East Fork Pottery on color glazes, kid wisdom and making mistakes with the best intentions
I first learned of East Fork Pottery by, well, their pottery.
Since the company began in 2009, the gorgeous ceramics have been the prized serving dishes at dinner parties, the top of many birthday wish lists and wedding registries, and a daily flash of color on my instagram feed.
For a long time, East Fork Pottery was special occasion serveware to me. But after this year, I realize how wrong I was about that.
During quarantine, dinner for one was elevated by a fancy plate; a slice of tomato or hunk of cheese celebrated by the dish it adorned. Take-out tasted infinitely better changed out of its plastic container and into a beautiful bowl.
All photos by East Fork Pottery
Then, as I cautiously expanded social circles to include an afternoon meal with friends, I would rush to use my best bowls, plates and napkins. If we are going to eat, we are going to EAT!
Soon, the pottery and earthenware I owned was a part of my everyday. There was no better reason to use my favorite pieces other than it was a Tuesday. A higher standard for quality and experiences became the norm. And this, I believe, is what East Fork intended.
But the lifestyle lesson extends much further than tableware.
From my very first interaction with Connie and other East Fork team members, the collective commitment to living the company's values was immediate. Values are not something you save for a special occasion. They don't just make an appearance for birthdays or anniversaries. Values are a lifestyle and the right ones require effort, time, and money.
East Fork Pottery is actively working to incorporate greater equity into the lives of the 90+ incredible humans who make up the company. Their values — compassion, accountability, equity, sincerity and adaptive tenacity — are listed directly on the website, along with the smiling faces of every employee; some of who you will meet in this interview.
I encourage you to take five minutes to think of your own values. I encourage you to use the fancy plate. Both might require a bit more TLC, but I promise you, it's worth it.
Every story has a beginning, middle and end. What was the first chapter for East Fork Pottery for you? And what chapter would you say the company is currently in?
Chapter One at East Fork starts in 2009, when Alex bought a parcel of land in the back of a dark holler, in Madison County, NC. Alex made pots in a pre-industrial tradition out there and fired them in a 36-foot long wood kiln. It was a very different existence. Romantic, beautiful but also lonely, cloistered, bittersweet.
We hope to keep this business alive and thriving for hundreds of years to come, so I’d like to think that if East Fork were a bildungsroman, our protagonist has put some good distance between themself and their spring awakening, has struggled and cried through an honest self-inventory, has surveyed the mountain they’ve set to climb, thoughtfully packed their knapsack, and now, feet firmly rooted, is lifting their gaze up with an intoxicating combination of determination and terror. So, I dunno... Part 3, Chapter 4 of a 9 part series? - Connie Matisse, CEO, Co-Founder
The public pledge to employee equity at East Fork is incredible - I had to read it twice! While I urge all TKC members to go read it ASAP, could you offer some insight into what prompted East Fork to be as transparent about how the company operates?
When we started talking honestly and openly about what happens behind our closed doors it wasn’t necessarily part of a thought out brand strategy. We didn’t “launch” this company with a brand guide. At the start it really was just me following Alex and John around the pottery with my iPhone 4. No editing. You know, just that #liveauthentic lifestyle lol. But really we just never really questioned it, we just did it because it felt natural and right for us.
Now, we’re a lot more thoughtful and intentional about how and when we share information. Even with being hyperconscious about every word we put on the internet, we’re always going to encounter varying levels of alignment between ourselves and customers or Instagram followers.
Nuance doesn’t happen all that well on the Internet. So I’m constantly weighing what to share and not share in order to paint the most accurate picture of what’s happening in our company. We hope that by stumbling through a more radically transparent approach to business — born from a set of values rather than a marketing scheme — we can encourage other businesses to try it, too. - Connie Matisse, CEO, Co-Founder
You are refreshingly honest about missing the mark on equity at times. What were some of the hardest lessons you’ve learned as a company or an individual?
Oh, so many! Honestly I could write a book called Mistakes We’ve Made. And so many of those mistakes could have been avoided with clearer communication around expectations and a more sober assessment of just how complicit we all are in perpetuating oppression and how damn long it takes to start really shifting things.
When we made a decision to make a loud, direct commitment to racial equity work, we jumped straight from awareness phase to action, skipping right over analysis. In doing so we didn’t give ourselves enough time to really call attention to the ways white supremacy manifested in ourselves and our company, nor did we do the assessment work required to craft a thoughtful plan.
