It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! I’ve had the pleasure of getting in the holiday spirit here in our pretty city these past few weeks, in part thanks to a number of spaces serving spirits in festive and creative new ways. I started off with a trip to Craftsman Row Saloon where I indulged in one of their outrageously decadent milkshakes. I passed on “Gettin Chippy With It” in favor of the “Pumpkin to Talk About” which came with an actual piece of pumpkin pie and donut skewers on top. (Having been the food critic at PGN once upon a time, I will interrupt my Xmas tale to say that their BBQ shrimp mac and cheese was about the best I’ve ever had.) For more festive libations and atmosphere, I went to U-Ville at the Uptown Beer Garden at 16th & JFK. I felt like Little Suzi-Lou Who in the Seuss themed space and ordered drinks that came in festive containers shaped like Christmas balls, a stocking, and even a can of soup! It was all outdoors which is perfect for those not quite ready for inside gatherings. Then I was off to their sister spot, Tinsel, for another dip into a dizzying display of Christmas spirit, which included my new favorite drink, the Jack Frost. I won’t tell you how to make it, you’ll just have to go there try it for yourself. Along my holiday journey, I took in the mind blowing Deceptions magic show at the Vesper Speakeasy, and this week it was a trip to the Christmas Village and then to Dilworth Plaza for the Made in Philadelphia market. The village and the plaza were dazzling as always and guaranteed to put even the biggest Scrooge in the holiday sprit. This year there are several new vendors, and I had a chance to get to know one of them a little better, the lovely Jacob Anthony from The Lion’s Den Candle Company.
Are you also Made in Philadelphia?
I was born in Philly, but grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. I went to high school outside of Harrisburg and then did my undergrad at Drexel. I got my Masters at Drexel as well in 2012.
What did you study at Drexel?
Chemistry was my undergrad with a minor in biology and then I went into my graduate program to potentially go into medical school, so it was a medical/biology masters but I got waitlisted a few times and after 3 years I just decided to continue with what I was doing.
What were you doing?
I started in pharmaceutical research for a few years and then switched over to clinical trials. I was an auditor for about 7 years with my last stint being a clinical training specialist. I’d go to the hospitals and set up clinical trials and train the doctors and nurses to make sure they were running the trials correctly.
Did any of the trials you worked on lead to any breakthroughs?
No, because a lot of the trials were very long and ongoing. It might take about 17 years before they’re completed. But I really loved doing the training.
I did a sleep study a long time ago where they were studying sleep deprivation. It was cool and it took over 3 weekends. The first weekend I slept normally and then did all sorts of tests, driving simulations and reaction tests, then the next weekend we had to stay awake for, I think it was 36 hours and do the same tests every 4 hours. It was remarkable to see how much of a difference it made the longer you went without sleep, especially with the driving tests.
Yeah, it’s an interesting field. The last 7 years I got to travel every week before the pandemic hit. That was March of 2020 and by April I wasn’t traveling anymore, I was doing remote work, but it wasn’t the same. I got into the routine that a lot of people did, watching Netflix, making TikTok videos and goofing off on social media. Finally it occurred to me, this is a huge waste of my time, I should be doing something productive. I was watching videos on candle making, something I always wanted to try, so I ordered a candle making kit. It was fun, but they didn’t burn well at all. That’s when I realized how much goes into making a really good candle. The chemistry side of me was intrigued, so I started doing research on the mechanics of candle making, all the different oil concentrations, the wick sizes, the containers. It takes a couple months of trial and error and testing to do it right so I was doing a lot of tinkering in the basement. My end goal was essentially to make gifts for people. This was April of 2020 and everyone was thinking that the pandemic would be over by Memorial Day. I thought it would be nice to give them to friends and people in the service industry who’d been hard hit by the pandemic. I started making little batches of candles with 6 or 7 different scents and giving them away. People really loved them and I got amazing feedback on the scents and the burns. People started asking if they could buy them and that’s how it got started. By that summer, I was waking up in the morning thinking about candles, “Oh, I should try this, or maybe I can do that? I wonder if this will lead to that?” Since then I’ve branched out into diffusers and soaps and other things. For about a year and a half, I did my full time job alongside the candle business which was tough because I’d started traveling again. In May of 2021, I got the candles into the Rehoboth Beach Farmer’s Market which was exciting, but I realized that I wasn’t really able to give my full attention to the candles, and wasn’t really giving my job my full attention either, so this past August I decided to make the leap and quit my day job. I realized that if I didn’t fully invest myself into the candle company, I would one day regret it. It was scary but exciting. I wake up thinking about it and I love it so much I don’t even consider it work. It’s pure joy. I love getting to tinker with the chemistry of it and learning new things. I built the website myself and taught myself a lot about taxes and the business end of things. It’s been a crazy ride and I’ve been enjoying it all!
What is the first scent you recall making?
Driftwood, and Sparkling Grapefruit, were two of the firsts.
What was the hardest one to create?
Ugh! Cinnamon buns. The oil that you use is thick, so it’s hard to use and the color is dark, so it can make the soy wax turn off color, and the wax would pool and put the flame out, so I really had to do some work to get that one right. It’s a pain, but people really liked it.
[Laughing] Do you find yourself getting hungry working on food scented candles?
I don’t, but some people say they can’t buy them because it makes them want to eat! For me, I was not as into the food scented candles, I like the Christmas and berries and clean or unique scents, but the others are big sellers.
Where did the name “The Lion’s Den Candles” come from, and who does the design work?
