A Fine Romance: Candles and wine come hand in hand for Ian Carroll through his two successful shops in Central

Ian Carroll laughs when asked about the similarities between his two seemingly unrelated but highly successful enterprises – Carroll&Chan, a purveyor of candles, and Soho Wines & Spirits. After some reflection, he says: “Candles and wine – romance, what else?”

In reality, there were different reasons for the inception of these companies. Having arrived in Hong Kong in 1999 with his wife, Liana, who was posted to the territory with the European Union diplomatic mission, Carroll needed a visa to extend his stay and so decided to set up a business. His wife had noticed there were few places to buy candles and suggested opening a candle shop. The Candle Company was launched in Central in 2002.

Carroll had already succeeded in various entrepreneurial ventures. Born in Dublin, the amiable Irishman’s early business activities involved buying and selling various goods. During a buying trip to Hong Kong in the mid-’80s, he was blown away by the dizzying spectacle of traders and hawkers in Nathan Road selling watches and myriad electronic products and knew one day he would return.

Booking ahead

His first major business success came during his time in Brussels, where Liana worked at the European Commission. Establishing one of the first online hotel reservation websites, he benefitted immensely from first-mover advantage and an element of good fortune.

Speaking from the Carroll&Chan candle store in Lyndhurst Terrace, he says, “I was lucky because I got an agreement with a couple of people in big hotel groups, and one of them had a hotel in Havana. Americans could not book Cuban hotels in America at the time, and because my website was European, I used to get Americans booking trips to Havana regularly.”

He also struck gold with a hotel on the top of Machu Picchu.

Perseverance pays

He sold this business after moving to Hong Kong. The candle shop also proved a huge success almost from the outset, though it was not without its early teething problem. Initially, it was challenging to get anyone to supply to his embryonic enterprise.

Using a phone book, he literally turned up at companies in Kowloon and the New Territories that claimed to be candle manufacturers. No one wanted to know when they discovered he was selling the candles for the Hong Kong market. Then, finally, one supplier asked him if he was selling to the US market. “I said yes. They said – come in!” he recounts.

Carroll later owned up to the lie, but the supplier still agreed to honour the deal and a 20-foot container lorry soon arrived outside the store’s original Lyndhurst Terrace address. Having no staff at the time, he started unloading the 100 boxes from the container himself whereupon the police showed up and told him to remove the vehicle as it was obstructing the street. The lorry driver drove off and they ended up unloading the candles at a factory in the New Territories – not exactly the most convenient location for his fledgling shop.

Hive of activity

Business boomed during the store’s first Christmas and as the years passed, he noticed customers were increasingly asking about the adverse effects of burning paraffin. In 2017, he decided to create his own candle brand, Carroll&Chan, with a focus on natural and environmentally friendly products.

Now all his candles are made from beeswax. “Beeswax is the only wax that is not actually made in a factory,” he says. “It is not processed; it is made by bees in the beehive. The beeswax is melted and made into a candle.

“It is a natural product; it does not create soot when it burns. It burns brighter because it has a higher melting point, and because of the structure of the wax it burns longer, too.”

Carroll enjoys educating people about environmental matters and highlights the fact that his fragrances are approved by the International Fragrance Association.

He stresses how harmful other candles made in factories are to the environment: “The forests of Malaysia or the jungles of South America are burned down to grow oil palm trees or grow soy beans. For soy wax candles, the beans are taken to factories and mixed with chemicals and made into wax.”

Asia affinity

All of Carroll’s candles and most of his other products are made in a small workshop in Kwai Fong, though some are produced in the Netherlands for the European market.

Carroll&Chan has a shop in Amsterdam and there are plans to expand to the China and US markets. Carroll&Chan fragrances and reed diffusers are inspired by the scents of Asia. The reeds are made from rattan, a natural product, and the oil flows up via the reeds and diffuses into the air. “They offer a flame-free experience of lemon grass or lavender or whatever scent you want,” he says.

“Another important thing about the brand is that it is an Asian brand and inspired by Asia. Asia is home to so many beautifully fragrant flowers and spices.”

The ‘Chan’ part of the brand name comes from the birth surnames of the Carrolls’ two children, who were adopted in Hong Kong.

He is particularly fond of the scent of sampaguita, the national flower of the Philippines. “It is a form of jasmine and produces an amazing smell,” he notes.

Another favourite flower is white michelia, a type of magnolia cultivated in Southeast Asia. “I thought that would be a fantastic scent and we should start it, so I got a French perfume company to take that flower and develop a fragrance. It is very popular.”

Wine growth

Carroll’s wine business, which also dates back to 2002, grew out of a grocery store that had formed part of a deal to buy out a candle company in Staunton Street. Initially, he wanted to dispense with the grocery store but saw the opportunity to develop a wine business when he noticed customers were coming in for the wine.

At the time there were few wine merchants in Hong Kong and it was not considered an attractive business. “It wasn’t difficult, but there was licensing and all sorts of paperwork required,” he says.

In 2008, the government abolished the duty on imported liquor with an alcohol content under 30%. “So suddenly you could import wine, Martini [Bianco and Rosso], Baileys [Irish Cream]and beer without any paperwork. All you needed was an invoice. Everybody, I think, in Hong Kong who went to Spain, Italy or Portugal became a wine importer,” he recalls.

Running two successful enterprises is time-consuming, so Carroll recently brought in a local business partner, who mostly handles the wine store. Soho Wines & Spirits is handily located near the Central-Mid-levels escalator and stocks a carefully curated selection of wine. He does not claim to be a wine expert – at first he imported wines that were inappropriate for the Hong Kong market. Now he has the good judgment to let others make the decisions.

Photographer: Jack Law Art Direction: Joseff Musa Fashion Stylist: Jhoshwa Ledesma Videographer: Jack Fontanilla Hair & Make Up: Heti Tsang Venue: Carroll&Chan