After stints in multiple industries and years as a stay-at-home mom, Loree was ready for her next act. The melting wax on her son’s birthday cake was the aha moment that would lead her to launch Let Them Eat Candles.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, with two parents, one younger brother and many, many pets. Although animals played an outsized role in my early years, the repeated complaint from my kids during their childhoods was the lack of pets – specifically a dog. It’s weird, I love animals, but as an adult have had no interest in caring for them.
Since we’re communicating during the Coronavirus pandemic, our sons Spencer (24) and Ian (22), who would be in their own apartments, and Graham (20), who would be at college, are back home with my husband, Bob, and me, in Glencoe, Illinois. The silver lining to this scary is spending time together in the house we built twenty years ago. It’s almost comforting to field complaints again about how sad it is not to have a dog to play with!
I earned a BA in Economics at Vassar College (’86) and shortly after graduating, my dad introduced me to Bob—not as a date but for an informational interview, thinking I might be interested in consulting. Bob (nine years my senior) and my dad had worked together. There was no job, but I did end up with a partnership! My first paycheck out of college was as a paralegal and then I worked in the stock brokerage business. I didn’t know what I wanted to be professionally and was trying to figure it out. I applied to graduate school in journalism and deferred admission because Bob and I got married.
We bought a two-flat in Chicago, hired an architect, and turned the hundred-year old Greystone into a single-family home. That process was so much fun I decided I liked architecture better than journalism and went on to earn a Master of Architecture at the University of Illinois – Chicago (’94). What I hadn’t realized was that I’d entered one of the lowest paying professions. I earned the same amount per hour that it cost to hire a sitter for our new baby, so I stepped out of the workforce altogether—a decision I would later regret (but maybe worked out for the best after all).
Once I had a second child and then a third, I’d spent so many years at home, volunteering, and randomly skill-building, that I wouldn’t have hired myself as an architect anymore. When Graham hit double digits, I applied to a graduate program in social work and then deferred that admission, noting that social work is also not terribly lucrative. With three kids on a trajectory towards college, adding another tuition didn’t seem prudent, especially with my track record of false starts. The flip side to countless interests is no north star.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My youngest son Graham’s 12th birthday was particularly bittersweet, marking the end of an era. No more goodie bags or handmade invitations. While watching the wax candles lay waste to the cake, I wondered why we couldn’t have our cakes and eat the candles, too. It was an aha moment, but I was primed for one.
What is your next act?
I am the Founder and Owner of Let Them Eat Candles – chocolate celebration candles to light and eat.
The candles come in milk and dark chocolate and have a unique design. They’re 4-sided, tapered, and decorated with a colorful cocoa butter pattern on one face. The short paraffin-coated cotton wick burns long enough for the birthday song. What remains of the wick, after it’s blown out and cooled is easily removed.
A common misconception is that the chocolate will melt all over the cake. In this case, the chocolate doesn’t fuel the wick, so if you don’t blow them out, they’ll sort of singe and self-extinguish.
Online, the candle come in boxes of 3 (the idea being Past/Present/Future, or the granting of 3 wishes), and can be purchased through my website, on The Grommet, and on Amazon.
Unfortunately, our website is being updated, so for a list of stores carrying my candles, please check back soon or email me to see what’s available near you. Let Them Eat Candles are in Schnuck’s Markets (St Louis, MO), Lunds & Byerlys (Minneapolis, MN), many Roche Bros (Massachusetts), Zingerman’s Bakehouse (Ann Arbor, MI), Plum Market (Chicago, IL), many Nothing Bundt Cakes, and other independent shops across the country.
How did you take your idea from concept to viable business?
I couldn’t get edible candles out of my head (design + chocolate was an irresistible combo), so I enrolled in classes at Chicago’s French Pastry School and The Chocolate Academy. Those were the first steps in building a business from scratch. Chocolate candles were sort of a secret challenge. If I couldn’t make it work, nobody would ever know.
The steps unfolded organically. Each person I approached either helped or introduced me to someone else. I stumbled upon a mentor when I bought colored cocoa butter from Chef Rubber, a company in Las Vegas, and called to ask a question. The owner happened to answer, and he loved my concept. Every few months, when I was stuck, this guy made new suggestions.
A huge turning point for me came when my product launched on The Grommet. Before that, I was selling to a handful of local bakeries—almost more hobby than business. The Grommet gave me incredible exposure and took the business to a new level.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Although surprisingly few people understood my idea at first (“you mean you’re making candles that smell like chocolate?”), everyone was supportive. In the beginning, my dad not only helped with legal issues, he cut wicks, found my insulation supplier, and shipped product.