The name came from our house in Rehoboth. We have this huge, disco ball shaped lion at the house. People like to take pictures with it, so we also bought lions for the front porch and people started calling our place The Lion’s Den. It seemed like the perfect name for the candle company and I had an idea for the logo to make it look like there were flames coming out of the lion’s mane. I knew from the get-go that I wanted a sleek, black design in both the candles and packaging. Most candle companies typically use clear or white jars, often with floral decorations or pictures of the fruit or flavor the scent comes from, so I think our design stand out from the crowd.
They are very sleek and elegant. Speaking of sleek and elegant, let’s get back to you, what were you like as a kid?
I am the youngest of 3. I went to high school in the middle of nowhere near Harrisburg, and I was very active outside. I was also that kid who would get a gift that was a kit for putting something together, and I would never stop to read the instructions. It’s just how my mind worked and still does. I actually first went to school for engineering, I love tinkering with things. I’m the one who gets called if something breaks in the house. I’m comfortable speaking in front of a group of people but at heart I’m an introvert so I was kind of a loner. I need and like time to myself, so I didn’t have a core group of friends at school, I just tried to get along with everybody. I wasn’t out then but obviously being gay played a part. When I got to college, that changed and I came out and found a great group of friends. About 2 years into college, I came out to the family. Of course my mother knew already, and the rest of the family was very accepting, I am very lucky.
What does your partner Tony do?
He’s an ophthalmologist but he’s been retired since the start of the pandemic. He works with me now and enjoys it. He’s much more extroverted than me so he’s the hype man for the company. We would probably have half the sales that we have if it wasn’t for him. He’s great with people and he has a lot of good ideas.
What did the folks do and what traits do you get from them?
My dad was in the navy for 20 years, he retired and then started working as a manager of a shipping company. My mom works in shipping as well. As far as traits, neither of them had degrees but they were hardworking, I think I got my work ethic from them both. My mom was very caring and always put others ahead of herself. She was very empathic and I’m the same way, I can feel it when someone is feeling bad. From my dad I got that sort of military attitude that things need to be done on time and correctly.
Let’s do some rapid fire questions: Any pets?
I have two Weimaraners and my niece who is staying with us while she’s in law school has a pug here.
What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
Probably Tokyo, that wasn’t for work, it was for pleasure and it was a lot of fun. Everything was so clean and people were so respectful. It was also very homogeneous which was interesting. It is one of my favorite places that I’ve been to. I also love Hawaii, I’ve been there 4 times and we got married there. We were so lucky, we had about 130 people attend our wedding in February of 2020. If it had been one month later it wouldn’t have been able to happen.
Any superstitions or phobias?
Not really any superstitions, though I definitely believe in karma and the energy in the world. I’m a chemist so, you know, entropy and enthalpy and disorder and all that. For phobias, I’m afraid of heights, though I try to not let it stop me from doing things. I still went to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the balcony of the Sears Tower, but it’s not something I’m crazy about.
I read that your company works very hard to be earth friendly. In what ways?
As a scientist, I think it’s super important to be aware of global warming. We drive an electric car, we have geothermal at the shore, and tried to put on solar panels. If everyone takes just a few additional steps to do better for the environment it can make a big difference. For the company, we use 100% soy wax which is better for people and the environment. Our wicks, wax and scents are all free of harmful chemicals and all our packaging & shipping materials are biodegradable or recyclable.
I like to go to the gym. I think it’s important to do something each day, even if it’s just yoga or walking. You feel better, you sleep better; it’s important. I enjoy reading fantasy books when I have the time. I also like fantasy and action movies. And I got into gymnastics as an adult! I’d never done it before and I just decided to start taking lessons. I’m always willing to try something new. In college I played Lacrosse for the first time and even played basketball for a minute when I was younger.
What was your best gymnastic move?
I could do a great roundoff back handspring, or Arabian layout. I’d go once or twice a week and was able to put together a floor and a bar routine at the end.
I’m impressed! What store would you choose to max out your credit card?
Ooh, tough one! Probably Lululemon because I like to wear gym clothes, or the Apple store.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever smelled?
Well, that’s interesting, because I think a lot of scents are imposed by culture. Especially in the country, you’re taught, “Skunk! Eww!” and that gets ingrained on you, telling you by society that it’s good or bad. But I never actually minded the smell of skunk. On the other hand, I like to drink whiskey, but I don’t like the smell of it. I think all scents are interesting in their own ways.
Ha, I’m the opposite, I like the smell of whiskey but can’t stand the taste. Talk a little about why you think it’s important for businesses to give back to the community.
I have always felt that I’ve been extremely blessed and especially as a doctor, Tony feels the same. We have great family support, good friends, and good jobs. We would throw a Toys for Tots party every year and collected about 4,000 toys. If someone was starting a small business, we’d throw an event to help get the word out. My goal with The Lion’s Den is to get to the point where we can help subsidize small businesses with grants and to donate money each month to different non-profits.
So are we going to see you on “Shark Tank” soon?
You know, people have been asking me that. We’ll see. It’s a market that’s pretty saturated, but I’d like to think that the energy I put into making sure that they burn beautifully and that they’re fragrant enough to fill a room would make them stand out. We’ll see.
And what does it mean to you to be in Dillworth Plaza with all the other amazing local vendors?
It’s been amazing to be part of it. We were very lucky to get in and super excited. And there are so many cool vendors to explore. The sushi bowl! The cheese sandwiches. The dog treat place next to me! And I love the Woops! vendor. Amazing macaroons. I ate 12 in one night!
Have you ridden the ferris wheel yet?
No, because of that fear of heights I mentioned before!