The P.F. Candle Co. Scent

March 26, 2018

Kristen Pumphrey learned about the handmade industry through magazines. But not in the way you might expect--she didn’t read about brands that were crafting unique, meaningful goods by hand--she wrote about them! She remembers working for the publishing company Adorn in New York City, circa 2008, “I was writing about people who had been making things by hand, selling things on Etsy or through marketplaces.” The same recession that caused the publisher to fold led Kristen to bring the words on the page to life by making a move and getting her hands dirty. “I left New York and went to see friends of mine in Austin, where I made a variety of products that were all eco-friendly, either because they were reused or because I used materials like soy wax which is better for the planet than paraffin.”

In Austin, Kristen met Tom Neuberger, who is now her husband and business partner. When he decided to finish his film degree in Long Beach, California, Kristen moved with him. She remembers getting to California and seeking out work, which proved extremely difficult. In Austin, she had a network of opportunities that complemented her primary passion, but in Long Beach, “I no longer had a lot of the gigs that supported my creative business, so I was more or less forced to rely on the candles full time!”

That move would prove to be extremely trying, but also a pivotal point in theP.F. Candle story. Kristen remembers, “I got to a point where I said, ‘I don’t know what to do, Tom, I can’t do this full-time anymore!’ and the reality was that I just couldn’t get hired anywhere else!” Tom remembers that conversation well, and summarizes the decision to double down on candles, “Sometimes you commit to something that you can’t probably do but you back yourself into a corner and then figure out how to do it!”

From there, things snowballed, just as our conversation does. Kristen explains, “Candles and fragrances are very hard to sell online, people really need to experience them to make a purchase.” She continues, “I did a lot of craft fairs and markets and I can count on one hand the number of events Tom was not at!” The couple hustled until the first mass order arrived, which allowed them to work on refining their production process and also on their brand ethos. As they were working to make and sell candles, Tom realized there was nothing that he would buy if he weren’t working with Kristen. They began focusing on scents that appealed to everyone and packaging that fit a wider array of decor sensibilities. The brand took a more egalitarian, unisex turn, Tom explains, “It came down to even the fragrances that we chose. We started picking them out together and designing them as a team.”

And once I get them talking about the process of making candles and building out their brand, they really come alive. They begin finishing each other’s sentences and geeking out about the art and science of scents and the social implications of building a business they are fully in charge of. You can hear Kristen’s passion and nostalgia as she explains the story behind a smell, “There’s a scent we have called Black Fig that was inspired by our first house in LA which had two fig trees out front. As a non-native Californian, that was the dream, to live in a house with fruit trees in the yard. And I think that was the first time I ever had a fresh fig!”

The two of them are charmingly passionate about the impact of fragrances on our lives.

Kristen muses, “The diffuser in your CAUSEBOX is really nice. Ever since we had our baby, we don’t have as many open flames around. It’s really powerful how scent can impact your mood, but it also triggers memories. Every once in a while when I wear perfume, Tom will have a flashback and remember when I made that perfume or the last time I wore it. That’s something so special, because scents are so intensely linked to our memories.”

Tom explains, “We want to educate our customers and make sure that they understand the product that we offer. We spend a lot of time making our decisions and working with our development team to make sure we offer the best possible products to our customers.”

And the duo recognizes the misunderstandings that arise from words like natural and synthetic in the candle world. Kristen starts, “I think that people hear the word ‘natural,’ and they say ‘That’s what’s going to be the most safe.’” And Tom continues, “It’s all about the application. I always say, not all natural is safe. Not all synthetic is unsafe. It matters which product and which way you’re using it! We use a lot of synthetic things in our lives, like alcohol--we all drink it, and it’s a synthesized product. And I used natural clove oil once based on things I read and it did some real damage to my body.”

Kristen: “Using strictly natural fragrances has a lot of limitations. But when we combine natural and synthetic, we can create a fragrance that is safe, passes all of the regulatory criteria that it needs to, and smells totally unique!” Tom discusses the art of blending scents to create something greater than the sum of its parts, “Depending on how ‘natural’ or ‘synthetic’ you go, you can really limit your scent library. And people value our creativity and our constant pushing the envelope in terms of smells, ingredients, and products.”

When we hear the word synthetic, many of us are quick to imagine things that smell like car air fresheners. Tom laughs, “We’re obsessed with making fragrances that smell really good and smell real. A lot of people associate the idea of synthetic fragrances with something that smells cheap and fake, like a bad candle.It’s not just the ingredient, it’s the amount of the ingredient. I’m fragrance-sensitive, my sister is super fragrance-sensitive, so we use her as our judge of whether we can actually use something or not.”

When it comes to ecological impact, synthetic scents often end up being better for the planet than their naturally-derived alternatives. Tom explains, “We’re making a huge amount of scents, and producing some of those completely naturally is hugely detrimental to the environment, because of the material used--and wasted--is staggering for the amount of fragrance harvested. There are things that are not reasonable to harvest or things that are harmful to harvest like musk--from muskoxen--that are not vegan even if they are natural!”

* * *

“Six years ago, a craft fair I sold at interviewed me and asked what my dream was, and I said, ‘Oh, just to drive around the country in a VW bus and sell candles.’ And now, I not only provide a living for myself and Tom, we also employ thirty people and pay them well, subsidize their healthcare, rolled out 401ks, and make this a genuinely impactful and rewarding place to work. It’s not really for me anymore, it’s for our staff--they’re the ones that make this happen.

Another thing that came into play, two years ago, Tom and I had a daughter--and in a dream world, she’ll take over this company someday--and in a not-dream world, she’ll see two people who love each other well and work well together in a business setting and care about their employees and the people around them.”

K: “One thing we do is give 1% of our profits back to charities, one charity we work with is the Downtown Women’s Center, and we created a unique scent with the mayor’s office, and we released an LA-inspired scent and gave 10% of the proceeds from that candle to the DT Women’s charity.”

Tom agrees, “The bigger we get, the more grateful I am that we get to make the decisions we do, hire the people we do, have a bigger platform to spread our message. “The business has a lot of personal aspects, and while I love the ambition of growing it, my long-term hope in owning this company is making a difference in the world. And we don’t have to answer to any stockholders or board members, and that gives us the flexibility to be as idealistic as we can.”

Asked about the wild ride that’s taken them from part-time crafting in Austin to running a successful business in Los Angeles, Katie reflects, “We had a really successful cyber monday, and Tom and I sat in the warehouse and boxed things ourselves, and it took me right back to individually packing and addressing products that I sold off of Etsy in our spare bedroom all those years ago. I appreciate every single person that believes in me, believes in us, and has supported our company from just me on day one to all thirty of us today!” And Tom completes the thought, “That’s the moral of the story, we’re just real people who worked hard and care about each other, our employees, and the planet. I hope we’re able to use our hard work to do something good in the world.”

Learn more about P.F. Candle Co.


John is the managing editor at CAUSEBOX and a traveling writer who lives on the road with his dog, Hank.