Sugar & Grace Co. makes candle making an experience
by Erica Parham
Erica Parham has always loved scented candles. She just had no idea they could make her very sick.
A time log of her debilitating, almost daily migraines revealed that chemicals in candles triggered her intense pain, nausea and sensitivity to light. So, Parham began making non-toxic, soy wax candles with wooden wicks in her garage, the start of an unexpected life path.
This summer, the Virginia Beach resident opened the first permanent location of Sugar & Grace, her 2 ½-year-old business, in downtown Norfolk’s Selden Market.
The shop sells Parham’s homemade line of luxury candles plus wax melts, candle accessories, home goods, jewelry and body care items from other small, women-owned companies. Customers also can mix their own candles and sign up for workshops and date night events.
“I want to surprise people with candles they could never find in a grocery store or drug store,” says Parham, 32. “My goal is to spread love through good, clean candles. I also want to reach people who are afraid to use candles because they had health problems like me.”
Parham’s candles are complex combinations of natural fragrance oils. There’s a summery blend of guava, pineapple, amber, leather and bergamot popular with women, for example, and a leather, lavender, patchouli and tobacco concoction that often appeals to men.
All are free of chemicals such as phthalates or solvents used to intensify synthetic fragrances that can be inhaled or absorbed through skin. The shop’s do-it-yourself candle bar offers a choice of about 20 scents — from sriracha to magnolia to sea salt — and 25 jars.
Sugar & Grace is one of 11 storefronts at Selden Market, where Parham has previously held well-liked pop-up stands.
“It’s unique because it’s very much about having an experience, not just shopping,” says Careyann Weinberg, retail director for the East Main Street market. “It’s very interactive and personalized, and that fits perfectly into the family feel we have here.”
A Hampton native, Parham was a creative child who loved drawing, painting and baking. After graduating from Hampton High, she studied nursing at Medical Careers Institute and worked as a licensed professional nurse for 11 years. She also sold homemade cakes on the side.
At home, Parham burned candles daily to relax, most often her favorite cucumber-sage blends she bought online. Yet once she researched their common ingredients and found reports of health complaints, she took an online course on candle-making and learned how to melt and pour waxes, add oils, and attach, secure and trim wicks herself.
Co-workers immediately began buying Parham’s experimental products, and after about six months of tinkering, she launched Sugar & Grace as an online business. “Sugar” was a nod to her baking days, while “Grace” was a way to thank God for giving her an artistic touch.
Opening amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging and hectic, especially with a husband and three young sons at home and just one part-time employee, she says.
She has followed health guidelines and managed to host small workshops such as floral candle-making and a date night with food from Slide Thru #FAM, a Selden Market restaurant with Filipino and American dishes.
In the future, she hopes to open specialty shops in multiple locations. “It’s funny, because I first got into this business totally by accident,” she says. “I just knew I couldn’t go without my candles. Everyone should have candles in their lives.”