Doug Coomer, an ER nurse, began making candles as a way to relax after long shifts at the hospital. Over time, he has turned that hobby into North Bay Candleworks. Based in San Rafael, CA, Doug and his team hand pour their candles one batch at a time, using soy and coconut-based wax and 100% cotton led-free wicks.
In this episode, we dive into Doug's story, his process for candle-making, and what it takes to survive (and thrive) as a small business.
What You'll Learn:
[1:15] Doug shares how he got into candle-making.
[3:27] Doug’s candle-making experience over the years before he turned it into a business.
[5:09] How the candle-making craft became a relaxing activity after long shifts as a nurse.
[6:04] The typical and mostly stressful day of a nurse.
[8:28] How the business took off, plus the handcrafted processes they’re currently using.
[12:53] The different ways they’ve learned to continue streamlining the business.
[14:12] Why coconut wax is a good additive to soy wax in candle-making.
[15:22] Having a mission led by making quality products and good customer service.
[19:06] What the future looks like for Doug and North Bay Candleworks.
[21:04] (Audience Q&A) The process and research that goes into coming up with candle scent and fragrances.
[24:00] (Audience Q&A) Tips on how to assess the quality of a candle.
[26:06] (Audience Q&A) How to approach candle-making for personal use as a beginner.
Because it was so enjoyable and something that we did anyway. I mean, I would have been making candles, or like I was prior to that without the business, I enjoyed it. There's never really been a low moment it just it just constantly gets better. It's really sometimes hard to understand what's going on, you know, we we do what we like to do, and we try to make the best product. And people just it keeps growing. And we're very thankful for that.
This is "Making Us," a podcast about makers, artisans and creators. We dive into their story, how they approach their craft, and the meaning behind the things they make. I'm Mike Giordani and on our first episode, an ER nurse who started candle-making as a way to relax after long shifts at the hospital and turned that hobby into a booming business. His name is Doug Coomer, and he's the founder of Northbay Candleworks.
So I know you got into candle-making as a kid. And I'm wondering, what's the earliest memory that comes to mind for you?
Well, my memories go back before candle-making. My mother was pretty crafty. We were always doing things around the house. It was much way before internet for big TV fans. But one of my first memories was this toy that I received for Christmas one year was Mattel's creepy crawler set, a lot of you people probably won't know what I'm talking about. But it's a like a little hot plate with metal molds, that you put a liquid plastic in and then baked it and made your toys, you know, little lizards and snakes and skeletons and think they even had some glow in the dark liquid plastic that you know you could make things that would glow in the dark and you know you could hide on your sister and you know, try to scare them. But that's goes back. That's one of the first things I remember, you know, always just trying to make things and do things and somewhere along the line. Candle kit was given to me and my mother helped, you know, get me started because I was probably around 10 years old. And she would guide me you know what to do and how to do it. And I think we had you know, a little saucepan that we'd put a old coffee can in the water in the pan for a double boiler and melt the wax. And then it was all paraffin wax came in and slab and you'd break off a chunk and melt it and in at that time was doing molded candles that you would take out of a mold. I remember some you know, kind of towering candles and I've never had one that was bought like a big softball, you know, maybe he put fragrances in them also, and we did a lot of colored wax that goes back that's probably one of the first memories of candle-making
Where are certain things you get as a kid that stay in your memory forever, right? Yeah, it's just nice. My mom got me this typewriter once. And it was a kid's version of a typewriter. So we did all kinds of fancy things with the ink and it was the happiest day of my life. What was it like for you to get that candlemaking kit
I remember you know, what I remember of it is just you know, it was kind of cool to be able to make something as a kid I always was you know enjoyed fragrant stuff I remember you know buying incense and burning that because you know you liked the smell and things and now I was able to make a candle that did the same thing. And it was pretty neat. You know even as a kid you know your friends thought that was kind of cool. And that would go back and forth. taking it out of the closet and making candles for friends and for gifts and and then sometimes I'd put it away for a couple of years. It was you know, different things to get my attention. I got a little older I was sent to you know, motorcycles and dirt bikes and I got into racing motocross and did that for a while for six, seven years. probably didn't make any candles at that time. But when I quit then you know it was always there and I would get it out and then I became a nurse and a lot of my co workers I'd make candles and they'd want them and it's kind of how the business started. I moved to California from Kentucky and was making candles in the Kaiser where I work in the emergency department and giving them away for you know baby showers and other events and then people started wanting them and I started keeping them in my locker and had a little candle shop there in the in the break room.
What was it about candle-making that despite putting it aside for a little bit, it kept calling you back.
