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In The News

Lincoln Journal Star
Sunday, October 21, 2007
By: Cara Pesek

From the kitchen counter to a Falls City storefront, couple's candles grow from extra holiday cash to booming business year round.

Kris Vrtiska stabilizes a stubborn wick while wax sets up. (Photos by Robert Becker / Lincoln Journal Star)
FALLS CITY - On the right day, if the door is open and the breeze is right, much of downtown Falls City smells like caramel corn.

Or cinnamon coffee, or gingerbread, or cranberry spice, or whatever type of candle Kris Vrtiska is making that day.

In a small downtown building that once housed the Wagon Wheel restaurant, Vrtiska spends her days mixing fragrance and dyes with melted wax. She and Jenn Uher, her friend and employee, pour the mixtures into glass jelly jars, which are ready and waiting, with wicks already in place.

On each jar, the women affix a label that has a photograph of a little boy and little girl - Vrtiska's mother-in-law and her brother, with their dog, Sport. The photo was taken 75 years ago.

Pouring Candles
Kris Vrtiska pours the last drops of juniper spice into a meltable Soy Qube, making wickless wax for electric melters/simmer pots.
The restaurant-turned candle shop is filled with tubs and vials of dye and fragrance, pitchers of melted wax, and bags filled with food-grade soy flakes, which are melted to make the wax. Vrtiska prefers soy-based candles, because they burn cleaner and are a local, home-grown commodity.

"We're supporting domestic agriculture," she said.

The place resembles a laboratory, albeit a colorful, good-smelling one.

And there is a lot of science to the candle-making business - getting the wick size just right, discovering which scents and colors best complement each other and which scents are appealing to the most consumers.

"Everybody's nose is different," she said.


Cranberry spice is poured by Kris Vrtiska at the production table.
Vrtiska has learned all of these lessons relatively quickly. It was eight years ago this month that she made her first batch of candles in her Tecumseh kitchen.

She and her husband, Kim, didn't have much extra money for Christmas presents that year, but still wanted to give something special and handmade to family and friends..

Kris had never been terribly crafty. She didn't knit or crochet or sew. Still, she figured she could do candles.

Kim made a melter by soldering a spigot onto a Presto Pot. Kris made the first batch of candles - candy cane and pumpkin-pie spice - on their kitchen counter.

Kim, then a teacher at Tecumseh Public Schools, took some of the candles to work and put them in the teachers' lounge.

The drew rave reviews - and also some requests.

Within a few months, Kris had $2,000 worth of orders.

Pouring Candles
Kris Vrtiska (right), with Jennifer Uher working at her side, adds color to wax in a pour pot.
Candle-making took over her kitchen. She moved her operation to the basement, and the candles and candle supplies took over there, too. She gave her company a name - Heritage Candles.


In college, Kim had a roommate who has since become a music instructor in a nearby town.

Kim asked his friend if maybe his band students would be interested in selling candles as a fundraiser. His friend said he's give it a shot.

He did. And the band members sold a lot of candles.

Word spread, and groups from other areas schools started selling Kris Vrtiska's candles, too. Then orders came in from out of state.

The couple hadn't advertised much at that point, Kris said, but the requests kept coming in.

Candles in the inventory storage area feature labels with an old picture of Kris' mother-in-law and her brother with their dog, Sport.

"It was word-of-mouth. I guess." she said.

For a while, Kris worked with another candle-maker, selling her creations under a new label, Maybridge. Then, when her family moved to Falls City, she struck out on her own again, renaming her business Heritage Falls - adding the "Falls" as a tribute to her family's new home.

Falls city welcomed the candle-makers right away.

Several local businesses started selling the candles. The school office became a testing ground for new scents. Kim would drop off candles still in development, then gather feedback, and empty jars, after the candles had burned.

New friends and neighbors volunteered to help during the busiest times of the year in the fall and winter up until Christmas.

And when the couple decided it was time to move the business out of their home and into a storefront, they were offered and old downtown building rent-free for a year if they would spruce it up.

"The price was right," Kim said.


The front of the old Wagon Wheel restaurant is a showroom, filled with candles and hand made crafts made by area artisans.

The back is where the candles are made and packaged.

Jenn Uher is often there. She's a candle aficionado. She started helping out Kris when she was still making her candles in her basement. Now she works for her.

Kris & Kim
Kris Vrtiska (left) and her husband, Kim, display products in a refinished antique hutch in their retail gift store. Kim, who did the refinishing, has made other display cabinets.
The Vrtiska's venture into candle-making came at a serendipitous time for Uher. She and her husband recently had repainted the inside of their home. When they moved the furniture and took down the photos hanging on the walls, they found thick outlines of soot around everything.

Uher's husband suggested she quit burning candles so frequently.

The Uher heard that soy-based candles produce less soot than petroleum ones. She began burning Kris Vrtiska's candles. So far, there are no black outlines around her photographs.

She laughs as she tells the story. She knows she sounds like a commercial.

She began working for Kris. It's soothing, happy work she said, and interesting too, even if, at times, the smell can become a bit overwhelming.

She's developing her favorites, too.

"Cranberry is high on my list," she said.

Holly Rieschick, part of the Heritage Falls candles test group, leaves the store at 16th and Chase after returning and reporting on candles she had tested.
Everyone has a favorite, Kris said.

Kim likes cucumber melon. A lot of people like cinnamon coffee, which is the biggest seller year-round. Falls City Mayor Rod Vandeberg, likes a scent called baby fresh, which smells like baby powder.

Vandeberg orders candles by the dozen. He had special labels printed with photographs of Falls City attractions - the new library, the water park, the historical society, the athletic complex. He gives the candles to new business owners, visitors, and anyone else he thinks should have one.

"It gives me an opportunity to promote a local business," he said.

Kris is in the thick of the busiest time of the year. There will be many late nights - and much help from friends and family - between now and Christmas.

She and Kim never thought their venture would become quite this big. The candle business was appealing to Kris, in part, because it would allow her to work from home and spend more time with her three children.

Instead, when she's busy, her family comes to her. Even her youngest helps out.

Yes, it's a lot of work, she said, but it's worth it.

"I am able to work with my own hands," she said, "creating a work of art in my eyes."