We spoke with P.F. Candle Co.’s Kristen Pumphrey, the woman behind those iconic amber candles
When you walk off a humming East Los Angeles street and into the P.F. Candle Co. factory, you are hit with a certain scent. It’s not industrial or chemical-clean, but the exact opposite. The warehouse air is welcoming, a mixture of something that’s fireplace-cozy-yet-nature-after-rain. A walk through Northeastern woods while you’re simultaneously curled up on a familiar sofa.
When you stroll through a trendy neighborhood boutique or even a store of the masses like Urban Outfitters, you may come across one of these iconic amber candles. You likely imagine this product being churned out of a giant machine somewhere, being pumped full of wax and labelled and jarred. However, much like the fragrance that permeates P.F. Candle Co.’s headquarters, these candles are all heart. Actual humans cultivate these candles — some of which benefit other actual humans — and the company began as an Etsy shop, created by owner Kristen Pumphrey.
Not only did Kristen kindly give us a tour of P.F.’s home, she also agreed to discuss all things entrepreneurship and inspiration — and yes, candles.
HelloGiggles (HG): For all the women out there who want to start their own businesses, what would your advice be?
Kristen Pumphrey (KP): I think something that really helped me was having other small business owner friends who I could bounce things off. We’ve grown our businesses together and [ask about] everything from hiring to pricing to even just, “Hey, do you know this store? How are they to work with?” It’s been really wonderful to have somebody to bounce those off. That can be looked at like a mentor relationship, but honestly, having someone on the same level is even better because you’re going through the same stuff.
HG: You began this journey after being laid off from your publishing job. Is there anything specific that helped you bounce back?
KP: I was 22, so part of the reason I was able to bounce back is because I was just so young. It’s like, “Okay. On to the next thing.” But looking back, this had been my dream since…The publishing company I worked at was all craft-focused. And I was writing about people who were making a living making things, so in the back of my head while I’m writing these pieces, I’m like, “This is what I want to do.”
When the V.P. called me in, I had been dreaming in the back of my head: “Maybe I’ll just leave New York and move to Austin, because there’s a big DIY scene there.” So, she said, “Well, what are you gonna do now?” And I’m like, “I guess I’ll move to Austin and start a small business.”
But looking back, [I was] so young. Now, I think that it’s scarier as I get older and the stakes get higher. But in the same sense, getting laid off is not the end. Especially getting laid off. Because it’s not necessarily a reflection of your performance, or how the company even feels about you. So you can kinda turn it into an opportunity.
HG: What was that process like for you? Was there a certain turning point after you moved to Austin?
KP: Yeah, I had started a blog first. Like a Blogspot blog. And it still exists, and it’s why my company is called Pommes Frites. So it’s a play on my last name, and this is gonna date me, but it was my Myspace name: Kristen Pommes Frites. So I called my blog that, not really thinking it’d turn into a company one day. So it started with a blog, posting about the DIY stuff I was doing. Then I started an Etsy shop. But even from the beginning, I was really clear that I wanted to run a business.
This is a fun thing for people who wanna start a small business: P.F. is successful now, but I actually started another small business first with a friend that just fizzled out within a matter of months. We had different ideas where I was like, “I really wanna do this business,” and she really wanted to have fun with it. So we ended up just going separate ways. And she’s a really talented musician, so it worked out…I kinda did all the official steps. I registered as a small business in Texas with the sales tax board, started the Etsy shop. I wanted to be legit from the beginning, and I think that I’ve always treated myself like a bigger business than we were, because it also tricks people into thinking that.
When we were really small and got our first West Elm order, we could not handle it. It was out of my second bedroom in Long Beach and I was like, “Yeah, I can totally do that order.” No. I had no place to put it. And it was so many units, but just kind of pretending that we were bigger than we were helped us get there.
HG: I feel like, for a lot of people who are in the craft circuit, the business side is really intimidating. How did you go about approaching that?