I'm not really sure if there's one aspect of it, but it was always a very enjoyable thing. Just being able to create something that people liked, that people wanted, it was satisfying. And then, as life goes on and gets more complicated, and especially after became, you know, the ER nurse, it became a release or a way to relax and unwind after a stressful shift, or a stressful, three or four shifts. So you know, working 12 hours, and sometimes you just work and sleep, work and sleep, work and sleep. And when you're done, you're just worn out, and you need to have some kind of structure or something to do that brings peace into your life and helps you relax.
I'm curious to get into your experience as a nurse, what does a typical workday look like for you?
Well, usually you come in to the, to the hospital, and you know, you go to the break room and put on your scrubs and put your lunch in the frigerator. And known well known for being early and try to just kind of slowly get into this shift and find out how things are going and how, what everybody's mood is, and then we go out and we get our patient assignments. And sometimes that's good. Sometimes it's not, it can be pretty stressful when you first walk in, and you're in a really good mindset and you got somebody that's overdosed and wanting to fight, the issues that go with that, or you get a patient that's restrained or you know, are just very ill very sick, you know, it's a, it can be stressful, because, you know, you kind of you think about how, if you don't do the right thing and the right amount of time, the outcome may not be good for them. And then you'd have to live with that. So it's a, it's a very stressful situation,
That must be really stressful. The physical and emotional toll of being there for people, when they're at their most vulnerable is something that I can't even begin to imagine. I hope that if there's one thing that we took away from the pandemic, it's a deeper recognition of what essential work looks like. And in the case of nursing, it really hit home just how well beyond essential it is, you know just how heroic it is what you all do,
I have to, you know, commend all my co workers, because it's, it's not an individual job for an individual, it's a team job, we all work together, we become to, you know, be very good friends. We tried to do some things outside of work sometimes just to where we can do things and not be so stressed by you, you become very dependent on your co workers. Because there's a lot of times that you cannot do everything that needs to be done by yourself. And you have to have people that you can count on, you know, have your back. And we do or we've got a good group.
So you mentioned that you started making candles for your co workers. How did the business get going from there?
I can remember there were two of the co workers there that were having babies basically at the same time. And I made candles for them. And I brought those and I think I maybe got little stuffed animals or something made a little gift bag form for each of them. And then the candles went over so well that other people started asking for and you know bragging about the fragrances or all this smell so good or you know what is this and it was basically the gifting to those two ladies that kind of got it started at work. And so I just started bringing a few extra and keeping in my locker and you know, sometimes people would want to just buy them for their self. I've had people you know say they're on their way to a baby shower, I need a gift, you know, that kind of thing or, or just around the holiday season people you know, give me orders or just come by and pick up things for their their loved ones and their family or friends. It's It was a great beginning. You know it's hospital is full of a lot of a lot of people that are looking for something to relax. Lavender candles seemed as so great in the hospital because everybody wants to go home, light a candle you know, sit back and watch some TV or just chill out and read a book. It fits, it fits well, it was there was always fun, you know, people would come over sometimes and make candles While they were there, you know, people are interested in seeing, you know how it goes or to the process. And there's always little, little funny questions, you know, how do you get the wick to stand up straight? You know, things like that, that people still do they come to the warehouse, you know, they like to hang out.
How do you get the wick to stand up straight?
Well, it's pretty easy. When I first started, I use chopsticks, and slide awake between the chopsticks and you put a little pressure on it to keep it straight. Now I use a little more high tech devices, they look like popsicle sticks with holes. But yeah, there's there's multiple ways some people take popsicle sticks and wrap rubber bands around them, and then just pull them apart and, you know, clamp the waker, closed pins, multiple different things. But yeah, I just basically something very basic.
Alright, so let's have a geek out moment here. What can you share about your process these days?
Well, I try to use the best ingredients that that I can and try to, you know, research and develop things, we do a lot of testing. You know, a lot of wick testing. And sometimes fragrances do differently. With the same wick, you know, one fragrance may burn well, another one doesn't. So you have to adjust the wick size and, and do different things. But it's a lot of research, a lot of reading. We also belong to the national candle Association, which is a group of my peers that I call on quite often, you know, if I have a problem or an issue or one know how to do something better. Or sometimes you just sit new, we have, you know, zoom social meetings now, where people all across the country, and you just pick their brain, just pick their brain and you know, try to, to learn something, you know, you try to learn something every day. And whether in life or whether candle-making or whatever it is you do, you just you just need to keep growing. And that's what we try to do and try to streamline our business. Try to make things flow better. It's, it's nice now that we've had the opportunity to have four different part time employees as we're growing, hopefully, you know, someday they can be full time. It feels good to help people, everybody, you know, it's kind of like a family.
That's really exciting. It must feel so great to be bringing new people into the mix. So you talked about streamlining, can you share an example of something that you've streamlined lately?
