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When Restaurants Close, What Happens to the Ceramicists Who Make the Dinnerware?

With restaurant orders canceled, the artisans that supply restaurants with handmade pottery need to find new ways to get through the coronavirus crisis

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A pottery display
Pottery from Cuarto Suspiro, which supplies many of the dishes for Brooklyn restaurant Claro.
Elissa Goldman/Claro

Since Brooklyn Oaxacan restaurant Claro switched to takeout and delivery only in response to the coronavirus pandemic, chef and owner TJ Steele has been working around the clock. He let most of his staff go and is serving moles and soups alongside two sous chefs. Moles take days to prepare and he’s constantly somewhere in the process, cleaning chiles, grilling outside, or packing finished dishes into plastic and foil containers for delivery drivers to take to their final destinations, where they’ll likely be eaten directly from the container or perhaps on chipped Ikea plates.

It’s a different experience entirely from dining at the restaurant, not least because at Claro, Steele plated dishes like duck mole and broccoli quesadillas on ceramics, handmade by artisans in Oaxaca. Estudio Cuarto Suspiro, a studio founded by Brian Corres and Natalia Bolaños, is responsible for many of the restaurant’s signature items, like Mezcal glasses adorned with ocean life and colorful plates for mole and appetizers.

But now the plates, bowls, cups and other vessels that were once the complement to chefs’ creativity are no longer needed at restaurants across the country, and the people who make them are feeling the effects of a devastated restaurant industry. Restaurants are often these artists’ biggest clients, and this is yet another example of an unseen industry that, without restaurants, is needing to find new ways to get by.

For Bethany Kramer, a potter based in Melbourne, Kentucky, the consequences have been immediate. “All work has been halted,” she says. “I have several boxes [for now closed restaurants] sitting here ready to ship and orders in progress.” Before the outbreak, making bowls with contrasting rims, wide speckled plates, and ramekins for restaurants like the Baker’s Table in Newport, Kentucky; Nada in Cincinnati and Indianapolis; and the Beach House in Pompano Beach, Florida were Kramer’s primary sources of business. “I offered to hold onto everything until things get back to normal,” she says. “We’re all in a super tight spot and I’m trying to be as understanding as possible. I know that plateware is the last thing on their minds right now.”

two tacos on a turquoise plate
Claro food on a Cuarto Suspiro plate
Elissa Goldman/Claro

As restaurants reopen, Kramer worries they won’t be in the financial position to invest in handmade pottery, which is both more breakable and more expensive than mass produced dishes sold at restaurant supply stores. “There is definitely a concern if everyone can reopen or bounce back after this,” she says. If the restaurants can’t use the work, Kramer will try to sell the pieces she made for them individually. She spent the week of March 16th building out her online shop, which will be her main source for sales until she can attend art shows in the summer and fall. “It may take a long time but it may be the only option I have,” she says. “I’m not going to put more of a financial burden on anyone if they can’t take the work. Nothing is so custom that I wouldn’t be able to sell it elsewhere.”

New York based ceramicist Jono Pandolfi makes custom stoneware for restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and the Nomad. In the past several weeks, his business has shifted dramatically. “Two weeks ago we were operating at full capacity, working on about 30 new restaurant orders, and 72 hours later most of those orders needed to be put on hold or canceled altogether. It was shocking how quickly we went from full steam ahead to a screeching halt.”

For Pandolfi, who works out of a studio in Union City, New Jersey, the restaurant closures were only half the disruption; he needed to minimize risk in his production space as well. “It became clear that it wasn’t safe for our entire team of 17 people to be working in the studio so we’ve had to scale things back considerably and are currently focused on packing and fulfilling orders with existing inventory,” he says. “Even if we had the demand, we couldn’t have a studio full of people making the orders.”

Pandolfi had to lay off most of his team, and he isn’t alone. Seventy-year-old Heath Ceramics in the Bay Area was forced to lay off staff to adjust production to the state’s shelter-in-place order. As owners Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic shared in a letter to customers, “Pausing the business suddenly for two to three months was never part of our plan. We have insurance for fires and earthquakes, given our California location. But nothing covers this type of unexpected hit.”

Pandolfi is hopeful the layoffs are only temporary. “Our landlord has been very accommodating and hopefully the new stimulus package will allow us to hire our employees back quickly. I’ve been spending a lot of time calling other small business owners and reading about the CARES act this week.” However, Pandolfi notes that his business is so interconnected with restaurants, that its future depends on them reopening. “It is imperative that restaurants get the support they need so everyone else involved —chefs, servers, dishwashers, food purveyors, etc. — can get back to business,” he says. “As long as restaurants can make it back after this, we should be in fine shape.”

Pandolfi is still working on dishes for restaurants scheduled to open this fall, but to make ends meet and support his staff, he and his brother, general manager Nick Pandolfi, are focusing on making sales through the Jono Pandolfi e-commerce site and through a partnership with Food52. Pandolfi is also finding ways to give back to the restaurant industry: starting April 10, Jono Pandolfi is directing 20 percent of the sales of a fermentation crock (produced in collaboration with Bon Appetit video host Brad Leone) to the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation COVID-19 emergency relief fund. “We’re fortunate to still have some orders coming in right now, so we want to do what we can to support the restaurant industry that has enabled us to grow for the past 10 years,” Pandolfi says.

The ripple effects from closed dining rooms in America are felt as far as the pottery studios in Oaxaca, where Steele once shopped for Claro. Steele was Cuarto Suspiro’s first international customer when he ordered a turkey-shaped pitcher in 2017 before Claro’s opening, and since then, Bolaños explains, the studio’s business has grown to include a number of international customers, both restaurants and individuals. “We’ve had different clients in the States, some of whom come through social media.”

But since the coronavirus outbreak, tourism in Oaxaca has dried up, and it’s affected the studio’s sales. Art fairs, where the team meets new clients and does much of its business, have been canceled and the duo is seeing a huge decrease in orders. Through March, the studio had been able to continue production — the workshop is spacious and each employee has their own work station and commuted by bike or foot. “We’re staying optimistic and working on back orders and outstanding ideas,” Bolaños said at the time. However, on March 30 following a lockdown order, Cuarto Suspiro closed. Bolaños and Corres, who live next door, are able to continue to work some, but production has effectively been suspended.

Ceramicists desperately want restaurants to reopen. In the meantime, they’re hoping individual customers will purchase their products. And replacing those chipped Ikea plates with artisan dishes is one way for those with the means to support industries affected by COVID-19. By buying new dishes, consumers can support the small producers who make them and in some cases, they can help out restaurants directly too: Jean-Georges is selling its porcelain and donating 50 percent of sales to its employee relief fund.

Plus, as Pandolfi points out, there’s a more personal reason to upgrade: “I think all that time cooking at home has made some of our customers want to invest in nicer plates.”

Cuarto Suspiro accepts orders via Instagram or Facebook, but here’s how to shop these other restaurant suppliers:

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