Just before the 2019 holiday season, Paddywax Candle Bar opened its first Virginia location in Reston Town Center. The small, sweet-smelling store was full of candle “vessels” ready to be filled with handcrafted candles made by local guests.
But a few months later, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the store was shuttered alongside the dozens of retail stores across the region. Long gone were the days of welcoming up to 40 people into the space for make-and-take candle workshops.
Now, the Tennessee-based company is hoping to reach customers in a new way, especially those who may not be comfortable returning in person for a candle workshop (although the Reston location has since reopened with new safety measures and social distancing practices).
This week, Paddywax Candle Bar is launching virtual events, with hopes of reaching creative community members who need something to keep them occupied at home. To find out more about the company’s new initiative, as well as how they’ve been coping through the COVID-19 era, we caught up with Brand Manager Whitney Hall. Highlights from our conversation are below.
Let’s start by going back to the beginning of the pandemic. How did it impact Paddywax?
As soon as we were told from a higher-level institution that businesses needed to close, we very quickly responded. I think that here in Tennessee, it was a bit more delayed than in other parts of the East Coast, but for the most part, everything kind of went to a halt all at once. March 18 was our last day being opened, and we just stopped everything. Initially we thought—which, even imagining that this was our thought at one point is so bizarre now—we would keep our teams, pay our part-time staff for their two weeks of scheduled hours, and then we thought we would be back at it. We’ll go home, and in a couple of weeks we’ll reset and go again, but it began to become painfully clear that we weren’t going to be coming back for another few weeks.
At that point, we had to furlough our part-time staff, but were able to keep our full-time staff. We kept paying salaries and thinking, “We’ll get through this.” It was just going to be a few more weeks (so we thought). But then it became clear that we had to furlough our full-time staff because we weren’t going back, and our corporate team camped out for a minute. We did a lot of the back and forth of the customer interaction, trying to quell the tide of being an event-based business. We had events scheduled for the future, so we were navigating without having teams on the ground to help, which was super complicated. It was a heavy load for us who were left, and we really started to realize we have to find a way to bring in some dollars and also continue our brand equity so that the community knows who we are and that we’re not going anywhere.
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What were the brand’s next steps, and how did Paddywax get to where it is now? Have things improved?
Within all of this, we started creating candle-making kits and selling them online. We had an insane response. Looking back at the beginning, it was so timely for people. I think we all got past March and were like, “Whoa, what’s going on? We’ve been at home for almost a month and we’re all dying of boredom.” Our kits were like a godsend for people and people went nuts for them. We sold out of them every time, and we started having to do a weekly drop because it was something that for the corporate team members who were left, it was the only thing we could handle. It was a very grassroots way of transitioning the brick-and-mortar model online.
What we discovered with the kits was that we hit the jackpot because it allowed us to do what we always loved doing: creating community through creativity and connection for people. These kits allowed us to do that while people stayed at home. People started buying kits for their friends and did Zoom calls to do them together, and they just created this super cool candle bar experience at home. This week, after all of that work, we’re launching our first virtual events. We’re breaking it down into two things: We’re going to do a pickup candle option where people can go to their local store, pick a fragrance, pick a vessel and the team there will put it all together real quick and the guest can come and pick it up. For the other option, which is entirely contactless, you can call and say, “I want this and this,” and the team can put it together on-site and have you pick it up in store, or get it shipped to your home.
We’re also doing the virtual events where people can choose their number of kits and there are group discounts, so the more kits you do, the more discounts. We also will include a 30-minute Q&A session if they want it, and if they don’t, we have instructions in every kit of everything you need to know. The full circle of this is that brick and mortar is tough right now, and we’re doing everything we can in our stores to be as safe as possible, as well as reaching people at home. Now that locations are reopening, we have some areas that we’re filling up our half-capacity seating, and other areas that if they have a single workshop group in a day, they’re happy. So it’s been a journey.
Sadly, at the beginning of all of this, we had 11 locations and we’ve unfortunately lost three. And more than just the place, we’ve just lost some really, really good people. Now we’re down to eight locations, and all eight locations are open. Our stores are operating off of two full-time staff members for the most part, and we’re starting to bring back some part-time staff to help facilitate bigger classes if needed. It’s been tough everywhere though, because the sentiment from people is they’re still so nervous, and understandably so. We’re just doing the best we can to concept new ideas and be creative.
For in-person workshops, how are they different from those held a few months ago, and how are you keeping both staff and guests safe?
There are a few things right off the bat. We’ve noticed that if people are nervous, you have to be upfront with them about what the rules are. If they feel better about what they’re supposed to do, then they can do a better job following the guidelines or deciding whether or not they have to follow those guidelines. The first thing we have done is everybody who books a class with us is going to see our health and safety information. They should receive an email that tells them all of the rules. These include wearing masks in the space, and we actually also require wearing gloves because our products have so much touch and are so sensory. We want to keep everyone safe, so we’re sorry if people don’t agree, but those are our rules.
We have also implemented areas for dirty and clean items, similar to how a restaurant would with dirty and clean dishes. That way teams can quickly switch over for workshops while also having everything be sanitized. Ideally, nothing was touched by anyone previously without having been fully sanitized and sitting for 24 to 48 hours before it gets used again. That’s something that’s been really beneficial and I think we’ll continue to do in the future.
We have had to lose a little bit on the green/environmental side, in order to keep people safer and more comfortable. For example, we previously had recycled paper goods that weren’t really used or written on, just so that we could get more use out of them. But other than that, we are implementing social distancing with classes no larger than 12 people.
What keeps you inspired for the future of Paddywax Candle Bar, despite overcoming these challenges?
Three things: One, ownership and just vocalizing a sense of confidence, which I think is always good for business. I hope that any owners out there that are vocalizing their optimism to their teams and their belief in their mission … that is a huge step. We have that, which has been really encouraging, even if it means some short-term loss. There is a long-term gain that we can maybe bring some of these stores back one day.
The second thing is the creativity of figuring out new ways to do things that when you’re living your normal, everyday life, you might not think about. Sometimes you just don’t leave the space for coming up with creative ideas and different ways of doing things. Even this morning, I had an awesome conversation with our store manager in Philadelphia about people eating outside on patios at restaurants. She and I were trying to figure out how we could partner with nearby restaurants to do a takeout meal and home candle-making kit as a package deal. You know, give it the feel of a date night for two, which could market us and give additional fun to the restaurant. So just those things really give a spirit to keep going and to keeping trying and pushing what we would never have thought to do before.
Lastly, there are certainly things I hope that come out of this, especially with the people I get to work with. We have hired some, and we’re so blessed and so fortunate to have brought in all of the managers and full-time staff members that we have. It is encouraging to have weekly meetings with people who are excited to be at work, and there’s so much optimism about contributing to a team that really keeps me going.
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For those who are looking to make a candle or looking for a new fragrance, what is your current favorite right now?
We have this amazing fragrance called Blue Coral & Driftwood. For people who especially are stuck in their homes and maybe aren’t able to go to the beach or the mountains, the fragrance is the perfect combination of that. It’s that woody, driftwood smell while also having that marine scent, and it’s just a combination of fresh smells that make you want to be outside.
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