by Karen Plourde
Rich Zia never set out to be a candle maker. Two years ago, the retired investigator from the Philadelphia Warrant Unit was just a guy with two rescue German Shepherds who burned candles to keep his Chestnut Hill home from smelling like a dog shelter.
But when a local artisan who made the soy vanilla candles he liked best moved away, Zia was left scrambling to find a substitute. After a few disappointments, he decided to see what he could make on his own. He was never able to replicate the vanilla candle but moved on to other scents, adding varieties as he went along. What started as a home craft project is now Zia Candle Company, with 27 varieties and a presence in seven stores, including both locations of Weavers Way Co-op and Top of the Hill Farm Market.
Zia, who’s in his 50s and divorced, was inspired to take candlemaking beyond his own four walls after receiving positive feedback from friends who’d visit. “There was a contrast,” he recalled. “First time they’d visit… [they’d say], ‘Sorry, I should tell you, the place stinks.’…Then I’d have that same naysayer come at a later time, and I’d say, ‘George, how does the place smell?’ He’d say, ‘It smells fantastic.’”
After a while, friends would ask Zia to make candles for them. Last October, his 21-year old daughter, Anna, encouraged him to create a website and sell candles on it. He put up an informational web page only but started to peddle the varieties he’d made around the Hill, and the company was born.
Anna, a fashion design major at Moore College of Art, manufactures the candles. They’re poured into Libbey glass and are topped with an herb, spice or seed whose scent complements that of the oil used in the candle. For instance, the pine candle is finished off with ground pine cones from the floor of the Wissahickon; the coconut candle has ground up Mahlab sour cherry pits on it.
The topping adds to the visual appeal, but Zia insists it go beyond that. “I want to make sure that they’re all safe, so everything gets a burn test first,” he said. “If it doesn’t self-extinguish, I don’t use it.”
Zia’s attention to safety led him to invent Candle Safe, a feature which keeps the glass from overheating in container candles. Candle Safe is made up of a ceramic element that is about the size of a penny. The element is elevated an eighth of an inch off the glass floor, which is convex. Because the element is ceramic, it doesn’t transmit heat. Furthermore, the distance between the wax pool and the top of the element means there’s no more uptake of wax. The bottom of the candle doesn’t get hot, so the glass won’t shatter, even if a consumer ignores the printed consumer warning to not let the candle burn down to the end.
“It’s so cool that I actually take the bottom of the glass and put it on my face to make sure there’s no heat generated,” he said. “And then I literally watch the flames go out because it doesn’t have any more fuel.”
The time it takes for a candle to go from conception to completion varies. “Like the coconut, I’ve been thinking about that for three months,” Zia said. “I have this criterion for whether or not I’m going to do something: does it make me smile? If it does, then I smile twice.”
Meanwhile, Sheik and Timba, the Shepherds who inspired Zia’s endeavor, are happy to accompany their master on his various business errands. Sheik, 8, was rescued from the Bronx; Timba, age unknown, from Brooklyn. As a result of the regular candle burning around the household, his dogs have started to smell like his candles.
Over the last year or so, Zia, who holds a couple of bachelor’s degrees from Temple University and who also went to architecture school there for a while, has gotten a crash course in marketing and business administration. He spent a few months negotiating with Bed, Bath & Beyond to get into their stores but ended up abandoning that possibility because he found their requirements too draconian. He is in the process of getting into the Whole Foods supermarket in Montgomeryville and is reaching out to other outlets. But he’s committed to moving slowly.
“At the end of the day, you have to still like what brought you to where you are at if you become very successful,” he said. “Once you start departing from that, I think it’s time to abandon ship.”
Zia Company Candles are available at both locations of Weavers Way and the Top of the Hill Farm Market in Chestnut Hill. For more information, visit zia-company.com.