Well, we're always learning things. It's funny now that we're really developing our process. And it sounds silly, but cleanliness is such an important thing, especially with the wax and the labels, you know, we've tried, you know, pouring the candles and then putting the labels on later. And you know, you get waxy fingerprints, and the labels don't want to stick and we've now developed a system where we're putting the labels on first and we fill the jars up with the appropriate fragrance for that label. And there's always little things that we're learning and improving on we don't do the things that I did as a child I said we did moulded candles then now we just do a container candle. Basically, it's it's a soy wax candle where the molds need a harder wax. And most of those are made out of paraffin. I'm sure there's probably some hard soy waxes but most of those molded candles are paraffin, which is an oil byproduct. Not everybody is into that.
So there's the soy wax. And from what I know, you also use coconut wax. Where does the coconut wax come into play?
We use a basic wax is a soy wax and then we add coconut wax to it which improves the inhibition to the glass. Sometimes the with just straight soy wax. The wax will separate from the glass slight bit but it gives an appearance of a of a spot or a wet spot in there which affects its performance in no way. I mean it doesn't change how the candle works. It just on a really clear glass it's visible and some people don't like it. So coconut wax helps with that. It also makes the wax prettier. I think it's smoother, white. Just a better looking candle or candle time. You know what you can see. And, and it burns a little differently, I think burns a little cleaner. So it's just a good additive.
Oh, cool. Yeah, I was curious to see how they work together. Now, zooming out for a moment, you're building this company that people love, and you've had a lot of momentum, especially lately. What do you attribute that to?
Well, I think it's that, that we really enjoyed doing what we do often wonder now that we're kind of through the COVID situation, what we would have done without the candle-making, because that's, that was our place, you know, you go make candles, we've, we've met a lot of super people, a lot of, you know, a lot of our clients are just great people, their stores are beautiful places and, and we're proud to have our candles there. Besides just, you know, making candles, customer service, I guess is is one thing that we really, really push for, I mean, we deliver candles and new we have store owners that, hey, we ran out of something and we need something and, you know, we try to I don't want anybody shelves to be empty if if they want our candles on them. So there's times that I'm there, the warehouse to two or three o'clock in the morning, getting stuff done, so we can deliver it and get it to the to the store owner. You know, we all depend on it. store owners depend on selling goods to pay their bills. And, you know, service is one thing that we can do. And we try hard on, try to keep everybody happy and satisfied and just make a good product that we can be proud of.
You used to do this out of your home, right? And now you're in this beautiful warehouse in San Rafael.
Correct. Yeah, we first started you know, because as hobby ish started in the house, and it wasn't too long. And you know, the kitchen, you couldn't cook in it, because there was candles, supplies and, and then living room was full of boxes or glass or you know, made candles and trying to, you know, do the farmers markets and things. So it was difficult. And right before COVID came, we then January, rented a or leased a warehouse and Sandra fell and had to build it out and build our candle pouring room where we can control the temperatures and, and things because the warehouse is not temperature controlled. So it's been really great for us, we've really been growing and the 1300 square feet that we have, we're already kind of growing out of we installed the new storage system pallet racks last week where we can start stacking our stuff higher because we have 18 foot ceilings. So we were stacking going up with our raw goods. Making a little more floor space.
That's awesome. I think I heard at some point, you refer to that space as your sanctuary.
I do it. It's where I go. It's where I hang out. I have the have a nice stereo system in there. And it's kind of funny, but have lava lamp and you know, the Pink Floyd posters and it just kind of it's the man cave warehouse. You know, enjoy having people come over, you know, people come in, hang out. It's just a good place to go. It's relaxing. I don't think there's ever been a person that walked in the door and they didn't say, Oh my God, this smells wonderful. And I think on the other side of that we have the best smelling garbage that you've ever smelled all the scent containers and things that everything smells good.
It is a special place. You know, you walk in and instantly your stress melts away. Pun intended. Okay, so as you look into the future, how do you see things progressing?
I don't know a lot of people ask me if it's my retirement plan. And, you know, it'd be nice to do in retirement. I don't know what else I'd be doing. If I wasn't working Yeah, I have to do something but it what keeps us going is just the not so much that the candles the candles is open doors for us to meet new people and new opportunities. And, you know, we we try to be involved with marketing groups and the Chamber of Commerce and, and different things like that and help out in the community. You know, hope someday that that we can do something where we can maybe do some kind of fundraiser or something for the animal shelter or the food bank or something like that down the road. It'd be just another another avenue of giving and I hope that one day that we can can Do that.
We'll be back right after this.
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It's time for Q&A. You submit a question, and today's maker will answer it.
Q&A Participant 21:06
Hi, there. This is Julie from lagunitas. And my question for you, Doug, is how do you come up with your sense? Do you have a favorite and why?