We figured it out the hard way. The way we were most consistently complicit was acting from a white savior perspective—thinking that we could be all things to all people. We didn’t set clear boundaries around what we could and couldn’t offer and so inadvertently caused harm thinking we could be financial advisors, legal advisors, friends, mediators, therapists, family members, and employers at the same time. Bad idea. - Connie Matisse, CEO, Co-Founder
We ask this to every new TKC member: what was your first or best experience with sake?
Connie and I had the omakase at Asanebo in Los Angeles — it was San Fernando Valley strip mall Japanese at its finest. What I remember most from the meal was that they placed the sake glass in a deep saucer and poured the sake all the way to the brim until it overflowed and filled most of the saucer. I believe it was to convey generosity, or at least that’s how it felt! - Alex Matisse, CSO, Co-Founder
My first formative restaurant job was at a sushi restaurant in Bushwick called Momo in a dark garage with three long, black walnut tables. We had a pretty special sake program there, but I always looked forward to spring and autumn, when we would get seasonal releases like Masumi Aribashiri “First Run” Junmai Gingo Namazake — I think that was my first experience of terroir. - Cherry Iocovozzi, Kitchen Manager
You switched to a pre-ordering process in response to the pandemic. How else has the business evolved over the past year?
So much, truly, but two changes come to mind first:
1. We doubled down on our commitment to equity. When it first started becoming clear that the pandemic was going to deeply exacerbate existing inequities, we decided we needed to put our money where our mouth was and keep our folks employed, ensured, and safe. It’s dishonest to talk about the pandemic without talking about white supremacy, and so we started digging deeper into that work in March.
We hired two folks on our Culture and People team, Manny Ayala and Clarissa Harris, to be dedicated mediators, resource coordinators, benefits program managers and community advocates. They hit the ground running by scheduling 90 listening sessions with every single team member at East Fork, building out a clear picture of the organization’s health so they could advise on next steps. We’re gonna be diving into Non-Violent Communication Training this winter. - Connie Matisse, CEO, Co-Founder
2. We overhauled our approach to marketing. Last December, I made the call to not spend money on Facebook or Google in 2020. It took a minute to figure out what our marketing strategy would look like, but in the last couple months we’ve started to get in a groove. Our team picks a cookbook that we sell in the shop each month and then all content and storytelling spins off from there. Cherry makes meals for our production team four times a week at headquarters, we make social media content from that, we showcase relevant cookware and pantry items that match nicely with the book, and we reach out to experts in their field to share their knowledge! It’s been so fun to be more collaborative about our approach to audience growth and storytelling. - Connie Matisse, CEO, Co-Founder
If you had to cook from one cookbook for the rest of eternity, which one would it be?
Gah, this is tough! Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is a real triumph for simple and delicious food and I could probably live off of the recipes in that book alone. Her simple tomato sauce recipe makes an appearance in my kitchen at least a dozen times every summer. A close runner-up would be Koreatown by Deuki Hong. Korean food is hands down my favorite cuisine to cook for a crowd and this book if full of heavy-hitting recipes. - Erin Hawley, Senior Brand Manager
I’ll choose a book that doesn’t exist yet: what Brooks Headley publishes next. I’ve made my way through The Superiority Burger Cookbook and Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts and my cooking is better for it, more joyful and a little more imaginative, too. Eating his food, you get a sense of who Brooks Headley is as a chef and possibly even as a person. But what his books, with their tales of punk rock hijinx and more recently, his restaurant regulars, show me is what it might be like to be his friend. - Shannon Doyne, Storyteller
I really can’t pick one but recently I’ve been enjoying Japanese Homestyle Cooking by Tokiko Suzuki. The format of the book is so matter of fact and the styling is literal in the most genuine way. I love cookbooks that tell a story but also really appreciate the text-book like quality of this one. - Cherry Iocovozzi, Kitchen Manager
If you could pick one glaze color to bring out of retirement, which one would it be and why?
This tends to be a very heated topic of discussion that brings out lots of feelings on the internet! While my tried and true forever favorite is our goes-with-anything neutral, Morel, the one color that I regret not adding to my own personal collection before it went into retirement is Celery — a vibrant, verdant yellow-undertoned green — from back in the Spring of last year. And Celery with Poinsettia is my fave: perfectly clashy, 70's-feeling combo.
