Studio Visit: Jono Pandolfi, Union City, New Jersey

Just the Facts

Clay
primarily stoneware, but we dabble in porcelain from time to time

Primary forming method
jiggering

Primary firing temperature
cone 6–7

Favorite tools
the jigger arm

Studio Playlist
we listen to music all day, and it’s a headphones-free environment, so people take turns as the DJ

Wishlist
floor drains

Studio

Our studio is in an old soap factory in Union City, New Jersey, with expansive views of Manhattan. We started with 400 square feet and now have about 7500. I’ve been in the building for twelve years and have been in our current space for five. We have nine kilns (eight electric kilns, both top and front loaders, and a gas kiln) and eight wheels that we use to produce dinnerware for the hospitality industry and retail clients. We typically make and ship out around 450 pieces a day to hospitality clients and direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail clients.

As the business has grown, we’ve evolved thoughtfully and the studio layout reflects that. Clay comes in one end, plates come out the other. It took some time, but our fulfillment operation has finally caught up with production—plates now go out the door just as fast as we make them.

Some of my favorite aspects of the studio would have to be the open floor plan, amazing views, and the lighting. The way the company runs has a very collaborative feel. We cater mainly to the hospitality industry, and there are parallels there to how we operate: our forming staff is the back-of-house crew and the marketing and operations people are the front-of-house staff. We’ve always been good at making plates, and finally our marketing and operations have caught up to that. Things are really humming. I have a complete dream studio that I’ve been tweaking and perfecting for ten years. We have ten people on staff at the moment, and soon will expand to fifteen—we’re preparing to simultaneously serve our growing DTC sales category and pick back up with our restaurant clients soon.

In terms of a focus on conservation, the tenth kiln that we are about to install will be our second 55-cubic-foot Blaauw gas kiln. We chose the gas kilns because of their energy efficiency. To reduce waste, we recycle a ton of cardboard boxes that would otherwise be tossed and recently switched to 100% paper packaging that can be recycled, rather than using peanuts and bubble wrap. Our customers notice and appreciate that.

All of the forming processes are done in the same area of the studio, with everything centered around the pugmills. We typically pug the clay, roll it out into slabs, then jigger it, and all of those processes are done adjacent to each other. The majority of our production staff are generalists; they don’t necessarily specialize in one particular task, so people rotate through the main jobs of recycling clay, slab rolling, jiggering, and loading bisque firings. We have also reworked our space to keep our bisque supply closer to the glazing booth. Keeping the space open and flowing really helps make it a more productive environment.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

My first exposure to clay, and the one that really allowed the medium to take root deeply in me, was at my high school, the Millbrook School, in Millbrook, New York, where I studied under Cam and Bill Hardy. From there, I became a studio-art major at Skidmore College, studying under Leslie Ferst and Regis Brodie. Then, I went back to teach ceramics for four years at my high school before starting my company. Those four years were very important as I learned a lot during that time, settled down, and gained focus about what I wanted to achieve with clay.

I’ve done a lot of work with larger plants manufacturing stoneware dinnerware, and I have learned a ton from partnering with and visiting them. I was also on the faculty at Parsons The New School for design from 2010–2017, and that studio and the challenges my students brought to me on a weekly basis always kept me on my toes in a great way.

I’m at the studio five days a week and we stick to a pretty rigid 9-to-5 schedule. Life/work balance is important around here. The whole team also stops for lunch from 1 to 2pm. After our lunch break, we make a big pot of coffee, trim whatever we made that morning, and get firings loaded. Everything we form on a particular day is trimmed that same day, so we don’t have work covered and sitting overnight. We form greenware, load bisque firings, glaze bisqueware, and load glaze firings every day.

I’m a dad to two daughters, ages 6 and 10, and one of my favorite things to do is bring them here to the studio on the weekends. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my older daughter would spend occasional weekdays here and help with some of the simpler aspects of production, which was fun for everyone.

Marketing

The dinnerware we make has traditionally been sold 70% to the hospitality industry and 30% to home cooks, but that’s shifting quite a bit due to COVID-19 restrictions and economic impact. In both cases, we sell directly to the client and therefore see a higher margin ourselves.

We do occasional pop-up shops in Manhattan, and one strategy that I really enjoyed before the pandemic was monthly seconds sale and open studios. These sales allow potters and dinnerware-lovers alike to come hang out, ask questions, see the process firsthand, and shop through our seconds inventory. I really enjoyed meeting and chatting with people and am looking forward to restarting that when we can.

Our business model as a dinnerware company that serves the hospitality market has really served us well. We work with top chefs and restaurateurs, and our brand built its reputation in some of the world’s toughest kitchens. From there, people dining in these restaurants started to discover our dinnerware and were asking the staff or actually flipping the plates over to find out who made it and then looking us up online to order some of their own.

We have a strong following on Instagram, 60,000 and growing. Communicating with our social-media following and sending out our newsletter are our primary marketing tools. The newsletter has been a successful sales tool because it allows our biggest fans to jump on limited editions or special releases quickly. Collaborations with people in the food and design world have also been helpful in exposing our brand to new audiences.

Our greatest successes online have been growing our Instagram following and newsletter email list to the point where they’ve measurably increased our business, as well as constantly finding new ways to get our fans excited and keep them building their collections. In terms of social media, we use finished images, pieces in progress, and action shots. We have found that process videos tend to go viral and are a great way to reach new followers.

When we sell at our pop-ups and open studios, people tend to gravitate toward brightly colored pieces and unique one-offs since they can have fun putting different combinations together and seeing what looks good. On our website, it is hard to choose from hundreds of different options, so we tend to keep our assortment streamlined and almost everything we sell has white glaze.

I’m lucky enough to be able to employ my brother Nick Pandolfi, who is our general manager and my business partner. He’s done so much over the last three years to institute structure and useful norms that have allowed the company to continue to grow. Nick has headed up our marketing efforts and built a team that really understands the ecosystem, and deserves all the credit for that.

Mind

The pandemic has curtailed some of the things we used to do regularly, like rooftop happy hour and barbecue lunches in the yard, but we’re adapting and finding ways to have fun together. I’m arranging a workshop for my team with a stained-glass artist on the fourth floor of the building here to get people out of the studio and learning something new and interesting. We all love making and learning new processes.

The staff meets to discuss everything from production and yield issues to customer service. We’ve got some special collaborations and new product ideas coming up that I’m really excited about. We don’t introduce new designs very often, but we’re continually learning and trying to improve. The concept of kaizen, continuous improvement, is something we try to keep in mind.

In my time off, I greatly enjoy walking around Manhattan and stopping into my favorite stores to stay up to date with what’s going on in the tabletop and housewares market. I just read Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One by Emily Heyward, which was enlightening, but my favorite author right now is Cixin Liu, who writes science-fiction novels.

Most Important Lesson

I know the best ideas aren’t something that materialize all at once fully ready for the world. I enjoy working on a new design through several iterations. Taking the time to redo the process a few times leads to useful realizations that can really make life easier when you actually produce a significant volume of that item. And iterations help you define an aesthetic to a more fully refined state.

I think I’ve been successful because I’ve always enjoyed ramping up production and making a lot of ware, and I found a market for the kind of work I wanted to create, which was restaurants.

Figure out what you are good at, and go hard in that area. And find a way to sell direct to your end customer.

www.jonopandolfi.com

Instagram: @jonopandolfi

Photos: Spencer Wells.

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