How one woman transformed her Instagram side hustle into a bricks-and-mortar store

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“I made 8,000 candles in my apartment”: How one woman transformed her Instagram side hustle into a bricks-and-mortar store

When she found herself out of work during the pandemic, former event producer Rachael-Lea Rickards started making and selling candles with playful messages out of her downtown condo. Her chatty candles went viral, and in June, she opened up her own storefront in Leslieville. Here, she tells us how she turned Real Talk Candles from a one-woman side hustle into a full-fledged storefront.

As told to Haley Steinberg

“I call it the pivotal punch. In April 2019, I was working as an event producer for a condo developer. I was standing outside my office one day when a man suffering from mental illness broke free from his caretaker, scooted across the street and punched me right in the face.

“I had a concussion, a busted nose—the whole bit. I took a week off work to heal, thinking I’d be fine once the swelling went down. When I returned to work, I hid my black eye with lots of makeup. I was working on a condo launch, and people were constantly rushing up to me and asking me questions. I found that I was jumping out of my skin. One day, I just hopped in a cab, went home and asked for more time off work.

“I was having panic attacks and anxiety. I kept having flashbacks to the assault, and eventually I was diagnosed with PTSD. I couldn’t leave the house. I was in quarantine before we were all quarantined during the pandemic. As my anxiety got worse, I realized I had to do something to get out of the house. In December 2019, on a whim, I signed up for a one-day beginner candle-making class in the Distillery.

“I’ve always liked candles, but I was mainly looking for a craft that I could do as a distraction. This class was the perfect escape for me. It gave me something to focus my mind on. When I got home after the class, I dove into YouTube to learn more about candle-making. I bought some wax and started making candles in a large pot—it looks a bit like a rice cooker—to give away to neighbours and friends. I made them in batches of 12. They weren’t too fancy: just white wax candles inside clear glass jars. But I used fresh, welcoming scents like hydrangea, lilac and Hawaiian breeze, and people really seemed to enjoy them.

“I was still on mental health leave, and I needed to find a way to make money. In the early spring of 2020, it occurred to me that I could try branding and selling my candles. I thought, There are millions of candles out there. How can I make mine different? Then I had the idea of adding my personality to the labels. I’ve always been outspoken and try to use my platforms on social media to give a voice to the voiceless. I’d call them Real Talk Candles. I thought my candles could be a way to draw attention to issues that mattered to me, like mental health and Black Lives Matter. My first candle was the anxiety candle, available in several scents. I printed out a label that read: “Smells Like: Just Burn the Fucking Candle and Breathe.” A lot of people were struggling with anxiety during the pandemic, and I wanted to bring some light-heartedness to the subject. I hoped the act of lighting the candle and releasing the sweet floral scent would help people relax—and that the message would make them smile.

“I created an Instagram page and a website for Real Talk Candles in April 2020 and posted a picture of the anxiety candle. It just flew off the shelf. The website crashed from all of the traffic. I sold about 75 candles in a week. I was completely shocked by the response, but I knew that I was onto something. The world had turned completely upside down, and people were just as frightened and sad as I was. A lot of people reached out to say, ‘Your candles make me laugh. I really needed that.’

“Initially, I planned to sell the candles for $18 apiece, but a friend said to me, “You put way too much love into these candles. Go higher.” So I bumped the price up to $22. I started coming up with more ideas for candle messages that I thought would resonate with people. I made a Big Girl Magic candle to celebrate curvy girls. I made a Black Lives Matter candle and a couple of candles with quarantine-themed slogans, like a Grey Sweatpants candle and a Social Distancing candle. I also added a custom option for people to choose the scent they wanted.

Two of my candles went viral. I made a Scarborough candle with the label, ‘Smells Like: Warden Station and Jamaican Patties,” because Warden has the best Jamaican patties around. People loved that. I also made a PS5 candle with the label, “PS5: Smells Like: You’re Not Getting One,” which went viral internationally. I had radio stations calling me, and got candle orders from Nigeria and Switzerland. I couldn’t make the candles fast enough, so I hired someone to help me. I was making about 75 to 100 candles every day. All told, I probably made about 8,000 candles in my kitchen. I couldn’t even move around my condo without bumping into a candle.

“I knew I needed to move Real Talk out of my condo—I didn’t have space for all of my stock. There were candles lined up all over my living room floor. One day, while browsing Facebook Marketplace, I found a little room available for sub-lease in St. Lawrence Market, which is not too far from where I live. I crossed my fingers and thought, If it works out, it works out. If not, at least I tried.

“I moved into the St. Lawrence Market space in September 2020. But the tenants in the office next door started to complain about the scent of the candles, and the landlord told me I couldn’t make them there. I didn’t know what to do. I called Deputy Mayor Michael Thompson, who was working on economic growth for the city, and he helped me find a 1,800-square-foot space in Leslieville that I could use as a storefront for Real Talk. The prospect of opening up a retail space during a pandemic was terrifying. I have a loyal follower base on Instagram—I call them my ‘candle family’—and I shared my fears with them. They were super-supportive and gave me the confidence I needed to take the plunge.

“I’m not going to lie—the new space is pretty expensive. The rent is about three times higher than the rent I was paying at St. Lawrence Market. But when you’re pushed, sometimes you just have to leap. We opened the store at the end of June. Having a place to connect with my customers has been so amazing. I’m meeting people in person who have been following me since the beginning. One woman came into the store and showed me her sobriety coins, so I made a Sobriety candle that says: ‘If the only thing you did today was hold yourself together, I’m proud of you!’ Another woman walked in and was immediately drawn to a candle that says, ‘Pray About It and Let It Go.’ She broke down and told me that her mother had stage-four breast cancer. I started crying, my staff started crying. I gave her a candle for her mother, and she ended up buying several more.

“I have four staff—a couple of whom I taught to make the candles—and I focus on the creative side of the business. We sell about 600 candles a week online, with the option for customers to pick them up in-store. Due to restrictions on retail, we currently don’t have more than five people in the store at once. But we’ve started Wine and Wicks nights, where people can chat, drink wink and learn how to make candles. The first two sessions sold out in a half-hour. We’re also launching a series called Candles and Conversation, where we’ll talk about things like relationships, sex and issues that are affecting the community. When we opened registration for our first candle-making class, it sold out in about half an hour.

Indigo in Ajax has started carrying a few of our candles. People were lining up at the store early to get one. It’s all word of mouth. Almost all of the photos on our Instagram page are from our customers—I’ve spent nothing on advertising. People come for the messages, but they come back for the quality of the candles. I walked into the store the other day and it just hit me, like, Wow. We really did this. I never thought that Real Talk would grow into a real, flesh-and-blood business, but I’m glad that everything led me to where I am now. My hope is that Real Talk becomes a hub for creativity and conversation in the community. Candles got me get through a difficult time in my life. I want this store to be a place that puts a smile on people’s faces. It does for me.”