If you're ever visited the Washington State University campus in Pullman, chances are you've stopped by the WSU Creamery, home of the 'World Famous Natural Cougar Gold'. This delicious cheese already enjoys a local cult following - and the now the secret's out. It's recently become famous outside of our state after Bon Appétit Magazine published a glowing review about the 'cheese in a can'. It was that iconic can itself that sparked an idea for Seattle's Christine Smithberg. The Cougar alumna discovered a creative use for the tins that is literally brightening up people's lives and making a difference for young athletes.
Seattle Refined: Christine Smithberg, you’re the creative force behind Cheesy Cougar Candles.
Christine Smithberg: Cheesy Cougar Candles are 100% soy wax candles, poured into repurposed Cougar Gold Cheese Tins, Natural Cheddar and Viking Gold Cheese tins.
We all love Cougar Gold. I’m a Coug, I know you’re a Coug too. But you took it a step further making these candles. What was the inspiration?
Christine S.: We had planned a girl’s trip. One of my friends brought a can of Cougar Gold to share for the weekend, and we were making candles already and we thought - oh my gosh how cute would this be to make a candle in this tin. I came back to Seattle and I was looking for more [tins].
You posted in on this Facebook group called Die Hard Cougs - what was the response?
Christine S.: There’s 30,000 people in this group, and I all of the sudden had a hundred empty cheese tins in my living room! From there it was like - what can I possibly do with these? If I make them into candles I can sell them and donate the money. The first time I think I made twenty, and I posted on the same group on Facebook and they sold out in ten minutes. After the first hundred I sold out in seriously a weekend. It just kind of blew up.
There’s something incredible about these candles - and you’re truly lighting life up for a lot of people.
Christine S.: 33% percent of the profits from the tins and the glasses go to Hilinski’s Hope.
For people who don’t remember the story of Tyler Hilinski, maybe you could get us a little background on Hilinski’s Hope?
Christine S.: It was my senior year, he was our quarterback, and in 2018, he took his own life after the football season. I was just kind of shocked that it had happened. I mean,Tyler Hilinski is a quarterback at a well known college. And his family started a foundation in his name. They work with colleges and that work with athletes to de-stigmatize is the really big thing - mental health and promoting mental health awareness.
Christine Lombardi you are Tyler’s aunt - can you tell us a little but about him?
Christine Lombardi: He was just a kind wonderful, loving human being. For reasons we’ll probably never know, we lost him on January 16 of 2018. We knew that we had to do something in his name and honor and that’s where Hilinski’s Hope came about. The primary mission is first eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. We want to bring education and tools and resources to student athletes so that they can manage their mental health and wellness.
So when Christine Smitherberg starts making these candles out of Cougar Gold Tins [best idea ever] and she gets the idea she wants to help out with Hilinski’s Hope - what was going through your mind?
Christine L.: Christine S. is obviously very special to me - it’s gonna make me cry. She defines the spirit of Washington State. So many people like Christine S. think - oh you’re doing so much in the world, you’re doing such good in the world you’re saving lives. But people like [her] are actually saying our lives. It’s been three years since Tyler passed but it seems like yesterday.
Was this personal for you?
Christine S.: It is very personal for me - I have been on my own mental health journey for the past few years. I have struggled with anxiety and depression in the past. 2018 was my senior year at WSU, the cheese tins are WSU cheese tins - and mental health is very important to me. So it was kind of the perfect time to give back to this.
Christine do you feel like this at all was kind of Tyler Hilinski’s spirit putting things in place in a way?
Christine S.: If you want to say Tyler Hilinski is working with me, or I got something from him... I will, I will take that.
The amount of money you raised I feel like is so incredible. How many of these Cheesy Cougar Candles have you made and how much money have you donated to Hilinski’s Hope?
Christine S.: At this point so far we’ve raised $20,000 [updated to $22,000 at the time of this posting]. I’ve lost track of how many candles I’ve made, but it’s at least 750 at this point. My living room, I don’t know if you can see behind me, but there’s basically a candle factory happening behind me in my living room!
So you’re literally spreading Hilinski’s light with every candle that you make.
Christine S.: I don’t want to take credit for what - for their work and the amazing work the foundation is doing. I have been blessed to be a small part of their story.
Besides the Cheesy Cougar Candles, you have your own separate candle company.
Christine S.: It’s called The Good Eye Company. My cousin [Lindsay Smithberg] is an artist and helped me make the logo and I have tins, and they have wooden wicks. Which is great, they crackle when they burn. I also have glass - ceramic jars too. So [in total] I have four different colors [of] jars and I have three different colors [of] tins. I have four signature scents, so I use those mainly for the Cougar line candles too: Cucumber and Watermelon, Citron Mandarin, Fig and Rhubarb and Sea Salt and Orchid.
What’s your ultimate goal with the Cheesy Cougar Candles?
Christine S.: I’m not gonna give a monetary number - Because if you had asked me six months ago I would would have said $5,000 then it would have been $10,000 and then it would have been $15. The fact that we raised $20 is pretty incredible.
Christine I think you’re a beacon of bright light shining everywhere with what you’re doing so thank you so much for telling us about it.
Thank you so much for the time.
For more about Christine and her candles check out The Good Eye Co. For more on Hilinski's Hope Foundation visit their official website.