The Rich and Endearing Story of Candelas Guitars
The story of Candelas Guitars is rich and engaging. It’s a true American success story, or, more aptly, a true Mexican-American success story. There were no benefactors and no overnight pots of gold to be unearthed in building such a successful and world-renowned guitar business. In fact, circumstance would have dissuaded most strong willed people from choosing this life. No, this story is one of true determination, grit, faith, and love that unfolded over more than half a century. And let’s not forget family either, for it is family, the ingredient missing from their lives early on that became their greatest achievements.
Walk into Candelas Guitar shop today and you’re met with the confident smile of Tomas Delgado. Tomas embodies Candelas’ present and past. He is the pioneer and the embodiment of its history. His features are similar to his Grandfather, Uncle and Father. He also possesses in aggregate the skills of his forebears – the ability to handcraft the most beautiful Classical, Mariachi and Bajo Sexto guitars in the world combined with the vision to successfully transform old school philosophy to 21st century success.In fact, ask anyone with knowledge of world-class handcrafted guitars and the brand Candelas Guitars is quickly mentioned. World-class performers such as Andres Segovia, Celedonio Romero, Jose Feliciano, Charo, Los Lobos, Jackson Browne, Quetzal, and Ozomatli perform or performed with Candelas Guitars. Candelas Guitars is based solely in Los Angeles, California. There are no other guitar luthier shops in the world that produce Candelas Guitars and very few that produce the sounds, tones and quality of their guitars. And due to Tomas’ operational expertise, certainly no shop or store in the world can compete with Candelas guitar prices.Sit down with Tomas Delgado and you quickly realize why Candelas guitars are so highly regarded. You anticipate Tomas talking about the new guitar models he invented and streamlined that assured Candelas of competing successfully in the 21st century. You would expect him to talk about design, wood selection, attention to customer service or even the new guitar showcase he just constructed. Not so.
Tomas first talks about his family and the lessons he learned from his Grandfather and Uncle, who, as youngsters, crafted the idea of building guitars and recognized the market opportunity for guitar building even in a small Mexican town. He is even more impressed that these two men, mere boys at the time and both orphaned, had the fortitude, spirit, perseverance, and intellect to build a company that required manufacturing skill sets and management expertise.
Two Orphans – Two Families – One Business
Tomas’ Grandpa Porfirio (Delgado Flores) and his Uncle Candelario (Delgado Flores), known as Candelas, happened upon the art of building guitars at a very early age. Although they were brothers, they were also orphans and, due to circumstance, were reared in two separate households in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico. Grandpa Porfirio, born in 1913, was adopted by an Aunt who put him to work immediately as a laborer. Uncle Candelas, the eldest born two years earlier in 1911, was a bit more fortunate in that he was adopted by a family with some means so he received a structured, formal education.
Porfirio, the laborer, went to work for a carpenter where he handcrafted cabinets and other home accessories. His adopted family loved the violin and saw fit to have their own children take lessons. Porfirio was granted permission to learn the violin alongside them; however, when he proved to be a quicker study he was "persuaded" to concentrate on his laborer duties.
However, the love of guitars remained and in Torreon in 1928, they were presented with an opportunity that would propel them into their lifelong vocation. Every 3rd of 4th month, Porforio’s fellow carpentry laborers held a contest between them to see who could build the most impressive item made of wood. Uncle Candelas, who enjoyed playing the guitar and singing in Torreon and ever the visionary and opportunist, convinced Porfirio to build a guitar. There weren’t many luthiers at this time and although Porfirio’s cost to build his guitar (5 pesos) was more than the price for which he could sell it (3 pesos), Uncle Candelas saw an opportunity. (Uncle Candelas was also a very good guitar craftsmen. One of his guitars is now on display at the Smithsonian Institute.) Once Porfirio built his first guitar, there was demand from other townspeople for more. Each subsequent guitar had to be better and more elaborate than the previous one. However, since guitar making was not yet profitable for the brothers, they continued as guitar players to support their young business. They formed their own group, known as Los Hermanos Candelas (The Candelas Brothers) and later formed a Cuban-style band known as "Son Torreon" where they handcrafted guitars for each band member.
The momentum of building guitars and their love for it finally peaked. Uncle Candelas saw that they had the ability to create quality guitars and the potential to become master craftsmen. He also realized that they could charge more money for their instruments so he urged Porfirio to open a shop with him.
