Kelley Major and C.J. Graaf embody the strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit that has come to define Greater Hazleton residents and put the area on the map as one of the best places to do business. In just four years, Major and Graaf have combined their passion for making all-natural, hand-poured soy candles with hard work and dedication to grow into an international business shipping upwards of 200 candles a day. With the company continuing to expand, Candelles became the newest tenant of the CAN BE Business Innovation Center in the Valmont Industrial Park in early November. CAN BE is a subsidiary of CAN DO, Greater Hazleton’s economic development organization.
Candelles, which has been featured as part of Good Morning America’s “Deals and Steals” segment twice in the past two years, started as a hobby in the couple’s home. Major loved making candles for herself and enjoyed selling them in small batches on Etsy, an e-commerce site for people who create homemade products. In July of 2013, the hobby became a mission when Major’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. In an effort to raise money for her treatment, Major and Graaf put the production into overdrive and made candles in several of her grandmother’s favorite scents. Her grandmother passed away just a month after her diagnosis but the duo decided to continue making candles and it quickly accelerated into a business.
“After my grandmother passed away, I tried to keep it going as a happy process and C.J. started helping me pour all of the candles because the business got so crazy,” Major said. “Eventually, he quit his job and started pouring candles full time and I left my job to handle the marketing end. Through making those small batches and selling them on Etsy, I saw that I loved doing it and wanted to grow the business. In under a year, we moved to selling the candles from our own website, www.candelles.com.”
When Major and Graaf decided to turn the hobby into a business at the end of 2013, they used their home as their initial business space. “We started making the candles out of our house. We started on a folding table in the kitchen and used that and our counters for storage. Our combined living room/dining room was our production space,” Graaf said.
Major added, “We moved into an office in Hazleton in November of 2015 but we quickly started outgrowing our space. It really saved us being here at CAN BE. We have space to get more tables and shelves and CAN DO is working with us and said we can expand our current space and make it bigger if we need to.”
Major and Graaf discovered CAN BE through Jocelyn Sterenchock, CAN DO’s coordinator of entrepreneurial services, when they announced to their social media followers that they were looking for a bigger production space. Major said Sterenchock went above and beyond to accommodate their needs and was instrumental in Candelles moving into CAN BE.
“It was very easy working with Jocelyn. We were able to have meetings with her whenever we needed to. She’s a very motivating person and she was actually more excited than even we were and she did a lot to get us excited about the space,” Major said. “We talked with her, came to see the space and signed a lease all within two weeks. She made us excited to be here and deal with moving our manufacturing facilities. This was a huge opportunity for us.”
Major said CAN BE is an ideal space for entrepreneurs because of the amount of support small business owners receive at every stage of their business journey.
“The support CAN BE offers is great. Jocelyn is not just our landlord, she’s there to help. We’re going to meet with her quarterly to talk about our business goals and we can talk to her whenever we need help with things like obtaining permits and licensing,” Major said.
Sterenchock said, “We are thrilled to have Candelles as our newest tenant at the CAN BE Business Innovation Center. They’re the perfect business candidate to put in our incubator. Just celebrating their fourth anniversary, they needed more space to manufacture their candles due to their immense growth in 2017 and we couldn’t be better suited for their needs. It is our hope that through our business incubation program, we will be able to help Kelley and C.J. grow Candelles even more. Our program offers on-site business coaching, mentoring programs and even a plug into the local universities for interns. These resources are ideal for helping a youthful startup business reach that pivotal five-year mark.”
Candelles is now operating out of an 860 square-foot space in CAN BE, where the company will handle all the production and shipping of their 9 oz. and 16 oz. jar candles. Graaf said they produce approximately 15 dozen candles every day and have done as many as 20-30 dozen candles in a day leading up to the holiday shopping season. They can prepare a batch of candles and have them ready to ship within 24 hours. Major said the company is proud to offer a healthy and more effective alternative to traditional candles.
“A typical candle uses paraffin wax, which has toxic chemicals in it. That’s why the smoke is black when they burn. Soy candles are cleaner-based. We use all-natural fragrances and lead-free wicks. The 16 oz. candle will burn an average of 80-120 hours, compared to 10-15 hours for a regular candle of the same size.”
Major said they market the company primarily through Instagram and have nearly 31,000 followers to their page. In addition to selling the candles online through candelles.com, Major cold-called wholesale clients and built that aspect of the business through word of mouth. Candelles candles are available at boutique shops and major retail outlets, including Hallmark and Lord & Taylor, in more than 30 states nationwide, as well as internationally in Nova Scotia, England and Japan. The company’s May appearance on Good Morning America as part of a Small Business Week segment that was filmed in Philadelphia brought further interest to the business.
Moving into CAN BE isn’t Major’s first experience with CAN DO. She served as a member of the CAN DO Student Action Committee as a junior at Hazleton Area High School during the 2008-09 school year. Both Major and Graaf are Hazleton Area graduates. Major said she learned many things about business during her time with the Student Action Committee that she is applying now as a business owner and operator.
“My main focus in high school was business classes. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I took a lot of business and entrepreneurship classes in high school. As a Student Action Committee member, seeing how CAN DO created policies and procedures and seeing a board come together and vote on things as a team are all things that I brought into this business.”
Major reflected on coming full circle from serving as a CAN DO student board member to now occupying a space in CAN BE and said she is “grateful” for the opportunity to build her business here. “It’s funny how life comes around,” she said.