“Pottery Capital Of The World” Sees Hope From Starbucks Deal

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Bob Davis hand-dips mugs before they go into the kiln at American Mug and Stein in East Liverpool, Ohio. Most overseas companies have machines that can do this much faster.(Photo: Amanda Rabinowitz, WKSU)
Bob Davis hand-dips mugs before they go into the kiln at American Mug and Stein in East Liverpool, Ohio. Most overseas companies have machines that can do this much faster.(Photo: Amanda Rabinowitz, WKSU)

This time a year ago, a small pottery factory in East Liverpool – on the brink of shutting down — made national news when it got a huge order from Starbucks.

Amanda Rabinowitz recently went back to the “Pottery Capital of the World” to check in on American Mug and Stein. And what she found is encouraging for the business…and the battered town’s vanishing industry.

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Nothing and everything has changed for American Mug and Stein owner Clyde McClellan in the past year. His employees are still hand-pouring clay into heavy molds, smoothing the mugs’ edges and dipping them one-by-one in glaze. He’s still firing up what he calls his “dinosaur” 35-year-old kiln.

But unlike last year when he was ready to close one of East Liverpool’s last remaining ceramics factories, McClellan says business is bustling.

“I can’t tell you how many times people said, ‘Oh I heard about you on NPR or I read about you, and you know, can we do something?’ Now, once they get over the shock of our prices, because many times they are used to dealing with the Chinese ware, then…we’ve done many projects and we’re working on several large projects at the moment.”

Last June, NPR and The New York Times reported on McClellan’s American Mug and Stein just as the small factory had completed its biggest order ever — 20,000 mugs for coffee-giant Starbucks.

It was a move Starbucks made to try to shift some of its manufacturing from high-tech, cheaper Asian factories back to the United States, where the industry centered in eastern Ohio’s Appalachia region largely folded some 30 years ago.

McCllelan says since he completed the order for the “Indivisible” brand mug that sold out in stores right away, Starbucks has kept the factory busy making another mug that sells at Starbucks’ Pike’s Place store in Seattle. McClellan says the monthly contract supplies about 50 percent of his business and has allowed him to retain his 20 employees.

They’ve raised their monthly orders almost each quarter. And the projections that we’ve gotten which are based on estimates for the next year, show a significant increase in volume.

Not only is McClellan’s business growing, but the Starbucks deal has brought life back to another shuttered pottery factory just a few miles down the road.

The man at the helm of American Pioneer Manufacturing is Ulrich Honighausen. He owns Hausenware – the company that supplies the mugs, tumblers and other items that Starbucks sells. After working side-by-side on the Starbucks order with McClellan in East Liverpool last year, he decided to buy this 18,000 square-foot factory and retool it.

“There was a time when this factory had 150 employees and it is the center of this small town. So in those days, this building brought energy, it brought life to the town,” Honighausen says.

While McClellan’s shop does everything by hand, Honighausen’s facility is automated with Japanese technology to compete with overseas production. The massive machine has hundreds of buttons and robot arms that load the clay automatically, cut it to size, drop it in a mold and move it down the production line. He can make in a week what McClellan’s factory makes in six months.

“A big part of our advantage is we’re only three days away from the distribution centers in this country. So, we can turn orders around fast and we can crank the volume out of the building because of a piece of equipment like this.”

American Pioneer Manufacturing currently has six full-time employees working on a 100,000 mug order from Starbucks to be shipped in November. He expects to add at least 10 more employees to meet demand. Jim Tanley of nearby Chester, West Virgina, is the manager. He used to work for McClellan at American Mug and Stein. Now, he’s an expert on the high-tech mug machine. He spent several months in Japan learning how to use it and he’s training others.

“When that thing’s running, it creates its own energy for everyone around it because you just see it making cups, it’s awesome. Having been in the factory in Japan and watching what they’re capable of, makes you realize what we’re capable of doing here. Once we get all these pieces worked out, look out. We’re on our way.”

It’s not an entirely high-tech plant. Some of the work is still being done by hand using some of the plant’s vintage equipment. Thirty-year old Erin Kell, wearing a bandanna covered in dried clay works start-to-finish on the mugs. She lives right down the street and describes herself as a mall rat, struggling for years working in retail.

She’s worked at American Pioneer Manufacturing about six months.

“It’s real work to me; it’s an honest day’s living. My children see me happy; my children are happy because I have time for them every night and I have paycheck coming home, I can take them and buy them a toy now. I’m not going anywhere; I am going to run this place one day,” Kell says.

Bringing faster, high-tech mug-making technology from Japan to East Liverpool might make someone like Clyde McClellan nervous…since his American Mug and Stein works at a snails’ pace in comparison. But Ulrich Honaghausen explains, the two plants complement each other.

“What Clyde does in casting, offers a lot of variety, much more variety than what we offer here. So I’m able to hand over those customers to Clyde…and the same way he gets requests for large volumes that are not suitable for his factory, he sends them my way.”

To McClellan, business is good and he welcomes Honighausen as his neighbor…and partner.

I look at it this way: The more people that are working out of this valley, the better it is with the more people we have looking for product to purchase. And I see it as having, you know, long-term implications that we’re going to be doing business together for a long time.

Whether it’s high tech or handmade, Starbucks officials say they will continue supplying work to the East Liverpool-area factories indefinitely. And for a region whose largest industry is all but gone, the backing of a Fortune 500 company is hope for the future in this “Pottery Capital of the World.”

Comments
  • PeterBoyle

    I really like this story. It shows just how well craftsmanship can work along side high tech manufacturing to keep everyone happy. It is sad that craftsmanship is so undervalued today, when you can get cheap but poorly made goods from elsewhere.

  • PeterBoyle

    I really like this story. It shows just how well craftsmanship can work along side high tech manufacturing to keep everyone happy. It is sad that craftsmanship is so undervalued today, when you can get cheap but poorly made goods from elsewhere.