American Pioneer Revives New Waterford Pottery

NEW WATERFORD, Ohio — A once-thriving pottery in Columbiana County is back in business, thanks to a California-based investor and one of the most recognized coffee retailers in the world.

“It takes a lot more than you can imagine,” says Ulrich Honighausen, CEO of Hausenware Inc., based in Sonoma, Calif. “We just keep going step by step.”

Honighausen, his wife, Amanda, and another business partner opted in 2011 to invest in a vacant pottery in New Waterford so it could produce coffee mugs for one of the biggest name brands around the world – Starbucks.

Thus was born American Pioneer Manufacturing Inc. – a venture inspired by Starbucks’ corporate effort to bring manufacturing back to the United States, Honighausen says. “Their continued support has been invaluable for a small, rural factory,” he says.

The elongated factory was first home to Bell-Terr China, which closed during the mid-1990s, and most recently housed Workshops of Gerald E. Henn Pottery, which ended its operations about six years ago.

“Mugs are our focus,” Honighausen says. The plant produces the traditional Starbucks mug with its signature green logo sold in every Starbucks outlet in the country. American Pioneer also manufactures specialty state mugs for Ohio and Hawaii, sold in Starbucks franchises in these states, as well as a mug that salutes veterans.

Aside from the Starbucks business, the pottery in New Waterford produces mugs that bear the images of landmarks such as Alcatraz. “We’ve gotten a lot of the kinks out, so we’re stable and in production,” Honighausen says. “Now, we’re looking for the next move.”

Honighausen relates that his team essentially had to “build the plant from scratch.” They added some automated production equipment as they maintained much of the skilled crafting by hand so critical in the pottery business. “We’re still in the early stages,” he says. “But, I’d say we’re semi-automated and taking it step by step.”

The long, barn-red building is perfectly suited for a single-line pottery manufacturing operation, says production manager Jim Tanley.

Clay, silica sand and four other materials are trucked in and unloaded at one end of the building. Once the production run is completed some 36 hours later, the finished mugs are shipped out at the far end of the factory.

In between is a manufacturing process that combines old-fashioned pottery-making, science, and some enhanced production technology, Tanley says. “We employ about 20 people, but we anticipate that going up. Orders will dictate that.”

At one point, there were more than 200 potteries in the Ohio Valley, Tanley says. Offshore production, however, reduced that number drastically. “There are just a handful of us now,” he laments.

It all starts with the ingredients, the production manager says. “It’s a very precise formula” developed by American Pioneer and another business partner in Japan, Tanley notes. “We took all of our materials there and they helped us work out the formula and we brought it back to the U.S. We’re now at almost two years of production.”

As the material is brought in, plaster molds are created for two parts of the mug, the cup and the handle. “This is the way it’s been done for 100 years,” Tanley says.

Meanwhile, the ingredients used to make the composite material are portioned out and transferred to the factory’s mixing station. Once the materials are mixed, the clay moves through an automated slicer and cut into what are called “slugs.”

The solid clay slugs are then placed into the plaster mold, and the mold is placed in what is akin to a centrifuge. As the mold spins, a press bar is inserted into the mold, forming the interior of the cup. Once the mug is formed, specific handles are fastened to the product by hand, in this case a curved signature handle recently cast exclusive to Starbucks mugs.

The mugs formed, they are transported via a conveyor system to a trimming operation, and then to glazing. “The conveyor was used before as a dryer,” he says, when other potteries operated there. “It uses just forced air at room temperature now. We decided to use it as a way to link these two operations. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to make this better, how to make it more efficient.”

Before a batch is processed, the mixture of ingredients goes through a testing operation at the plant laboratory. There lab technician Jason Pugh has samples of “shrinkage” bars before him on a table, that is, pieces of ceramic that can help determine whether a flaw is in a mixture before it reaches the production stage.

“Most of the time, it’s all right,” he says. “But if something does go wrong, we have the ability right here to stop it before it’s ever fired in the kiln.”

Once the mugs are trimmed, they are dipped in a glaze and then placed on multi-tiered carts and stored overnight in a large dryer at 120 degrees. “We’re producing about 2,000 mugs a day,” Tanley says.

Once the mugs are dried, they’re fired in American Pioneer’s two kilns at 2,200 degrees. Inside the kiln, the clay and glaze turn into glass, creating the final ceramic piece. “We’ve got all new controls, all new electronics – it was a huge investment,” he says. The last step is a final selection, where workers inspect the piece before shipping it to designers where they affix artwork. The mugs are then ready to be shipped to the customer.

“Any Starbucks coffee shop carries the green logo mug,” he says. “Every one of them comes out of here. We made roughly 500,000 mugs last year.”

Honighausen adds that as the production process moves forward, the company has visions of expanding its customer base and product line. “Given our capabilities, we’ve achieved something interesting in a very short period of time,” he says. “We’re excited about the next steps.”

Pictured: Brigitta Cepin attaches handles on mugs at American Pioneer Manufacturing Inc.

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