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How I Got My Job: Making Custom Ceramics for Restaurants

Jono Pandolfi reflects on the turning points of his career and how he plans to continue building his company

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Jono Pandolfi.

Diners everywhere have Jono Pandolfi to thank for much of the artisan dinnerware that graces their restaurant tables (and Instagram photos). This New York-based ceramic artist — whose handmade stoneware is wildly popular among restaurateurs — started working with restaurants in 2004 with the help of his friend Will Guidara, who was then working for restaurateur Danny Meyer. As Guidara went on to run his own restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad, Pandolfi became his go-to dinnerware designer.

At a time when diners were thinking more critically than ever about the food on their plates, this creative collaboration shifted the way the hospitality industry approached the plates themselves. Demand skyrocketed among chefs for Pandolfi’s custom dinnerware, which he says also helped drive sales among other ceramic artists. In the following interview, Pandolfi reflects on the turning points of his career and how he plans to continue building his company.

Eater: What does your job involve?

Jono Pandolfi: My company designs and produces stoneware dinnerware. Most of our work goes to incredible restaurants all around the world, but we also sell to home cooks online. I spend my time running the machine that is our pottery studio and working with our 15 employees, most of whom are working hands-on with the clay. And I try to get as much time with the chefs we work with as possible.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

I always loved ceramics and making functional work, but I never knew I’d be doing it on this level. I started out as a teacher, so I thought I’d teach or be a gallery artist.

Did you go to college? If so, would you recommend it?

Yes, I went to Skidmore College, and I would recommend it. I needed a fair amount of technical knowledge to do what we do here, and that’s where I got most of that.

What would you have done differently at school or paid more attention to?

I would have liked some exposure to the whole world of design earlier on. In my ceramics program, the focus was on art, not design and refinement.

What was your first job? What did it involve?

I spent four years teaching ceramics to high schoolers at a boarding school in upstate New York. My job encompassed dorm duty, coaching sports, and teaching ceramics. You really stay busy, so in that regard it was a great place to land post school. Eventually I decided I needed to start my design career, so I moved to New York City in 2003.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out?

Gradually ramping production up to the point where I could put out something meaningful. And then do it again a year later if necessary. Committing to hospitality and assuring chefs that we were going to still be around in five years wasn’t easy at first.

How did you get started working with restaurants?

I started out collaborating with Will Guidara when he was opening the cafes at the Museum of Modern Art for Danny Meyer in 2004. I made the bud vases. After that, he moved on to Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad and brought us on for those projects.

When was the first time you felt successful?

When my first collection arrived at Crate & Barrel in 2007, that was a pretty big deal for me.

What was the turning point that led to where you are now?

Producing the dinnerware for the NoMad when it opened in New York City. That is the job that put us on the map.

What were the most important skills that got you there?

Learning to be relentless in your pursuit of whatever it is you’re pursuing. I knew it would be a huge uphill climb to do the massive job, but I knew that my brand would roll on like a boulder if we got it done right. We did, and it’s been a wild ride since then.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is tweaking and perfecting the ever-evolving machine that is our studio. As we grow, new challenges always arise, and I enjoy solving those kinds of problems — it usually relates to increasing production without sacrificing quality.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?

I have visited some amazing factories, and I have worked with many amazing chefs, but so far one of the coolest things I have gotten to do is bring my brother Nick on board as general manager and partner. He quit his job at Google to join the company, and we have been really enjoying working together. Plus, he has helped me achieve some goals for the company, such as great benefits packages, including health insurance and paid time off for our employees.

How are you making change in your industry?

I think we have really helped open up chefs’ eyes to a wider world of dinnerware. We’ve given them options beyond the generic product that is on the market. And their interest in return has helped create tons of opportunities for other artists like myself around the country, because I know other ceramic artists are getting calls from chefs who want custom plates all the time!

What would you have done differently in your career?

Oh man, that’s a tough one. Maybe there are times when I was a little hesitant to grow very fast. I have always wanted the business to stand on a solid foundation of our practical knowledge and growing customer interest. We’ve stayed steady there, and I’m happy about that. Our production capacity will continue to increase over the next several months, and a year from now we will look almost like a different company in terms of how we operate and how much goes out the door.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

I would say look at what you’re good at, what you want to do, and try to find a way to find a niche for that. I have been lucky to fall into this very exciting area of handmade dinnerware for hospitality, and the demand just keeps growing. If you want to make plates for restaurants, learn how to work fast!

Learn more about Jono Pandolfi’s process on Eater’s “Handmade”

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photo of Jono Pandolfi by Michael Harlan-Turkell.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.