KP: I read a lot. It kinda came naturally to me to develop it not just as a product, but to develop how all the products I made worked together and were…I don’t like to use the word “brand” because I think people rely on that a lot, but kind of the look and the aesthetic and the vibe of everything. From the beginning, I would do my craft fair setups, and I would not use just the typical table. I’d put shelves up or I’d use vintage suitcases, so I was kind of on that trend of creating the whole world of the company.
In terms of the business side of things, I’ve really learned as I go. And when [my husband and business partner] Tom came on board in 2013, he has some managerial experience, but he actually had corporate retail experience, worked at Best Buy for seven years. And he was able to give me the logistical back-end, which I was very grateful for. So my thing is if you don’t know it, either look it up, ask a friend, or hire somebody who can do it.
HG: When it comes to your candle design, where did you get your inspiration from? I walk into a store and I’m like, “Oh, I see your design right there.” It’s so iconic.
KP: The way that this look was launched in 2012, I just wanted it to look unisex. It was apothecary-inspired, also utilitarian, but I wanted to be able to do it myself. So it was originally a stamp. And I would interchange the letters myself for every single candle that we sold…For about a year.
That’s actually how Tom came on board. During the holidays, I would be trying to make all of my products for a show, and he was studying for school and I’m like, “I don’t have enough…I need help.” So he helped me pour the candles, he helped me stamp the labels, and that kind of grew from there. I eventually did obviously scan the stamp and we now have a font made out of that stamp, and that’s with the original detailing and the artifacts from the original stamp. So we do that now, but all of it was just built to have a really simple aesthetic so that it was unisex.
HG: Based on how you make scents, do you feel like you meet someone and you’re like, “Oh, this might be the right scent for you”? Is that something you’ve developed over time?
KP: I would say I could probably do that. I think that I could guess what someone would like if they told me just a few perfumes or type of things or foods that they like. But more than anything…It’s just so funny that I’ll just associate certain scents now with times in my life. And the way that people smell is so…It’s so distinct, you know?
I think the nice thing about candles is that they’re giving a scent to your entire home. This is not going to be shocking, but I’m very particular about the way that my house smells. Ever since my baby was born, we tend to do more flameless things, so we’ll do diffusers and incense. So we’ll have diffusers in each room and then any time company comes over, we burn an incense, and that’s kinda giving our home a personality. Or you can give each room a personality, like, “Oh, I’m gonna put this cannabis reed diffuser in the room with the cat box.” Which, if you have a cat, I highly recommend putting a reed diffuser in there. It is the only thing that can mask the smell.
HG: How do you go about developing your scents? Is that something that you have a hand in?
KP: Yeah, so I develop all the scents with my development lead, Jade. And I like to say that our scents are inspired by memories. There are really specific memories that will inspire our scents. “Black Fig” is one [from when] we moved into a house in East L.A. in 2015, and the reason why we wanted to move into that house was that there were mature fruit trees in the yard. I’m not originally from California, but I’ve wanted to come here my whole life. To me, that’s the dream — having a house with mature fruit trees. And there’s a lemon tree, so I feel like I lucked out. But there were two fig trees…I’ve never had a fig before, which is like…I don’t know if it’s a normal thing. But I ate a fig off the tree when we were looking at the house to buy it, and that cemented it for me that this was the house that we were gonna buy.
So we developed “Black Fig” and I took that original inspiration for the fig scent. And then how can we make it unexpected? How can we make it a little bit more masculine, more unisex, and then kinda spicy?
The fun thing, too, is that a lot of the scents are inspired by my memories, but I’ve been working with Jade for a couple years now and next year, she’s gonna be releasing one of her own. And that’s really rewarding to me.
HG: If you were a candle, one of your own, which one would you be and why?
KP: So there’s the aspirational candle that you wish you could be. I wish that I was “Piñon” because it’s very calm and it reminds me of a New Mexican desert.
But in reality, I think I’m more “Black Fig,” because it’s a little earthy and grounded, but spicy, you know? A little spicy on the edges.