It all started when the Gill brothers wanted more Nerf guns and video games.
Their parents refused to fork up the funds. So the three siblings — Collin, 13; Ryan, 11; and Austin, 8 — came up with a solution: Start a business. But what? They asked their mom, Celena Gill, her favorite thing to buy.
She answered “candles,” and a business was born. Almost two years later, the boys’ candle-making shop — called “Frères Branchiaux,” French for “Gill Brothers,” and run out of the Gills’ home in Indian Head, Md. — is successful beyond anything they expected. With 36 stores selling their products and a contract with Macy’s in the works, the boys have cash for all the Nerf guns and games they desire.
But instead of spending with abandon on toys, the boys say they feel a responsibility to give back to their community. From the beginning, the brothers said they have donated 10% of their profits to Washington-area homeless shelters, including Pathways to Housing D.C., Friendship Place and the Father McKenna Center. It was Ryan’s idea, something he proposed after passing a homeless man on the street.
“Every time I saw a homeless person, I was always asking Mom if we could give money to them, and this was a way to do it,” he said.
Collin said it makes him feel like the business has a purpose beyond commerce and candle scents.
“The community helps us, so we have to help back,” he said. “Giving back helps you and the people you’re giving back to.”
The Gills send monthly checks to shelters and have met some of Pathways’ employees. But the brothers want to be more hands-on: They will visit Pathways in August and plan to return every two months to spend time with the people at the shelter.
As soon as the trio can find the funds and the space, they hope to open a shop and hire homeless people as employees.
In the meantime, though, they have a lot of candles to make.
Frères Branchiaux sells about 400 candles a month, priced from $18 to $36. The candles, which come in 23 scents, such as Lavender Crush, Lime Cotton and Whiskey Sweet, are the boys’ most popular product. They also offer diffuser oils, room sprays, soap, bath bombs and salts. Sales are sufficient to make Frères Branchiaux profitable, Celena Gill, 44, said. Most of the money goes back into the business, some of it funds toy purchases — and the boys are able to give on average $500 a month to shelters, she said.
Some customers find the brothers’ candles by walking into one of the stores that sell Frères Branchiaux stock, including the Ace Hardware in Adams Morgan and the gift shop of the National Building Museum. Others find them at farmers markets, order from the boys’ website or stumble across their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts. Most often, though, news spreads via word of mouth among neighbors and friends of friends, Celena said.
Sometimes the company gets a boost from celebrities or local politicians. Actress Robin Givens and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser have appeared in Instagram posts with the boys or their candles.
Almost everything the brothers sell has a smiling illustration of their three faces. It’s based on a picture taken during the trio’s first professional photo shoot after founding Frères Branchiaux. The Gills added the drawing to company labeling so customers can see it’s really three boys making the items.
Each product is handcrafted by one of the brothers, all of whom are home-schooled by their mother. As the oldest, Collin “drives most of the production,” making between 50 and 60% each month’s crop, his mother said.
Shrugging, Collin said he doesn’t mind shouldering the largest share of the work (Austin is a bit young to handle hot wax anyway). Collin typically spends three to four hours each day working in the Gills’ candle-making station, set up on the ground floor of their home. He puts in headphones, selects his favorite hip-hop tracks and lets everything else melt away.
Collin said he finds the process calming. Plus, it smells really good.
On a recent Monday afternoon, he demonstrated how to make a candle: First, he wicked it, attaching a long white string to the base of a candle holder (“I’m the best at wicking!” Austin interjected). Then he added fragrance oils to hot wax, heated to exactly 180 degrees. Finally, he poured the mixture into a jar and let the candle cool for 30 minutes, after which he will let it cure for two to three weeks.
“And that’s it,” Collin said. “It’s pretty simple. It makes the house smell great.”
The boys taught themselves how to make each item they sell, learning tips both from their mother — who attended a candle-making workshop — and from YouTube videos. They relied on online advice when setting up their candle-making shop, which features a stainless steel worktable, floor-to-ceiling shelving and rolls of brown candle labeling along the walls.
But when it comes to candle scents, the Gill brothers accept no external input. Each of the 23 recipes is a closely guarded family secret, developed by one of the three boys, written out on a piece of paper and taped up in a corner of the candle room.
And this is where Ryan, the middle child, comes into his element.
Celena called him the “scent genius.” Collin called him the “scent-ologist.” Ryan had his own take: “I’m the scent master,” he said.
Ryan developed the majority of the scents Frères Branchiaux sells, and his creations often top the list of bestsellers. The brothers are competitive about candle sales, Celena said, avidly tracking whose invention is most popular. (As of last week, Ryan had two of the top three.)
As best he can explain it, Ryan’s creative process is as follows: He smells all the scents, picks the two or three he likes the most that day, and tests out a few different combinations. Once he’s satisfied, he selects a name and the family votes on it.
Collin’s process is a bit different. He likes to mix “mood scents,” candles that make customers “feel a certain way,” he said. A typical Collin creation — and his favorite candle — is the “Chunky Sweater.”
“It’s a fall scent, peaceful, like you’re walking down the sidewalk with autumn leaves falling,” he said.
Austin, meanwhile, has whipped together just three scents. His chief strength at this point is the “cute factor” he brings to sales pitches, his mother said.
Generally, the division of labor plays to the boys’ individual talents, all three said. Meanwhile, their parents do very little, Celena said. She and her husband, Patrick Gill, 45, a cybersecurity adviser, help with “administrative stuff” and offer support and supervision.
Despite their different personalities and skill sets, the three brothers get along well. And they manage to make time for more typical childhood pastimes, too: football, baseball, Netflix, skateboarding. All three boys plan to make Frères Branchiaux their life’s work.
“I want to do this long enough to pass it on to my kids,” Collin said. “One day we want a factory. And stores across the country. And probably even around the world, too.”
Austin nodded — then scrambled up from his cross-legged seat on the ground and ran into the next room. In the immediate moment, all he wanted to do was play Legos.