This year Knorr Candle Factory will celebrate 90 years of making its all-natural beeswax candles in Del Mar.
Tucked under the trees on Via de la Valle, the gift shop and candle factory is now run by Nancy Knorr, the great-granddaughter of Ferdinand Knorr, who started the hand-crafted family business back in 1928.
“I think it is amazing to be the fourth generation running the family business. I remember running around the factory and gift shop as a small child, coming to work with both my grandparents and then my father,” said Nancy. “I grew up here and now I get to bring my children and teach the fifth generation about our beautiful beeswax candles and the long history of our family business. I am fortunate to have this opportunity.”
In addition to carrying on the family tradition with help from her mother Donna, Nancy is also the assistant principal at Walter J. Porter Elementary School in southeast San Diego.
Nancy’s grandfather Henry Knorr, 98, still lives on a home atop the property.
His father, Ferdinand “Fred” Knorr, a machinist who specialized in tools and dies, moved his family onto the 20-acre Del Mar farm back in 1925.
“He didn’t have a hobby and this fella that he was talking to said beekeeping was a good hobby and he found this place,” Henry said.
The property in Del Mar had 100 hives of bees — more than just a hobby — and the price was right so he moved his family of three boys and two girls. Henry said back then, there was no electricity or indoor plumbing, “It was like camping and I never cared for camping,” he said.
Being a beekeeper, there was always a lot of extra wax left over after harvesting the honey as every 60 pounds of honey creates one pound of wax.
“My dad ended up with 500 hives of bees so he had quite a bit of wax,” Henry said. “He was having trouble selling the extra wax so he thought if he made candles that would get rid of a lot of the surplus wax.”
Drawing on his background as a tool and die maker, Fred built the candle factory machines, using the same pattern he used for his honeycomb foundation used in the hives.
Fred made several different styles of candles and experimented with colors — one of his first customers was The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe.
“The candle business grew by word of mouth and pretty soon he was busier with candles than he was with the honeycomb foundations,” Henry said.
During that time, Henry was working in a machine shop in San Diego and would come on weekends to help. When his father got busier, he asked Henry to work in the business alongside him.
After Henry’s mother died, Fred remarried. As Henry tells it, the kitchen of the old house looked out at the front door of the candle shop and Fred’s wife could see her husband talking to all the female customers. She got jealous and asked Fred to sell the business, which he did to Henry in the 1950s.
“I took it over and worked really hard at trying to build it up,” said Henry, who ran the business with his wife, Judy. “I think I did a pretty good job doing it.”
As a machinist, one of the first things Henry did when he took over was add another machine and built a total of four.
Of his siblings, Henry was the one to carry on the family business. His three older siblings have passed away but his brother who is four years younger than him lives in Arizona and Henry talks to him almost every day.
When Henry took over, Knorr was using 50,000 pounds of beeswax. By the time Henry passed the business on to his son, Steven, in 1980, they were using 250,000 to 300,000 pounds of beeswax in candles.
Steven passed away in 2015 and his daughter, Nancy, took over, with aims to ensure Knorr continues to flourish.
“Our candles are unique,” said Karin Johnston, one of Knorr’s longest serving employees and loyal family friend, who started with the company in 1972 as a bookkeeper. “They are made from 100 percent beeswax, they are clean and slow burning, they don’t smoke and they are virtually dripless.”
Inside the gift shop, Knorr sells tapers, spiraled double flairs, pillars, votives and tea lights in a variety of textures and colors. Sheets of beeswax in many colors are also sold for DIY candle-making, a popular craft for kids.
While Knorr candles are unscented, when burned they give off a natural honey scent.
The gift shop also includes home decor, artificial floral arrangements and a retail area for beekeepers with all of the resources they need, including the traditional Knorr beeswax sheets.
“There’s still quite a lot of local beekeepers who like the real honeycomb sheets,” Johnston said, noting most beekeepers today use plastic instead of beeswax.
The property sold five years ago and the candle factory was allowed to remain, a rare commercial use in a residentially-zoned neighborhood. There are no longer hives on the property as they bring in their all- natural beeswax from a supplier but everything is still done the old-fashioned way by hand, the same way Fred did it back in 1928. For many years Henry maintained the machines he built himself until he was no longer able to physically.
“I’m still interested in how they do down there and I hope it survives,” said Henry from his home on the hill.
Knorr Candle Shop is located at 14906 Via de la Valle. For more information, visit knorrbeeswax.com