Chicago's Pride Candle Company engages senses, shares success with community

Thu. April 15, 2021 8:06 AM by Ross Forman

tim o’keefe

photo credit // provided

“I grew up in the closet and wouldn’t have believed as a teenager that I would be an out and proud business owner,” says owner Tim O’Keefe

The Pride Candle Company, a venture of Chicagoan Tim O'Keefe, launched last August and has lofty goals to hit by the end of 2021: to be in 50 retail locations.

“I love candles. I love the mood they create; I enjoy the ritual of lighting them and am obsessed with fragrances,” said O'Keefe, the company's founder and chief candle maker. “I've always been a creative type; I went to art school at Wayne State University in Detroit. Creating and crafting things has always been part of my DNA.”

O'Keefe, 42, who lives in North Center with his fiancé, Eric Navar, and their dog, Chester, is a Detroit area native who has called the city home for most of the past 20 years.

He is the company's lone full-time employee, though Navar and others help when things are busy – and O'Keefe will be adding three or four full-time positions this summer.

“I believe in the concept of 'Do well and do good.' Basically, (it is) the idea that a business can be successful while being a good employer and benefiting the community,” O'Keefe said. “We want to establish a brand that will be around for a long time and will essentially act like an annuity for LGBTQ+ causes and projects while providing our customers a way to showcase their Pride and enjoy a great product.

“I grew up in the closet and wouldn't have believed as a teenager that I would be an out and proud business owner. I am so thankful for the countless sacrifices and hard work of our foremothers and forefathers in the LGBTQ+ community. I want to be a visible and openly queer company.”

The Pride Candle Company is an online business, with sales through their website and select retailers “who we believe create a brave and safe space for our community and their customers,” he said.

Pride candles can be found at the four Foursided stores in Chicago (Andersonville and Lakeview), plus the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“Our goal is to make a great product that people can feel good about, connect with, and is stylish and visually pleasing,” O'Keefe said. “I am so grateful for LGBTQ+ business owners and leaders who have come before me, (those) who make being an out and proud business owner easier today. I try to focus on gratitude, and I have a lot to be grateful for and proud of from our amazing community.”

Company sales are evenly split among men and women, with sales across the U.S., anchored in Chicago, naturally.

“I enjoy when someone orders candles from traditionally conservative areas. I love that our customers want to show their Pride in their home with our candles. It truly makes me smile,” he said.

Pride candles are handcrafted from a blend of natural soy and beeswax. Seasonal scents engage your senses and more.

“I love the days when I can take some time and experiment with fragrance and essential oils,” O'Keefe said. “I use a decent amount of citrus in our candles. I love the little tang from the citrus. I try to find balance and use interesting combinations of florals, wood, citrus, spices and herbs to make something that's unique, memorable, and relatable. I am constantly studying and experimenting. The fragrances will continue to mature, expand and evolve.”

All Pride candles are made in their 1,500 square-foot production space on Ravenswood Avenue in Chicago. The No. 1 seller is Bergamot Lemon Driftwood – and it's been top seller since day one. “It's a beautiful scent that I especially love lighting when I'm cooking or reading,” O'Keefe said.

The candles feature the company name, fragrance, paper wicks and the Pride flag. The glass is made in the U.S. “We have a great Midwest company that decorates or paints our glasses. They have several out LGBTQ+ employees and many have reached out to me on social media letting me know how proud they are that we work with them,” O'Keefe said.

The Pride Candle Company donates 10 percent of sales to organizations and projects that support the LGBTQ+ community, and fight for equity and equality for all. Through the end of June, they will be donating 10 percent of all proceeds to the in-production film ART and PEP, about the love, life, and legacy of Art Johnston and José Pepe Peña, Chicago LGBTQ+ rights pioneers and co-owners of Sidetrack.

“As evident from all the recent transphobic legislation introduced across the country, our community is still very much under attack by an often-misinformed religious right. The goal is to build a thriving company that will be able to help support our drive for equity and equality for all,” O'Keefe said.

The Pride Candle Company has previously donated to Equality Illinois, Lambda Legal, and Athlete Ally – combined, donating more than $80,000 to date.

“Starting a business is really hard work – it's all encompassing and exhausting,” O'Keefe said. “Knowing every time we get an order that an organization doing amazing work benefits, yeah, that does feels good,” he said.

“I love, love. Art and Pep have an amazing 49-year love story that needs to be told.

I think the East Coast and West Coast get a lot of attention, but so much work has been done here in Chicago and the Midwest to advance and secure LGBTQ+ rights. This film helps bring light to some of the incredible progress that happened and is happening in Chicago.”

Related: 'Art and Pep' spotlights the life and love of Chicago civil rights leaders