A Potter's Journey: Part Seven
The Local Blend Business Partnership
“Unlike a painting or sculpture, this work will be handled and mishandled, washed, and scraped with eating utensils. If a pot cannot withstand such treatment, it fails no matter how exciting it may appear to the eye.” ~Warren MacKenzie, “Minnesota Pottery: A Potter’s View,” Ceramics Monthly (May, 1981)
A handmade Cherrico Pottery mug at The Local Blend coffee shop in St. Joseph, Minnesota, will cycle through the hands of customers and employees three to five times a day, seven days a week. If the mug’s lip is too thin, it chips in a day. Crazing and pinholes are subtle glaze imperfections that normally go unnoticed; a white, crazed glaze will stain black from coffee within a week. Customers hastily drop mugs into dirty dish bins full of soup bowls and dinner plates. Employees scrub pottery clean with steel wool. Baristas slide mugs upside down and clank them into rows atop the espresso machine, ready to mix the next peppermint mocha. In this environment, the life of pottery speeds up. Even robust mugs will have chips and cracks in a few months.
Why subject artwork to such abuse? More importantly, why commit to sustaining this abuse for years, with more than 100 different pots daily?
I believe that replacing machine-made vessels with handmade pottery enriches people's lives. The reason that The Local Blend is the cornerstone of my career is because it enriches people's lives in this way every day, and we have developed a mutually beneficial business model that encourages our businesses to grow together. For more about that model, read “Eat, Pay, Love: A Potter's Business Model.”
After four years of sustaining this relationship, I've identified five important factors that have helped make this business model successful and led to increased pottery sales:
- Proper management and ownership. The Local Blend owners are truly the salt of the Earth. They live next door to the business and contribute to every part of it, from balancing financials to scrubbing the floors. They were open to my initial business model, but skeptical. They openly collaborate with various community events, but are also tough with unruly customers, employees, or solicitors that disrespect their space.
- Fantastic baristas. I've tried to keep great relationships with the 15-plus baristas, as they have taught me a lot about my pots. They not only prepare and serve food on the pottery daily, but they are also sales reps, interacting with pottery buyers every day.
- Strong local community. St. Joseph has grown steadily for the past few years, and new businesses keep opening. Close proximity to the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University brings thousands of students, faculty, and families to the Local Blend each year.
- Gourmet food. "Think globally, act locally" is the motto at The Local Blend. Most of the delicious food is baked in-house or sourced from local producers. Locally made pottery matches that philosophy.
- Proper marketing. Most people did not know they could purchase any of the pottery their meal was served from. Now we communicate this with text over large, gorgeous pottery images from a talented photographer. Catalogue books reside next to each booth, showing process shots and prices. I made business cards specific to The Local Blend, acting as "buy it now" buttons that tastefully inform coffee drinkers about the unusual concept that their mug is also available for sale.
A strong case could also be made for increased sales due to my increased use of a cobalt blue glaze. I was curious to find support for blue pot sales from a historical potter. In A Potter’s Book (1940), Bernard Leach writes: “At my St. Ives workshop each summer we are asked by three visitors out of four for colour and yet more colour; blue, and the more intense the better, is easily the favourite.”
Renowned potter Warren MacKenzie’s philosophy is to produce high quality pots that are affordable and that people use daily. I aspire to do the same through my work, and partnering with The Local Blend has become a cornerstone of my business that gives my local community access to pottery daily.