How we come up with a sense of, again, is another research thing and marketing research. And we work with a couple different perfumeries that help guide us on some things. And there's also statistics on what is good for the season, or what's good for this time of year, changes every year. But there's people that do research just on the most popular fragrances, for different sang groups, you know, you got woodsy, or floral or spice and different things like it. And then a lot of it is just what we like, or want our group of friends, you know, I'll try something, I'll mix a couple different oils together and make a candle, I may make six of them. And we give them out to different people and see what they think you know, and when you give one to somebody, and they're saying, Oh, I need three of these, then you know you've got a good thing going. But if you don't hear anything about it, then you may just pass on it and try something different.
What about the farmers market? Do you do any testing there?
The market is a wonderful testing area for us because you get such a cross group of people. Many times we'll take a candle and put on the table and say help us name it. We'll put a little sign out. Because people just love to be involved. And a lot of times we'll see somebody two or three weeks later and they'll say, Well, what did you name it? Did you choose my name? Did you choose what I want? So yeah, it's fun. The market is a great place. We enjoy the market have some fantastic customers. When COVID hit some of our customers, we were in Oakland doing the markets there of course you know, across the bridge. Not too far but good little distance. We had people coming to the warehouse to buy candles because we couldn't come to the market because it was shut down for a while. You know that makes you feel great.
True loyal customers. Yeah. So Julie's other question was What is your favorite scent and why?
That changes almost weekly. Whenever we get new and I just love it for for a while but I think one of my favorites right now is the citrus a gavai it's just the real fresh makes you feel good type of smell just that's my favorite right now such as a Gabby,
I have to try that one. I don't think I've seen it yet.
It's rather new.
(Joking) I guess they're sort of like your kids. You're like them in the beginning. And then they kind of wear you out...
Well, I don't know about that.
Q&A Participant 23:53
Hi, this is Debra from Mill Valley. I was hoping you'd have some tips on how to assess the quality of a candle. Thank you.
The first way would be to check the ingredients. Make sure that the wax that the that you want. Some people like to paraffin but most people are those soy or coconut or natural wax. And then look for your fragrances and if they're like essential oils or blends of essential oils, that that's usually a good indicator. But and this is kind of a tricky thing to say but you're not going to get a real high quality candle for $7 or you know, it's one of the bargain stores. You just there's no way the materials cost more than that. So it's just sometimes you know, price but then things can be overpriced and you know that that kind of fool you but I guess just check the ingredients. Look to see where it was made. If it was made here in the United States, that would be a good indicator.
What about the scent? If you pick up a candle And do a sniff test. Does it tell you anything about quality?
No, I mean, that's kind of hard to say. I have people that come back to us and never would have thought this but they bragged to us about having the fragrance throw all the way through to the candles burn to the very bottom, I would have never thought that that would have been a thing that you would brag about, because I would have thought that was something you expected. So I don't know if some manufacturers don't put fragrance in the lower part of the candle, you know? Or, or what, because we've had dozens of people brag on our candles, having a good fragrance all the way to the bottom.
Oh, interesting. Yeah, I think I had candles before that don't burn evenly. It's kind of funny the way you're saying. It's like that's the bare bones expectation.
Q&A Participant 25:53
Hey, Doug, this is Michael from New York. I'm super into aligning my chakras these days and would love some advice on how I could go about making my own candles. If you could get back to me, I'd super appreciate it.
I would probably have just purchase a candle-making kit from a reputable company that comes with all the components that you need. You can probably get them in soy wax or paraffin wax. I think soy wax would probably be the better way to start but get one that has the pouring parts and the candy thermometer. Probably comes with some fragrance and maybe a few jars, a few warning labels and you know you can make some nice candles and give out as gifts and see if it's what you like to do. I mean, it's we find it very enjoyable. Sure, not everybody would. But I know we've met a lot of people that have made candles throughout their life. had people come tell me they've made store, you know candles out of crayons and use crayons for colorants and different things. So there's a lot of things but you get a kit, you'll learn the basics. Again, you know a lot of YouTube videos, you can learn a lot of stuff. But candle kit would be the way to go and get started.
Awesome. Well, I had a lot of fun. Thanks for joining us, Doug.
And thanks for having me.
That's Doug Coomer from North Bay candle works based in San Rafael, California.
One of the things I appreciate the most about Doug is his focus on giving. It's the thread between his work as a nurse, and the energy that runs through his company. He sees everything he does, as multiple avenues of giving.
You can find a full transcript and notes from today's conversation on our website, MakingUs.com. There you're also able to submit questions for future guests. We'd love to have you be a part of our Q&A. Again, that's MakingUs.com. We have new episodes coming out every couple of weeks, so if you like what you heard today, go ahead and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening to "Making Us." See you next time.