What’s In A Name?

Local hand poured candles by Black Label Candles enjoy a following in 65 stores around the U.S.

By Rebecca Berfanger // Photography by Angel Jackson

Until a few years ago, fans of a certain candle sold at area antique stores weren’t sure of the name or how to buy more. With no identifying information other than the scent scribbled on a black label, in a light-colored, handwritten font, and sold mostly in antique stores, subsequent searches would involve Googling the term “black label candles;” with the result of various retails, including one in Illinois, but no specific landing place.
In early 2020, a Franklin couple, Diane and Tom Strack, purchased the company from their friends, Beth and Jerry Gouge, and officially named it Black Label Candles by Curly Willow. They registered the domain blacklabelcandles.com, ordered a ton of candle-making supplies, and made a few modifications to the labels. However, they didn’t alter any of the scents or formulas that were known and loved.
Due to world events at the time, the Stracks said they were blessed to be able to use those early months in 2020 to get up to speed with the business before actually going into stores. They have been going strong ever since, mostly thanks to word of mouth among stores, and long-time fans.
“Once shops began to open after COVID slowed down, we were slammed with orders from customers and we picked up a lot of customers as well. We had some issues with supply chains like everyone else, but we worked really hard to keep up,” said Tom Strack.
Tom Strack was working a full-time job during the day and helping Diane Strack make candles at night. Thanks to Black Label Candles, he said, he was blessed to be able to retire a year early in December 2021. He has been only working full-time for the business ever since.
Starting with around 25 shops when they first took over the candle line, today they are available in about 65 stores around the country, “from Colorado to Michigan to Florida to Maine,” Diane Strack said, “including 12 in Indiana.”
Vintage Whimsy in Franklin continues to carry all of their scents for locals, including room sprays and “tarts” for wax burners.
“There is a definitely a Black Label Candle fan club who return again and again, or have us ship, so they can get their fix. I personally appreciate the quality of candle that Diane and Tom produce. I’m so happy to be able to help support their local business,” said Jennifer McAlpin-Shireman of Vintage Whimsy.
Knowing the following these candles have, the Stracks try to keep at least 30 miles of driving distance between the stores who carry them. They also have stores apply to carry their candles – typically only places that sell primitive antiques, generally items from the 1700s to mid-1800s; boutiques; and farm stores; with a few exceptions, including a garden store.
“It’s just the two of us and it’s real personal. We want it to be a great quality product. It’s handmade in Franklin, Indiana. So we want it to show a good light on local shopping,” she said, adding she hoped their candle would bring people into stores that sell it and buy other items, as well. She joked that other than a few times her family has helped make candles, it’s just her, Tom, and their Australian shepherd.
It isn’t lost on the Stracks that anyone can buy a candle online, but they attribute the experience of buying their candles, while supporting local stores, is what brings the customers back.
“There are a lot of comfort smells that remind you of being back at home, of mom cooking bread and just taking it out of the oven,” Diane Strack said. “These scents just stir up memories. So it’s fun to just listen to people open the candles and comment on them to hear what memories these candle scents stir in people. So that’s really enjoyable for us.”
McAlpin-Shireman agreed.
“Our customers really get excited about the Black Label Candle Company line. From the variety of unique scents available, it’s hard for them to choose just one. They rave about the smells and long burning nature of the candles. Offered in a variety of sizes and types, there is something for everyone. Visitors are always delighted to find out that they are hand poured right here in Franklin, Indiana,” she said.
They also have different candles that sell more in certain stores. Vintage Whimsy tends to sell a lot of the cornbread & apple butter candles, as do other Indiana stores, the Stracks said.
Considering they hand pour all of their candles, mostly sold in pint and quart sizes, they have gotten pretty good at anticipating what to make and when after two years of sales.
As the days shorten and temps begin to cool, the Stracks are gearing up for popular fall scents, including white pumpkin, a vanilla and pumpkin blend; black caldron – the good witches brew, which captures the essence of a spicy carmel apple cider; and root cellar, a pumpkin pie scent. The aptly named cornbread & apple butter and cornbread & honey candles also sell well in the fall, they said.
They were anticipating a rush on sales for their sellers’ fall and Christmas open houses, including traditional holiday scents that include the bouquets of fresh fir, butter cookies with a sugar topping, Christmas apples on the stove, and a “festive blend of orange peel, cinnamon sticks and apple slices.”
The Stracks also attribute downtown Franklin for their success, where they also live.
“We live in downtown Franklin in a historic home,” Diane Strack said. “My only regret about moving to Franklin, is we didn’t move here sooner.”
Originally from Johnson County, they had moved to Tennessee when Tom Strack had to relocate for work. When they came back to Indiana, they had been living east of Indianapolis when they first opened Curly Willow and Diane Strack would commute.
“When we opened our shop, we right away realized and recognized a lot of renovation going on in town after the flood. While the flood was devastating, we saw a lot of good things later came from that,” Tom Strack said. They ultimately moved to downtown Franklin.
Not only has Vintage Whimsy supported their ongoing endeavor to sell their handmade candles, but also other local businesses have helped, including the Historic Artcraft Theatre.
“We saw the Artcraft as the hub of the town. We began to partner with them in whatever way we could,” Tom Strack said, adding they’ve provided movie-themed candles as prizes and sponsored movies in the past, including “Mamma Mia!” in July 2022.
As for why they appreciate downtown Franklin in general, “Just to be able to walk around downtown and go out to eat and go to a show and now the amphitheater,” said Diane Strack. “Just everything Franklin has to offer. Our grandkids love it here. They have a lot of great memories of the Artcraft, too. And it’s just a great place to live and to own a business. We just couldn’t be happier to be a part of the community.”