Stanford Ponson: From down south to South Street

162

I love to support local businesses whenever possible, and this week I found a local business that in turn works to support other small business entrepreneurs as well as the community at large. Founded by Stanford Ponson, a fellow with a plethora of talents, and inspired by the craft and ingenuity of late 19th century Philadelphia, The Chandlery, also known as “Workshop of the World,” is a new offering on a rejuvenated South Street. 

Your name sounds like you should be a character on Downton Abbey, is there a story behind your name?

[Laughs] I was named after my grandfather. Actually, my first name is my father’s father’s name and my middle name is my mother’s father’s name. So my full name is Stanford Benjamin Ponson, I like to think it has an air of sophistication! And I think it fits my personality, it’s something a little unique. Some people want to shorten it to Stan or Stanley,  something more familiar but no, I go by Stanford, it’s the only thing I’ll answer to. 

My father was Leslie Austin Nash, Jr. and he HATED when people called him Les. Anyone who actually knew him knew to call him by his full name, and that it wasn’t just a girl’s name! Where did you grow up?

I’m originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I moved here for law school and I’ve been in Philadelphia for 7 years now. Originally, I was just going to come here, get my education and go back home, but I fell in love with Philadelphia. it’s my home now and I’m not going anywhere. 

You caught that Philadelphia fever!

Yeah! I was like, “F*** that, I’m not going back to Louisiana!’ 

My ex (going back a few) is from Louisiana. I can’t remember the name of the town, but it’s one of the original parishes and it’s the “Rice Capital of the World.” 

Crowley?

Yes, that’s it. She stayed here too. 

I don’t blame her.

So tell me something Louisianian about your upbringing.

Well, my family has a dairy farm that I worked for, I mean I wasn’t out there milking cows, I worked more on the production end of things. Interesting trivia, my family actually settled Pennsylvania back in the 1700’s and then left. They sailed down the Ohio to the Mississippi river, right on the cusp of the revolutionary war. So they actually settled Louisiana back in around 1775. It’s interesting being back here because tracking the family tree and our genealogy, I find remnants of the family’s history, still here. It’s kind of cool. 

What’s an example?

I’m a lawyer by day and there’s a law firm here in Philadelphia called Drinker Biddle. I came to find out that Drinker from Drinker Biddle was a distant relative of ours, from back in the 1800’s. My parents just told me about it a couple of months ago. 

Pretty cool. So I actually flubbed it, doing my research on you I kept seeing an attorney in Philadelphia with your name but skipped over it. I was trying to find the candle maker, never imagining, despite the name, that you were one and the same.

It’s all me! So I am an attorney by day, every and candlemaker by every other moment. I’ve been doing it for about 3-4 years now.

How did you get into that?

It’s a little bit of a circuitous route, I think most attorneys have both a creative and analytical mindset, and I like that balance. In fact, being creative helps us be better attorneys. I was working at a firm where I wasn’t really happy and I wanted to do something fun and educational, so I started taking wine classes at the Wine School of Philadelphia and began training to be a sommelier. I’ve always been into wine and thought it would be a fun thing to do. When I was studying to take the test, I would use fragrance oils to train my nose to detect different scents. Things like strawberry, banana, grass, things like that are obvious, we all know what they smell like, but not everyone knows what black currant is supposed to smell like, or rosewood, or whatever. So for not so obvious scents like that, I bought a bunch of fragrance oils to train with. Every morning I’d wake up and take a sniff. Training the nose is like any other muscle memory,  the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Anyway, I took the test, passed it and then I had all these fragrance oils leftover and thought, well, I like candles, maybe I should try that and use the oils. And that’s how I got into candle making. 

That’s so neat. I’m the worst person with wine. My father was an aficionado and I would tease him when we went to fancy restaurants like Le Bec Fin. He would order some fine wine and I’d ask if they had any Boones Farm or perhaps a nice wine cooler. He would try to disown me or joke that there must have been a mailman involved in my creation because I couldn’t possibly be his offspring. 

[Laughing] Aww, that’s just wrong. I get a lot of shit from my friends about “my palate” and being able to discern different wines, but the number one rule in the world of wine is that you drink what you like. That’s all that matters, because each flavor that hits your mouth, each wine that you drink, no matter what it is, is an experience in and of and for yourself. So it doesn’t matter what some snooty sommelier tells you. As long as you like it, that’s the goal. 

Bravo, but going back to the craft, in movies there’s always the caricature of the wine connoisseur swirling a glass and declaring, I smell notes of cinnamon and a hint of rock salt, etc. But can you really train yourself to be that good where you notice all of that?

Oh yeah, absolutely. At this point, I’m an advanced sommelier and I still continue my training. I’m working on a program that’s like a Masters in wine and I do refresher courses. It’s fun because I get to see other people who rose through the ranks with me, so to speak. It’s funny, I was just telling a friend last night that the joy I get from wine is the fragrance of it. I could totally not drink the wine, all I want to do is smell it! That’s the fun part, deciphering all the weird shit! 

So how has that transferred to what you do at the store?

We just opened the store about a month ago, but I started the candle line, Old City Canning Co., in my apartment 3 years ago. It organically grew as a side hustle and eventually I got a studio space in Kensington where we would make everything and now we’re in a 1,500 square foot space and make about 15,000 candles a year. Part of what we do is offer private label services, so if someone wants a candle for their brand, but doesn’t want to make it, we do it for them. We help with the creative side and packaging and branding.

How do you come up with the inspiration for the different scents, and what is your wildest one?