And so, in Juarez, Mexico, a few steps from the United States border town of El Paso, the first Candelas shop was opened. Business began slowly but there seemed to always be enough work since demand for guitars was high. The brothers would build and sell a guitar to a local ciudadano and through word of mouth, another ciudadano would want a better model. And so their business grew.
Eventually success prompted the brothers Flores to open a second shop in Tijuana where they custom made guitars for famous musicians such as Mario Moreno "Cantinflas", Miguel Aceves Mejia, Marcello Chavez, "TinTan", Hermanos Villa, Los Tres Cahelleros (who played in various Walt Disney films), Trio Urquiza, Pepe Gamboa ( a custom three-neck guitar) and Eduardo Ruiz (who played lead for Desi Arnaz). Uncle Candelas enjoyed handcrafting guitars but his chief contribution was managing business operations of both stores. Porfirio was content to stay in Torreon building guitars that would supply both stores.
The business did so well in Tijuana that they ventured north at a friend’s request to display their products in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to Porfirio, though, Candelas had arranged not to sell the guitars but to barter them in exchange for television sets. Although there was inherent risk involved in the transaction, the upside was that the brothers now had their guitars displayed in a large U.S. market. Candelas knew that televisions were in great demand in Mexico and that they would recoup their money and maybe more. The risk paid off. The brothers sold the guitars and after a few short months, the electronics retailer made an order for more guitars. The plan worked. The brothers Flores had arrived.
In 1948, the first Candelas guitar shop opened on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue) in the Boyle Heights District of Los Angeles.
In 1953, sensing demand for their Classical and Mariachi guitars across the city, they opened another store on Sunset Boulevard. The Sunset shop fared well for a number of years but with Uncle Candelas traveling back and forth between stores in Los Angeles and Mexico, where he would purchase woods for the guitars they were making, the business was left to Porfirio to manage on a daily basis.
Since Porfirio’s time was dedicated mostly to handcrafting guitars, there was a need for someone to assume daily management responsibilities of the shop.
In 1967, Porfirio’s son, Candelario or Candelitas as he was known, had just left the Army and decided to join the business. He immediately went to work at the Sunset shop where he succeeded in reinvigorating and growing the business. Candelario possessed the skills of both his father and Uncle, blessed with a knack for business management, guitar playing and guitar making. He was dedicated enough to build on the legacy that the two founders created: building handcrafted quality guitars instead of giving in to the popular temptation of machine-built models.
Because Candelario was also a great guitar player, all three partners became friends with some of the world’s foremost guitar players such as Jose Feliciano, Arlo Guthrie and Hoyt Axton as well as the most famous Mariachi bands of the time
As Candelas entered the 70’s, a new wave of franchising was sweeping the nation and Candelario was quick to ride it He opened up the fifth Candelas Guitar shop in Hollywood, this one intended to be the company’s showcase shop. Unfortunately, the Hollywood shop was not in the ideal location. The combined pressures of traveling between Mexico and Los Angeles and maintaining 5 shops took its toll on the family. Candelario suffered a mild heart attack and Uncle Candelas passed away a while later. Porfirio, left with a sick son and without the brother with whom he built the business, decided to work less hours and concentrated solely on building guitars from the Cesar Chavez location. Accordingly, the shops on Sunset, Hollywood and in Tijuana were closed. Candelas was now consolidated to the one shop on Cesar Chavez Avenue. Ultimately, consolidation proved to be a sound business decision because production and repairs became centralized allowing for a more controlled cost structure.
All I Want to Do Is Play The Guitar
Tomas Delgado, the eldest son of Candelario and grandson of Porfirio, was born with the skills of his father, namely the entrepreneurial instinct and the craftsman’s touch. He was a good classical guitarist and wanted to continue honing those skills but was also interested in managing the shop for his father. At the time, however, his father needed him to focus on making guitars but Tomas was not quite ready to make that commitment on a full-time basis. Instead, Tomas went to college, then set out on his own. At the age of 19, Tomas was already receiving management experience in other industries. He enjoyed management. He enjoyed product logistics but he did not enjoy the industry in which he worked. Little did he know that fate was training him for another purpose.
One day during the summer of 1990, when Tomas was 21, his Dad, Candelario, took the family on a one week vacation to visit relatives in Arizona. Tomas agreed to stay behind and manage the store. Tomas didn’t mind. Management came easily to him and he understood the family business. From an early age, Tomas would accompany his Dad to work and tinker in the shop for hours at a time. Tomas also enjoyed working the front of the shop where he got to interact with customers and famous musicians.
