‘Let There Be Light’

From hobby to helping hand: Franklin’s Middle Davids benefits nonprofits with artisan candles

By Jennifer Uhl

» The simple candle covers a lot of ground. In taper, votive, tea-light, pillar or jarred form, candles are no-fail hostess gifts, romantic dinner must-haves, power outage lifesavers. You can find them in just about every mall, big-box store and gift shop. But one local family has taken candle-making to the next level and in the process made its homegrown company’s light shine a little brighter than most.

Though now a thriving business, Middle Davids — more on the unusual name later — began as a basement hobby. David Catlin, then a pastor living near Joliet, Illinois, began making candles in the late ’60s to give as gifts to family, friends and nursing home residents. He eventually dabbled in selling his candles on eBay and in a local craft store, but the hobby didn’t turn into an income-maker until his wife, Elaine, asked for a favor in 2002.

A former fourth-grade teacher, Elaine was a leader for People to People, a student ambassador program. Her students needed money for their trips, and while she had experience with school fundraisers, she wanted to give people something of more value for their money than an overpriced box of chocolates. Her thoughts turned to her husband’s on-again, off-again hobby, and she requested that he make candles for a fundraiser. One move to Indiana, nearly 13 years, and a brick-and-mortar store later, David’s hobby and Elaine’s idea have turned into a second- and third-generation family business with nonprofit fundraisers at the forefront.

A Hobby Goes Retail

So-named for David (whose first name is Arthur after his father and grandfather; his middle name is David) and his pastor son and store co-owner, Dan (middle name David, natch), Middle Davids opened in Franklin in 2007 and moved into the renovated Wigwam building in the fall of 2009. The unassuming East Jefferson Street storefront with its red-and-white awnings is split into two sections: retail in the front, workshop where thousands upon thousands of candles are hand-poured in the back.

Dan and his wife, Tauria, wouldn’t have it any other way. “We could have run our company out of a warehouse,” she says, “but we really wanted to be a part of Franklin. That’s why we put our workroom in the back.”

Tauria manages the retail end of the shop. A skilled weaver, she keeps her loom by the front desk and creates beautifully patterned scarves of lightweight bamboo silk, which are sold alongside locally handmade items, including cards, jewelry and pottery. From time to time, one of the dozen-plus artists featured will host an in-store seminar on his craft, such as basket weaving. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that you can still make things,” Tauria says. “We’re trying to keep that alive versus the idea that you always have to buy something someone else made.”

“We could  have run our company out of a warehouse, but we really wanted to be a part of Franklin. That’s why we put our workroom in the back.”
—Tauria Catlin

Then there are the candles. For a small space filled with perfumes of all ilks — bakery, fruity, floral, fresh — it’s surprisingly underwhelming in the best way possible. There’s no headache-inducing, massive scent assault, thanks to the green nature of the candles, which are made from all-natural food grade organic soy wax. (This doesn’t mean the candles don’t have a strong fragrance when burned; “Beach Holiday” on the front desk is a daiquiri-lover’s dream.) The custom, U.S.-made apothecary-style jars are labeled by hand, a time-consuming job that sometimes calls for the help of Dan and Tauria’s three daughters, each of whom owns 1 percent of the company, or as Tauria says, just enough to keep them on call to label jars when a large batch needs an all-hands-on-deck approach.

Each daughter also has her own custom-blended scent: Zoe, the youngest, asked Dan to create a candy corn candle, which led to daughter Bethany requesting a candy cane-scented candle. “And then she said, ‘It has to have diagonal stripes!’” Tauria recalls. Dan tinkered around and came through with a method to fill the jars at an angle. Most recently, daughter Charissa’s signature ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”) scent was a springtime favorite with shop-goers. The green-and-white candle honors Tauria’s Celtic heritage with an earthy scent of musk mixed with sage and lavender.

Most of the largest, 15-ounce jar candles are available in smaller jars or as votives and tea-lights; some scents are also sold as wax melts or in handy travel tins. Middle Davids candles also come with a unique perk: Purchase a jar candle, and if you return the empty jar and lid when finished, you’ll receive a store discount on a future purchase, such as the one candle Dan and Tauria have to keep restocking: The bacon-scented candle, or “mandle.” It’s so popular it’s even sold on Amazon.com, but you can get a whiff of it and more odd but delicious scents — cut grass, kettle korn, new car, cash and others — in-store.

Giving Back

Unusual scents aside, the potential for nonprofit fundraising remains front and center at Middle Davids. The large 13-ounce jar candles, those sold in fundraisers, burn for 65 to 80 hours and cost $20, about 15 percent less than other national brands. They also burn cooler and cleaner than most, with 90 percent less soot than those made from paraffin wax. All of this information comes in the demo kit students receive. Not only does Dan create school-specific brochures filled with information about the candles, he pours a sales kit of 10 tea-lights for every student so prospective buyers can sample the fragrances. In addition to the profit of $10 for every jar sold (the profit margin is almost always 50 percent), students who sell 12 or more candles get to keep their tea-light samplers. When it’s time to deliver the candles, Dan is there to help distribute the jars, which sport the school or organization’s custom label free of charge.

David Catlin pours candles

David Catlin pours candles

Sharon Kaiser, a former fifth-grade teacher, is now the coordinator of the Middle Davids schoolwide fundraiser at Clark Pleasant Intermediate School. Packets are sent home the first week of school, orders are taken through Labor Day, and with one hassle-free delivery, Clark Pleasant is finished with fundraising for the entire year. Last fall, students sold $31,000 worth of candles, with 50 percent of that profit going directly back to the students for teaching projects, supplies and more. “We were tired of all the chocolate and wrapping paper, and Dan makes it so easy,” Kaiser says. “I love how he works with the schools, and he’s local. We get good feedback on the fundraiser, because (the candles are) something everyone can use.”

Emily Bradley, the music secretary at Franklin Community High School, echoes that praise. “Performing arts programs are very expensive,” she says, “and this is a fantastic fundraiser for the students. (Middle Davids) gives us a good product at a great price. The profit margin is very high, and the customer service is fantastic. They go above and beyond what you’d expect.”

Middle Davids has turned into more than what David, now officially retired, ever expected when he was making candles in his basement 40 years ago, but he’s grateful that his part-time hobby became a profitable company that has helped so many, especially students on the southside. “School fundraisers have always been at the heart of this business,” he says, “and I love this area.”