Smells like an experience

Pour-your-own candle and custom fragrance bar celebrates two years in business; photos by Elijah Goldberg
Photos by Elijah Goldberg

More than just a retail space, Scents by Design on University Avenue is a sensory experience. It’s a place to get hands on, to get social, and to create.

After entering the pour-your-own candle and custom fragrance bar, patrons are directed to a wall of 100 candles to find the scents that strike their fancy. Scent stylists at the shop advise customers on which of those fragrances blend well in the product they’re creating.

Christina Julian, proprietor, encourages the stylists to get familiar with the fragrances during training.

“I tell them it’s like cooking. There’s a reason why you eat PB&J and not PB and pickles. Same thing when it comes to blending scents together: you trust your instincts,” she says while seated at the fragrance bar. Sounds of Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga play through the speakers.

“If it’s a combination you would see in the real world—if it sounds like a cocktail or a dessert—it will probably smell great together in a candle.”

Customer favorites include scents like baked bread and balsam fir, while Julian is partial to ginger ale, champagne, and earl grey.

Once a blend has been selected, customers choose from a variety of candle jars, or they can add their fragrance to scrubs, salts, lotions, and more. Preblended scents and products are also available.

Candles take about thirty to forty-five minutes to create, with most of that time spent choosing scents. After the candle is poured, it’s another ninety minutes to set.Wine and beer are available for customers, and fifteen people can sit comfortably at the bar. Comfy crushed- velvet couches and monthly rotating art by local artists add to the décor of the funky-yet-cozy space.

Julian sees customers stopping in on date nights, celebrating a girl’s night out, and bringing kids in to participate. Groups make reservations for bridal and baby showers, bachelorette parties, teambuilding events, and fundraisers.

Often, customers will come in, pour their candles, leave for dinner, and pick up the finished product afterward. But events at the shop like book clubs, yoga class, intro to Tarot class, and more encourage customers to stick around.

Talking about scents can be a real ice breaker on those date nights or team-building events. “You don’t necessarily talk to the people in your life about what scents they like,” says Julian.

“Your sense of smell is closely tied to your memories and your emotions, so people have really strong associations with scents—specific memories or places or times in their life.Talking to people about how they think about scent is so much fun. Everyone has a unique take.”

How it started

Julian visited a friend in Indianapolis who took her to a make-your- own-candle shop, and she fell in love with the concept, mimosa in hand.

Entrepreneurship was always something she wanted to explore, and she was excited at the idea of bringing the custom fragrance bar concept to Rochester. It was tough to pull the trigger on starting her own business, though, and not everyone in her family was supportive of the idea, she says.

Julian had worked her way up the corporate ladder in banking. She had a solid career that paid well, and there was a lot of stability in that. But she wasn’t fulfilled.

“I had always kind of wanted to do my own thing. I was looking for the right idea and opportunity to come along when I discovered this concept. It took a few years of planning and saving my money and getting the courage,” says Julian.

She networked with the candle shop in Indianapolis that served as her initial inspiration as well as with a number of similar businesses around the country. She even found one that provided a training program to help custom fragrance businesses launch.

Julian credits that community with giving her the push she needed to step out on her own. If they could make it work and be successful, why couldn’t she?

Making the leap from a steady corporate job to opening a retail business would be enough stress on its own. But in March of 2020,  Julian was close to signing a lease on a space for her new venture, and then … we all know what happened next.

When the pandemic first hit, Julian took the time for reflection, as many people did, on life, career, and next steps. She began to tailor the business model to accommodate the restrictions facing businesses at that time. Imagine—a business relying heavily on the sense of smell opening at a time when all county residents were required to wear masks indoors.

There were plenty of other hurdles to jump while bringing her vision to life besides the pandemic. With a lease ready to be signed, Julian couldn’t get the keys until she obtained insurance—as a candle manufacturer.

She also found herself out of her element as she embarked on the build-out at the new location. Working with contractors, choosing flooring with a three-week lead time, and envisioning how those floors would work with her paint colors and bar color—there was an endless fire hose of decisions to be made while designing the space she’d envisioned.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster, every day of planning this business. It was like, ‘Just throw one more thing at me! I don’t know if I could do one more thing, but I’m gonna try!’” says the store owner. Despite all of it, Scents by Design finally opened its doors in November 2020.

How it’s going

Today, Scents by Design employs one full-time and five part-time staff, and Julian is gearing up to celebrate two years in business.

As sole owner with a strong vision from the start, Julian calls the shots. “I really have full license to do whatever I want. I don’t have to collaborate and compromise. That was important to me and to this business coming to life the way I envisioned it,” she says.

The flipside is Julian has trouble walking away from the store, even for a few days. She confesses she imagined that after two years in she’d be more hands-off. But it’s hard to step away from the business and the space she brought to life.

As for what’s next, the focus is on growth strategy.

“I think we’re in a really good place here,” Julian says, “And I’m starting to think strategically about how I grow my empire. How do I take this concept and grow it in a way that I’m still feeling happy and fulfilled and enjoying it?”

We can’t wait to find out.


Visit Scents by Design on Instagram at @scentsbydesigncandlebar, at its website,, and on Facebook.You can visit the shop in person at 728 University Avenue next to the Flatiron Building.

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