Keeping the flame alive Featured

11:52am EDT February 26, 2002
If it weren't for a strange twist of fate, John Root might be making jewelry instead of candles. His great-grandfather, Amos Ives Root, a jewelry manufacturer, was toiling by the window of his shop on Medina's Public Square one day in August 1865 when the natural light streaming across his work area suddenly dimmed.

"He looked up to see if a thunderstorm was coming, and he noticed this swarm of bees," Root says. "He was fascinated by them. He could watch the bees without fear of being stung."

A shop worker saw how interested Amos Root was in the bees and the hive they were building. He asked his boss what he'd pay him to bring the swarm down and put it in a box for him.

"The man understood that if you find the queen and bring her down, the rest of the bees will follow," Root says.

His great-grandfather offered the employee a dollar -- a day's wages at the time -- to accomplish the feat.

"He (Root) went home to his wife that night with 'a box full of bugs,' as she said," Root says. "She thought he was nuts."

The money turned out to be well spent. Amos Root did some research and turned his attention to the manufacture of beehives, devising a more durable, easy-to-make version of a hive that allowed honey to be extracted without killing its makers. Root's new enterprise became successful enough to warrant acquiring beekeeping supply operations in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and San Antonio during the early 20th century.

In the late 1920s, the A.I. Root Co. branched out into candlemaking after a local priest complained to Amos Root's son, Huber, that he didn't think the candles he was using were made of pure beeswax, as was then required by the Roman Catholic Church.

The company began making scented candles in 1961, when a San Antonio firm suggested adding fragrance to votive candles. Company executives later learned the candles were burned by college students to mask the odor of marijuana in their dorm rooms.

"We realized once that started that there was a great possibility for growth, delivering fragrance through votive candles," Root says.

Finding a niche

The company is no longer in the beehive-building business. Only its beekeeping publications (including a monthly magazine, Bee Culture, first published in 1873) and a fraction of the apiary, which is maintained to test beekeeping equipment, remain. But Root estimates about 40 percent of the family-owned company's revenue is still provided by the manufacture of religious candles, most of which are sold to Catholic churches.

The other 60 percent is generated by the manufacture of scented and decorative candles. A visit to any department store or gift shop proves that candles are enjoying a popularity not seen since the 1970s. And Root says his company, like others, has capitalized on the comeback by introducing a slew of new scents, shades and styles.

Items ranging from a $1.50 votive candle to a $60 jumbo pillar are now sold in approximately 7,000 stores in the United States -- including independent Hallmark stores and Candleman and Wicks 'n Sticks franchises -- as well as by retailers in Canada, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Last year, company sales of religious and decorative candles were about $30 million, enough to support hiring another 20 people.

Together, the company's facilities in Medina and San Antonio employ approximately 280 people.

Understanding the customer

Root says the research-and-development process, as in many industries, begins in the field. Sales manager Bob Krulik says Root candles, like many gift items produced by other manufacturers, are sold to the retail trade in a handful of 16 permanent showrooms scattered around the country -- the closest is the Columbus Gift Mart in Columbus.

Krulik and Root attend monthly shows to get feedback from representatives of the gift, incentive and home decor industries. They also visit retail stores and talk to the company's sales representatives.

"We have an opportunity to talk with our customers, to find out what their consumers -- the people who buy our products through their stores -- are looking for and talking about," Root says.

The company also performs competitive analyses and receives trend analyses from fragrance houses that supply fragrances to the candle-making industry, among others.

"The fragrance houses also do analyses of our own product lines to pinpoint things that they think we might be lacking," Krulik says.

Creative director Laura Jones then asks the fragrance houses A.I. Root does business with to create their interpretations of the scents she dreams up, things like Tangerine Lemongrass, Lime Serenade, Sage, Ivy and Mint, Martha's Sugar Cookie and Fresh Tomato -- a vast deviation from the basic berry and fruit scents offered 20 years ago.

The process can be time-consuming -- Krulik says the company may receive and consider up to 20 samples before it settles on The One.

"Because we're a premium product, our goal is to provide those subtle ambiguities of the fragrances that perhaps more inexpensive candles wouldn't provide," he says.

Not all scents are custom-made. According to Krulik, most houses have a number of stock fragrances that can be easily modified to maintain a degree of exclusivity for each client. But he adds that A.I. Root's best-sellers are originals born of solid market research. Jones cites Tangerine Lemongrass as an example -- for a time after it was introduced last year, it outsold perennial favorite French Vanilla 3-to-1.

Jones says scent offerings have been influenced by the public's increasing interest in spas and aromatherapy, a trend that's yielded fragrances such as Sea Salt Scrub and Ginger Patchouli.

When it comes to selecting colors, she's guided in part by what's happening in the interior design industry. In addition to maintaining a membership in the Alexandria, Va.-based Color Marketing Group, a 1,500-member professional organization that projects and determines color palettes to be used in a variety of industries, Jones spends a lot of time shopping and leafing through home decorating magazines.

"If it's hot in wall coverings or upholstery fabric, we have the right color to go with it," she says.

Quality comes first

But Jones says the company has yet to turn out candles embedded with the flowers, greenery, candies, cinnamon sticks -- you name it -- that have been so popular with consumers.

"There's the possibility (the decorative elements) could flare and burn," she says.

Instead, the company has focused on developing a variety of finishes and textures. Some even look like they're encased in tree bark. A.I. Root has also eschewed producing candles in various shapes because, as Jones puts it, "a round candle burns better than, say, a square one. Our customer's priority is definitely burn quality."

Root and Jones say people are willing to spend more for Root candles because of that quality -- they don't smoke, are less apt to drip, and throw fragrance so well that Jones claims a single votive can scent more than the room in which it's left burning. Root says that highly refined, harder waxes and proper wicking allow even jumbo pillars to self-consume, or leave no outer shell behind.

But Jones admits that selling quality is a never-ending challenge, one the company continually tries to meet by educating retailers in meetings with sales representatives and leaving lists of candle-burning tips for their customers.

Root believes that mission may be best accomplished by maintaining three company-owned stores: a long-prospering operation at West Liberty Commons in Medina, a shop at Prime Outlets in Lodi and a location at Aurora Premium Outlets in Aurora that opened late last year. Despite the faltering economy, Jones says sales at the Medina and Lodi stores were up 25 percent last year.

"It gives us the opportunity to showcase our entire line in what we consider to be the best light," Krulik says. "It just takes that ambiguity out of giving it to a third party and letting them choose what to do with it."

How to reach: A.I Root Co., (330) 725-6677, www.airoot.com