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GOD

Visitors to the Continental Candle Co. are hard pressed to leave the Compton facility without brothers Richard and Jorge Rodriguez making one thing absolutely clear.

“We don’t make any black candles,” the elder Jorge says earnestly. “Even though it’s lucrative, we stay out of voodoo and witchcraft.”

It seems an odd statement, coming from the button-down, 48-year-old Latino businessman. But considering half the company’s $20 million in annual sales come from candles featuring images of holy icons and saintly figures from the Catholic tradition, not totally incongruous.

Continental Candle is the nation’s largest supplier of votive candles, featuring prayers and images of Christian saints and holy relics. Capitalizing on a wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America, where Catholicism is the dominant religion, the company has achieved a sustained 30 percent annual growth rate over the last five years.

“It’s the fastest growing segment of our market,” Jorge says.

Continental has been around for more than 30 years, but it was only in 1991 that the Rodriguez brothers got involved. As executives at Mercado Latino, a food distributor in the City of Industry founded by their father, the two regularly dealt with Latino grocers and followed Latino consumer trends.

What they saw in the late 1980s was a greater demand for religious candles than for many of the food products they sold. A handful of Southern California candle-makers dabbled in the religious icon segment, 38-year-old Richard says, but none had made it the focus of their business.

“There was a big vacuum,” he says. “We saw growth and demand.”

Mercado Latino bought Continental Candle, which was struggling in the competitive restaurant candle market, and shifted production to what is now called its Sanctuary Series. That includes 42 images of saints and holy relics. “We’re adding new saints all the time,” Jorge says.

Religious candles, which sell in the United States for about a dollar, are a mainstay of Latino culture, according to Alexander Moore, chairman of University of Southern California’s anthropology department.

“In just about any Central American-Latino household, it’s almost as if they’re not a luxury, but something you just have to have,” Moore says. Many households have a small shrine dedicated to a particular saint in which a candle is kept burning around the clock, Moore says.

“They have kind of a captive market,” acknowledges J.C. Edmond, president of General Wax & Candle Co. in North Hollywood and the National Candle Association.

Though Continental’s candles were initially sold almost exclusively through Latino shops, including the botanicas that cater to followers of the religious practice of Santeria, mainstream chains have identified the products as a potentially lucrative source of sales.

“Five years ago, a lot of grocers wouldn’t carry any of these candles, thinking they were some sort of voodoo,” Jorge says. Now Continental supplies to Lucky, K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Sav-On and a handful of other chains.

“We try to supply our individual stores with items their particular customers want,” said Judie Decker, a spokeswoman for the Lucky chain. Continental’s religious candles meet Lucky’s requirements of quality, price and availability of supply, she said.

While modern candle making is conceptually much the same as it has been for thousands of years, the process at Continental has reached the pinnacle of industrialism.

Huge tanks of paraffin standing outside the building supply a flow of the clear, 150 F liquid to aluminum vats indoors. In the vats, the wax is mixed with coloring and scents, and sent on its way to a jar-filling station.

A massive spool, meanwhile, spews out a steady stream of wick that passes through a smaller vat of wax before being re-wrapped on an adjacent spool. The wick is sliced into predetermined lengths and attached by a pile-driver-like machine to thin aluminum bases, which will later keep the wick centered in the candle. Workers manually place the wicks into empty jars that a conveyor belt delivers to 12 filling nozzles.

The result is a Rube Goldberg-like collection of machines, pulleys, squeaks, groans and wheezes that produce up to 100,000 candles a day.

Beyond Southern California, which is the company’s largest single market, Continental ships its candles to retailers in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and even Alaska. “Anywhere immigrants can find work,” Jorge says.

Continental still makes restaurant, custom-made and other non-religious candles, but with the growth of the religious segment, those will likely play a smaller role in the company’s production as time goes on, he says. “We’ve gotten requests from the Vatican; we ship candles to churches in El Paso. Everybody consumes these candles.”

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