It could be anything, some of the wildest ones come from the collaborations with other people. Kind of why I like doing the private label brands is because it pushes me to think differently. The scents that I create are obviously going to come from my mindset, but it’s fun taking someone else’s idea and transferring it into a scent. As for my inspirations, I tend to come at it from a food and wine background, specifically food and wine pairings. I think of the movie “Ratatouille,” when he’s eating the cheese and takes a bite of the strawberry and the explosion that happens in his mind and mouth, that “OMG this creation is so delicious!” That’s my approach to scent design and candle making, how can we take things that are seemingly disparate but also complementary and create something that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. 

Such as?

One of my first private label clients, Shannon Maldonado, has a shop called Yowie and we created some weird shit. One of the first was White Tea and Leather, because her shop is in fabric row and she wanted something that referenced fabric. The end result is like sticking your head into a woman’s leather handbag and getting the scent of the leather and perfume or whatever she has in there, maybe a little wax and it sounds crazy but it worked. Really well. 

None of the Gweneth Paltrow “smells like my vagina” candles?

Ha, I’ve actually smelled that one. [Laughing] I don’t know what a vagina smells like, but I have the feeling that hers doesn’t actually smell like that candle. I’ve had requests for something like that, but no. Not interested. No crotch candles for me. 

I applaud you for that. [Laughing] Stand your ground. So speaking of sexual organs, tell me about coming out. How’s that for a segue? 

It was pretty lackluster. I was in law school, I’d never really dated prior to that, ever, and one day I just decided to change that and told my straight roommates that I was going on a date with a guy and they were like, “Okay, good luck”. And that was it. And that’s how it’s been ever since, I don’t wear it on my sleeve, but if it comes up that’s fine, it’s just a part of who I am. I live as if the world assumes that I’m not straight. If there’s a problem, it’s on them. 

But there had to be a point where you realized that you had feelings that were not mainstream. 

Yes, but growing up in Louisiana it’s obviously difficult for someone who’s not straight. I’ve always known that I was different. I actually don’t refer to myself as gay, I refer to myself as queer because I’ve tried to put myself in boxes throughout the years, I tried to be straight, I tried to be gay, I tried a number of things, but ultimately, I feel more comfortable with the fluidity of the term queer. Leaving home and coming to Philadelphia broadened my horizons and opened me up to all the different types of people who exist in the world. And I feel like I’m living my best life now. 

And how about the family?

Interesting point. [Laughs] I just came out to them about 4 months ago. It was in June when the supreme court ruled on same sex protections in the workplace. I realized that, as a non-straight person with influence and privilege because of my standing as an attorney and as a business owner, it was important for me to stand up. Old City Canning Co. is 100% LGBTQ owned and employed. We donate 10% of our annual revenues to charities and social causes, and intentionally work with other minority brands on collaborations and partnerships. But I decided that I needed to really put a face on things and make it known that queer people are everywhere and that we are staples in the business community, so I just told them and they were like, “What?” They took it hard, they’re both conservative, to each their own, but they came around quickly and they’re fine with it now, I think…

How has your new attitude transferred to your new store, The Chandlery?

In all the time I’ve had Old City Canning, I’ve never publicized that it was an LGBTQ+ owned and operated business. But then I realized that we are a family, we are a community and I want people to realize that we are a part of and support the community. And serendipitously, one of my customers and friends, who is also gay, has a store on South Street and he told me about a space there and introduced me to the landlord who was someone from a non-traditional family and they were/are awesome so I just decided to go for it. The ripples have been inspiring, we’re all part of this amazing queer community and helping each other out and creating opportunities for other queer people and brands. 

And now you have a brand new store! 

Yes, I was a little nervous opening a retail shop in the middle of a pandemic but if there’s anything I’ve learned from the pandemic it’s to cast away any and all judgment that people put on you and trust your instincts. We’ve been open just over a month and it’s been great. People are banging on the door looking for creative inspiration, something to think about other than, “What’s on Netflix tonight?” 

What types of things do you carry?

We operate primarily as Old City Canning Co.’s storefront, so all the candles and room sprays and fragrance products that we make. But I also wanted it to be a place for inspiration so I invited other local brands to share the space with us, so for instance, there’s a girl who just walked in one day with a friend. She’d started a home business making granola during the pandemic and now we stock her. Another artist is a woman named Sara who takes old damaged Turkish rugs and creates slippers and Christmas stockings and things with them. One thing that I feel is important is that the artist makes more money than the store from the product, most wholesale arrangements are the opposite, but that’s not how we operate. We started out thinking we were just going to be a candle store, but it’s evolved into something much greater. 

Okay, random question time, you deal in beautiful fragrances, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever smelled?

We tried to design a cheese steak candle and it was so bad we had to throw out, not just the candles but all the oils and anything that touched it. It was absolutely horrible! We realized that there’s a reason you don’t see savory candles on the market. 

As I mentioned, my ex was from Louisiana, and like you, she didn’t have much of an accent… until she got drunk or mad. Same for you?

Yes! Yes! Or first thing in the morning, or when I talk about food, or if I call home, then it definitely comes out. 

Louisiana is the home of drive through drinking kiosks, tell me a good drinking story. 

Well, I’ll tell you my first legal experience. I was just 21 and I was at an auction and I spent $300 on a vertical set of wine. That was the seed that got me interested in wine and from that point on I started collecting wine. When I moved to Philadelphia, I didn’t want to transport all that wine so I had a big party and we drank it all! It was awesome. As we like to say, laissez le bon temps rouler!