So while managing the store in his father’s absence, Tomas was surprised to realize that he enjoyed making guitars and that working with his Dad and Grandfather just might be rewarding and fun. Anyway, as story goes, a one week vacation became a month long vacation and Tomas made good use of the time by building his first Vihuela guitar. When his father returned, he noted how smoothly the shop had been managed and also noticed the new Vihuela hanging in the spray room. Impressed with his son’s effort, Candelario invited Tomas to join the business.
Tomas readily admits that his idea of his new shop duties conflicted with his father’s. Although he enjoyed the experience of building his first Vihuela, he imagined hobnobbing with the customers, organizing finances and negotiating vendor contracts as a greater thrill. With a solid and successful management background, Tomas enjoyed delegating authority but the business needed him in the back room building guitars instead of in the front room selling them. Tomas resisted at first but his father did not relent. Ultimately, Tomas agreed to his father’s conditions because of the immense amount of respect he accorded his father. But, he also inherently understood that to be considered a [lone] successor to his father, Tomas had to perfect the art of building guitars and managing and training luthiers in the Candelas mold. And as Porfirio (Pilo) told Tomas: There are plenty of guitar players in the world but not many guitar builders.
Tomas’ Dad, Candelario, became ill in late 1993 and passed away in 1996. To illustrate Candelario’s dedication to his customers, during his last surgery, he made Tomas promise to stay working at the shop and to keep it open. This same dedication and commitment to handcrafting guitars and satisfying customers is still evident in Tomas’ demeanor today.
Shortly after his son Candelario passed away, Pilo passed away [in 1999] leaving Tomas as the lone successor to Candelas
Family Fact: From 1990-1996, the only family members working at Candelas guitars were Porfirio, Candelario, and Tomas.
Watch The Bottom Line
Through his apprenticeship in business management and in guitar making, Tomas learned lessons that prepared him to successfully lead Candelas: give customers more than they ask, treat employees well, continue to handcraft guitars, and watch the bottom line. It was the latter principle that laid the foundation for a groundbreaking change that would ensure business survival.
Tomas made the decision to streamline all guitar models but knew that cutting production costs was the only way to successfully implement such a bold strategy. In order to cut production costs, though, he would have to own the building that housed the Candelas shop. So, he worked extra long hours fulfilling more and more guitar orders while, at the same time, he cut back on business and family expenses (tremendous credit goes to his wife Alegria for sacrificing along with him). Their sacrifices paid off. They saved enough money for him to finally buy the real estate.
Although Candelas still custom makes guitars, streamlining and consolidating his guitar models into a more managed group has given customers better products from which to choose and a more consistent and reliable product selection. Streamlining benefited business operations with smoother production timetables and bulk wood purchasing capabilities which led to a more manageable cost structure which, in turn, guaranteed competition on a global scale. (Owning the building and making personal sacrifices has allowed Tomas to keep costs down.) Today, under Tomas’ stewardship, Tomas and his experienced employees handcraft the finest Classical, Flamenco, Acoustic (steel-stringed guitars), Mariachi and Bajo Sexto guitars with the finest woods at prices that cannot be matched anywhere in the world.
Candelas still offers the same product line that experienced customers are accustomed, i.e., the typical lines of Classical, Acoustic, Mariachi and Bajo Sexto guitars – but he has seen the demand and has responded by expanding on the variations of existing models, i.e., Alegria Flamenco Guitars, Sofia Classical Guitars, the Bajo Sexto Standard, Especial, and Traditional as well as the Vihuela and Guitarron.
What’s Ahead for Candelas
Tomas is quite pleased with the worldwide demand for his guitars. But, in the end, it’s about caring for family, building great guitars, taking care of his employees, educating his customers and running a business with a work ethic and skill derived from his father, grandfather and uncle. To expand or franchise would seriously jeopardize his quality of life and the quality of his products. Tomas has vowed that he will not open a second Candelas location. At this point, the only way to ensure the quality craftsmanship and lowest worldwide prices of his guitars is to have complete control of production and (wood) purchasing under one roof.
So, if you want to see how these wonderful masterpieces are made, come down and visit with us. We’d love to see you.
2724 Cesar Chaves Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
Or Call to Talk with Tomas