Last summer, my candles became a vendor partner to Nothing Bundt Cakes and I suddenly had 150 displays to build and many orders to pack. I posted an SOS on Facebook and was overwhelmed by the generosity of friends who volunteered to pitch in.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
The challenges are too numerous to count. I thought product development would be the trickiest part, but it was more like a foothill in a mountain range. Nobody’s going into stores asking for edible candles, so packaging and countertop displays have evolved to better broadcast the messaging. I certainly didn’t think about shipping chocolate in the summer, but it turns out people have birthdays throughout the year!
I’m proud that I had the idea and stuck with it. Each step included challenges I didn’t anticipate and I’m learning new things all the time. From working with chocolate to finding commercial kitchen space, to sourcing, to building a website, to selling and shipping, to finding a manufacturing partner, to exporting—so much happens behind the scenes in getting a new product into the marketplace.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I’m capable of doing pretty much anything, from tasks I don’t like to things I’m not good at. Thankfully, we’re still just talking about chocolate candles, not brain surgery. If my problems don’t have elegant solutions, it’s not the end of the world.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
This journey has been very solitary, and it would have been nice to have a partner. Bob has helped significantly the last few years, so I’m not as alone as I was in the beginning.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Even if it starts as a side-hustle, give your idea a try. It doesn’t matter if nobody understands what you’re trying to accomplish (you don’t even need to tell anyone). As long as you have a vision, just take baby steps in the direction you think you should go. Be open to course corrections and compromises.
What advice do you have for those interested in launching a food product?
I gained a lot from taking a food business class and joining an incubator. Connect with as many people as you can and don’t be discouraged by advice you disagree with. Food businesses are easy to start but difficult to maintain: long hours, razor-thin margins, lots of competition. I’ve made a lot of friends with outstanding products and incredible skills who couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless, I’m inspired all the time by women who manage to go gangbusters.
What resources do you recommend?
Join an incubator like The Hatchery and sign up for as many programs as you can.
Take culinary classes. I signed up for “enthusiast” classes that weren’t for professionals and they were outstanding: The French Pastry School and Chocolate Academy Chicago.
If possible, attend trade shows and talk to people at the booths. Taste samples, look at packaging, find suppliers, spot competitive products. You might need someone with an in because not all shows are open to the public. Here are some I recommend: Sweets and Snacks Expo, Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Shows, International Dairy Deli Bakery.
If you’re specifically interested in chocolate, you can meet a lot of Makers and get good info here:
Fine Chocolate Industry Association
Dallas Chocolate Festival
Northwest Chocolate Festival
These books are worth a read:
The Republic of Tea: The Story of the Creation of a Business, as Told Through the Personal Letters of Its Founders by Mel Ziegler, Patricia Ziegler, Bill Rosenzweig
How We Make Stuff Now: Turn Ideas into Products That Build Successful Businesses by Jules Pieri
Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently–and Succeeding by Seth Goldman & Barry Nalebuff
These podcasts are worth a listen:
How I Built This with Guy Raz
The Entrepreneur Way with Neil Ball (I was interviewed by Neil a few years ago)
Meetups or Women’s organizations have a lot to offer. I’ve benefitted from:
The Founding Moms
Women’s Exchange (very local)
Women Entrepreneurs Grow Global
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a next next act in the works, writing a memoir about building the business. It’s not that I’m so remarkable, but I think what I’ve learned on this journey is worth sharing. I’ve been in a writing workshop for years, which I love partly because it’s a totally different community of smart people and new perspectives. Of course, at the rate I write, I might never finish!
Connect with Loree Sandler
Website : https://letthemeatcandles.com
I’ve known Loree for quite awhile.
I’ve rarely,if ever,met anyone as fascinating,smart,and interested in so many things.
I’m so excited for her success ….. cannot wait to see what’s next.
Your comment just made my heart explode.
Missing you more than ever.
How inspiring and yummy a tale, Loree, and Helene for bringing this to light (pun intended!). Gratefully, Joyfully and optimistically yours, Ellen
So glad it resonated with you!
Keep spreading your sunshine.
I loved reading about your journey and witnessing the evolution of your business through the years. Your perseverance, candor, and creativity are inspiring, Loree! xo
The sentiments are a two-way street. Your work is dazzling and you are inspiring! xo