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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

No One Minds Their Beeswax Like the Knorrs

DEL MAR , Steve Knorr works in a very nice-smelling office.

Actually, it’s not an office, it’s a gift shop in Del Mar that sells candles. A lot of them.

Last year, more than $6 million worth of these candles were sold to customers ranging from walk-ins to movie studios to restaurants and catalogs.

The Knorr Candle Shop in Del Mar has been serving customers from the same site since 1928, when the store was opened by Steve’s grandfather, Ferdinand.

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A beekeeper, Ferdinand decided the best thing to do with the beeswax created by the bees was to make candles.

Unsure of what to do with the candles, Ferdinand took them to The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe and made his first sale. The Inn used Knorr’s candles in their dining room for more than 50 years. When it first started using them in the 1940s, the quality was a revelation for guests.

“We’re successful because our candles have always been (made of) the best product,” said Steve Knorr.

“If you go back to the early days of candles, in the ’30s and ’40s, they would smoke, or cave in and fall over. Our candles have always been made of a better quality. We were always so far ahead of the other manufacturers.”

Many candles are made of paraffin, which Steve said is nothing more than refined petroleum.

Beeswax has no oil, burns without smoking and tends to last longer.

Billion-Dollar Industry

The Knorr candles’ popularity grew so much after Ferdinand’s first sale that the candles are now sold to clients ranging from the White House to the Williams-Sonoma catalog.

“This is a billion-dollar industry,” said Steve Knorr.

And this is the busiest time of year for the company.

The Del Mar gift shop is filled to the brim with holiday candles (but not exclusively), and the new 22,000-square-foot processing factory in Carlsbad is humming almost 24 hours a day.

Steve Knorr himself is working an average of 20 hours a day right now.

Kind of like his bees.

They’re in a corner of the gift shop’s museum, which traces the history of the company.

The glass-encased bee stand sits next to the window, and has a clear, plastic tunnel-like pipe running from the outside of the window to the inside of the stand.

The bees are real, and so is the comb they’re living and working on.


“People don’t realize how important bees are to the food chain,” Knorr said. “They don’t think about what bees do.”

It is interesting. A close-up video of bees in a honeycomb shows the wax actually coming out of their bodies and being deposited onto the comb. Beekeepers then scrape the wax off the comb and take it to the company’s Carlsbad factory, where it’s cleaned up.

Raw beeswax is dirty. It’s filtered using a process similar to that used by winemakers. Next it’s poured into huge vats, then onto sheets, rolled through a press that imprints it with a honeycomb pattern and cut to size.

The sheets (in more than 60 colors) are then stored in the factory.

The factory processes more than a million pounds of beeswax a year , a staggering amount when you learn it takes 160,000 bees traveling 150,000 miles collecting nectar to produce 60 pounds of honey that will yield one pound of wax.

Steve Knorr has worked almost as hard as the bees in making sure the company kept a profit since taking over in 1982.

He’d worked in the shop since a kid, always muttering to himself that he hated it, when he was older he’d never work there and that he never wanted to be around candles again as long as he lived.

So he went into real estate “making so much money it was absurd,” and was quite happy.

But in 1982, a “careless employee” burned down half the Del Mar shop.

Steve’s father, Henry, was ready to raze the whole site, but Steve thought it could be saved and proposed to his father that he buy the store from him.

Good Timing

It was good timing for Steve. The real estate market “had gone down the tubes,” and he was looking for something else to do.

He had no marketing or advertising experience, but he knew the business, its clients and its goal.

The burned area of the shop was rebuilt, and Steve began watching customers to see what they did and didn’t buy, and why.

He learned that people find making their own candles very therapeutic, and that while they may not want to buy beeswax candles, it doesn’t mean they won’t buy traditional “smooth” candles instead.

Knorr’s shop now offers classes on candle making, allows all visitors to the store to make one beeswax candle of their own in the shop, and has enlarged its traditional candle line considerably.

The candles have been used in the films “Interview With a Vampire” and “Addicted to Love.” Many former students from Knorr’s classes have gone on to start their own candle companies, with great success.


About five years ago, Knorr realized that the company was outgrowing its Del Mar shop.

So he went looking for land, eventually settling on a site in Carlsbad.

“I practically stole the land. I bought it for nothing at the bottom of the real estate market,” he said.

It was a wise move. The site now holds the factory end of the company, and processes a million pounds of beeswax a year.

Despite all the advances in technology, candle making is still a very labor-intensive industry.

A majority of the candles made and sold by Knorr have to be hand-designed.

Knorr Candle vice president and general manager Anthony Galvin said the company has reached its limit with technology.

“It’s almost all done manually,” Galvin said.

“We’re always looking for ways to shorten the time, but it’s not as good of a product. We are now within what we can do with technology,” he said.

What the company may lack in technology or machinery is easily compensated for, thanks to Steve’s father.

Although he sold the business to Steve, Henry stayed on with the company, working on ways to improve, maintain and create machinery that would make the candle making process more efficient.

In fact, it’s Henry the company has to thank for the honeycomb pressers.

He designed and made several of them at a cost of about $2,000 each.

Steve Knorr said the same equipment sells from manufacturers for up to $25,000.

Father Still Working

“He loves working in the shop,” Steve said about his father. “He grew up on the property, and he has a strong work ethic. He always puts in his eight-hour day. That’s just the way he is.”

When the company introduced a treble clef-shaped candle, Knorr admits he only expected to sell about 50 to 100 of them.

But a catalog rep saw them, and the next thing Steve knew, he had an order for 10,000.

The employees were cutting the candles by hand at the time, and Steve went to his dad with the dilemma.

Thanks to Henry, the company now has a dozen treble clef press machines, which have quadrupled production.

Steve Knorr’s focus now is to equalize the company’s sales.

Their biggest sales come in the holiday season, but Knorr admits it’s just too stressful.

“I don’t want us to have to rely on the Christmas sales. We want to offset the candle season because it’s just too intense,” Knorr said.

The company now has sales reps in 12 cities around the country, which Knorr says has dramatically increased sales.

They’re selling their products in clothing stores because research has shown that women buy the most candles, and they love to buy clothes.

They’ve introduced the “Bee Stick,” a nontoxic stick of wax that can be used for just about anything.

“It’s super handy,” Knorr said. “I don’t even know what all people use it for, but they love it.”

Shoe polish, dental work and everything in between is being integrated with the Knorr beeswax.

“I’d like to make Christmas last all year,” he said.


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