PS: some of our most pined-for retired glazes might very well be coming out of retirement in 2021...so stay tuned! - Erin, Senior Brand Manager
I think Poinsettia and Molasses are the two glaze colors I have an actual visceral reaction to. Molasses has this deep richness that almost always gives more character to the dish it carries. The ruby tones in Poinsettia make me giggle...I’m a sucker for Christmas themes and Valentine's Day is my favorite holiday. What’s sexier than a luscious red vessel for tartare and a silky yellow egg yolk or a pale blini with stark white creme fraiche and deep purple-y blue caviar? - Cherry, Kitchen Manager
Over the summer, one of the main goals of The Koji Club’s virtual sake happy hours was to provide moments of connection and joy amongst strangers at a time when normal social settings (i.e. bars) weren’t open. What creative ways have you been able to connect with your community and spread joy?
Back in March, when our factory was shut down and everybody was stuck at home, Connie started sending out a daily email prompt to the entire company. The email series was titled “Claycation,” and we were asked to share everything from a time we felt connected to nature to who our childhood crushes were (I think that was the prompt with the most responses!).
It was the silliest, sweetest, most genuine way to start each day, and I loved learning all these things about my co-workers that might not have come up in conversation otherwise. I saved all the emails to remind me what a weird and wonderful group of humans I work with. - Virginia, Customer Care Associate
“Quality” is a heavy-laden word that can mean a lot of different things to different people. What does that word mean to you right now? Has the meaning evolved over time at all?
Quality is something we spend a lot of time thinking about. Our notion of quality is unique to East Fork and informed by the training that John and I went through as apprentice potters. John’s words from our internal Quality Control document say it best:
East Fork sits at a unique and challenging intersection of small-scale artisan workshop and large-scale industrial ceramic production. We are potters at our core. At the onset, we made pots from minimally refined materials and fired those pots in a large, wood burning kiln. So much has changed since then, of course, but our rubric for a pot’s goodness has stayed steady at its core—our work should be beautiful and functional. It should be made for daily, life-long use.
In the early days there were no set standards for quality, no SOP’s, and no QC position. The quality and price of a pot was based solely on the maker's own intuitive judgement. And that judgement was informed by the intergenerational striving of Potter and Apprentice, going deep into human history and drawing on lofty abstract notions of beauty.
Bigger storage pots (10 gallons and up) were meant to have a “commanding and majestic presence, occupying space the way a lone oak in full leaf dominates a meadow, … the same sense of volume and internal resonances as the nave of a Romanesque cathedral”. Pots were understood to have “skeletons” and “flesh” and the right balance thereof. Certain styles of mugs needed to have expectant bellies. A good platter would emanate the fullness of the moon.
Our current line of work is informed by that design sensibility, though it has evolved since then as our methods and context of our production has changed. The rims of our plates should exhibit a generous but taut curve and a graceful quality of touch left by the person who trimmed and finished the piece. The low-slung profile of our footed bowls should give the appearance of being at rest the way well-worn river rocks do. The handles of our mugs should move with the structured fluidity of good calligraphy. Our pots shouldn’t ever exhibit any “meanness” like scuffed bottoms, or rough debris around handle attachments, sharp rims or glaze flaws, but rather should resonate with the loving care of a freshly-swept floor.
- Connie Matisse, CEO, Co-Founder
With all the extra time at home, have there been any routines or rituals that you’ve found particularly helpful during and beyond quarantine?
My “desk” at home is my kitchen table, so at the end of the day I turn off my laptop, close my planner, pack up my pens, and gather these things and all related work “supplies” onto a little tray. The tray goes in my closet, I shut the closet door, and work time is over. This delineation helps remind me that work will always be there, and I don’t need to be answering emails into the night, everynight. Do I manage to do this everyday? No. But it’s a ritual I pursue in hope of balance. -
- Virginia, Customer Care Associate
Your two daughters have a pretty big presence on East Fork’s social media! There is truly nothing like a child’s perspective on life. What wisdom have your daughters passed on to you lately?
Both girls have gotten very good at vocalizing when they need us to put our phones down. They do it like this: “PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN!” Lately we’ve been listening. - Connie Matisse, CEO, Co-Founder