(Photo: Joclyn Bushman/Iowa Soybean Association)
Soy illuminates Iowa candle company
May 27, 2022 | Bethany Baratta
Deep, rich notes of freshly roasted and brewed coffee and warm, floral breezes of cotton mingling with soft apple, powdery musk and violet fully immerse the senses when stepping into the distribution center at Milkhouse Candle Co. in St. Ansgar.
On this Wednesday, candles made with soy oil from Midwest-grown soybeans are labeled and sent down the line for further quality assurance before being boxed and shipped to the company’s network of 1,400 distributors. Some Milkhouse Candle Co. candles will be waiting for customers in shops at the Des Moines International Airport or the Paula Deen Store in Savannah, Georgia; some will journey farther to South Korea, Slovakia, Poland and South America.
The higher oil content in Midwest soybeans makes it perfect for blending with beeswax for the Coffee Break, Cotton Blossom, Welcome Home and other scents available in the company’s product line.
It all began when Eric and Janet Sparrow were planning their wedding on Eric’s acreage. They wanted to add a personal touch to the wedding by making their own candles to adorn tablescapes and also to give as gifts for guests. Those candles were made with paraffin. But the Sparrows found joy in the process of candle making and wanted to explore using soy wax as a cleaner-burning alternative to paraffin, which is derived from petroleum.
“At that time, soy wax was new to the market, and it was difficult to work with,” Eric says.
But living in a top-producing soybean state, they were determined to use soy oil in their wax blends.
As hobbyists, the Sparrows used several kitchen utensils to mix, measure and make their own candles. It took years to identify the specific formulation using soy wax and fragrances and perfecting the process.
In July 2002, the Sparrows started Milkhouse Candle Co. Initially, the Sparrows relied on a distributor in New Hampton to source the soy wax for candle production. When that business closed, Milkhouse and the other 300 companies that relied on the company were limited for local options.
The Sparrows purchased the assets and created American Soy Organics. It rekindled the opportunity to source soy wax locally and reliably for Milkhouse Candle Co. and others.
“Soy wax is 100% renewable and part of American agriculture,” Eric says of the couple’s business venture. “We’re surrounded by soybeans. What better story to be in Iowa and have a soy candle manufacturing facility?”
American Soy Organics sources the soy, bringing in the liquid product warm via bulk trucks. The wax is stored on-site, then used in various blends to create the cooler-burning, fragrant candles Milkhouse Candle Co.’s customers know and love. At the company’s location in New Hampton, Eric and his team of employees produce more than 12,000 candles per day for Milkhouse Candle Co. and five other candle companies for which they custom pour.
As a candle business owner himself and a consultant to other candle companies, Sparrow identified a common concern: a lack of wax options focused on the needs of the candlemaker.
“While most other wax producers are making wax as a small piece of something else (food or petroleum production), American Soy Organics is focused on only one thing: creating a candle wax that works perfectly and easily every time,” Eric says.
The Sparrows created soy beads as an easier way for candlemakers, including hobbyists, to incorporate soy into their products. The soy beads are a drop-in option, eliminating the need for double boilers and complicated measuring.
“The user experience is so much better than when we started in our home kitchen,” Eric says.
Months after launching its soy wax products for sale on Amazon, American Soy Organics’ soy beads became a highly rated, top-selling soy wax product.
“Customers love the soy bead format,” Eric says. “They love how it melts and the consistency of the product.”
Eric left his teaching job to start Milkhouse Candle Co. But once a teacher, always a teacher. He helps coach other aspiring candlemakers, even competitors, through wax and process options.
“There’s plenty of business for everybody,” Eric says. “We’ve been there; we can help others build their business.”
Set for growth
The growth in sales for Milkhouse Candle Co. and American Soy Organics proves the paraffin industry was wrong in its initial assessment of the soy wax industry. Candles made with soy wax are here to stay and growing in popularity.
American Soy Organics used 10 million pounds of soybean oil in 2021. Sparrow expects a 50% increase this year as new products are developed, and the sales of candles and soy beads grow.
“We’re selling thousands of pounds of soy wax every day on Amazon,” Eric says. “There’s so much opportunity it’s unbelievable.”