtown location also expanded over the years to sell other goods like body soap, car fresheners and accessories and to offer the popular Make Your Own Candle experience, in which customers choose their own scent and pour their own personalized candles. There’s a children’s version too, using granulated wax rather than hot, melted wax to create a candle.

Earlier this year Kalamazoo Candle Co. grew again. It moved into an even larger warehouse in Portage and bought 42 Naturals, a company that sells handcrafted bath and body products at stores in South Haven, Saugatuck and St. Joseph. Like Kalamazoo Candle Co., 42 Naturals offers a make-your-own experience with scents and soaps. McFarlin says the two companies’ South Haven stores will combine into one at 335 Center St. that will carry the full range of both businesses’ products, while the other Kalamazoo Candle Co. and 42 Naturals stores will stay separate but sell the other’s product lines. All the stores will have the make-your-own experience for customers.

“We’re hoping to unify those processes so that you can walk into any of these locations, make a candle, make a bar of soap, make a body butter, and have this whole holistic experience that’s really easy,” says McFarlin. “We’re going to offer more customization so, say, for a wedding or a corporate gift, people can come into the store and create their own specific fragrance with a custom label.”

Custom product offerings are key to Kalamazoo Candle Co.’s business. It has produced unique candles for many companies, including the Berkeley Bowl and Fresh Thyme grocery stores, Big Moods Stickers, the hat and apparel company Stormy Kromer, and the pizza chain Papa John’s, as well as for nonprofit organizations such as Alliance for the Great Lakes and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

McFarlin says Papa John’s requested a candle that smells like its signature Garlic Butter Sauce. Making custom scents is a long process and takes many tries, he says. It took making more than 40 batches before the Papa John’s candle measured up to Kalamazoo Candle Co.’s standards for scent.

“Our fragrances are honest and true. Like when somebody smells a magnolia candle, they’re like, ‘Yeah, that smells exactly like magnolia.’ It doesn’t smell fake,” says McFarlin. “A lot of candles out there, you can smell — I can’t even qualify it in words — but it’s just fake.”

Despite the growth, McFarlin says the company continues to handcraft each candle, avoiding using machinery that would replace the human touch.

“We still make everything by hand. If you came into our warehouse, we’d be putting labels on by hand, we’d be doing everything by hand, so our prices are higher than the mass-produced conveyor-belt candles,” says McFarlin. “I have to be upfront and point out that’s the difference. Our prices are higher because you’re employing people in Michigan, in Kalamazoo, to make these things.”

As the company’s footprint expands, McFarlin says, he is unable to separate it from Kalamazoo, and not just because it’s part of his company’s name.

“I think that I owe all the success of Kalamazoo Candle to this community and the support that we get,” he says. “Without all the support that we’ve gotten over the years, none of this would be possible. It’d still be just me in the Park Trades Center.”

Jarret Whitenack

An intern at Encore, Jarret hails from Oregon, where he recently graduated from Portland State University with a degree in history.

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