Made in Tucson

In a factory just south of downtown, Tucson’s HF Coors is continuing a 90-year legacy of manufacturing durable dinnerware for restaurants, hotels, and homes.

November 16, 2015

FeaturesIssue 15: November/December 2015

 

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Master artist Robert DeArmond is responsible for nearly all the hand-painted pottery produced by HF Coors. “There’s the charm, the slight variation in something done by hand,” he says.

It may be apocryphal, but the story endures. In 2003, when the Aspen fire tore across Mount Lemmon, destroying hundreds of structures, a set of HF Coors dinnerware, stored on the third floor of a cabin that burned to the ground, survived—unbroken.

“The dishes are curiously strong, like Altoids,” says employee Beverly Stripling.

How strong are HF Coors dishes? They are so strong that a Chinese buffet in California, where the company began, called 17 years after their initial purchase to order replacement dishes. Choice Greens, a Tucson salad joint, used to break so many bowls they’d have to reorder every few weeks; since they switched to HF Coors, they’ve ordered new bowls every two years.

“We used to have this crazy salesperson,” says president and CEO Dirck Schou. “She used to grab a plate and throw it on the ground, just to show customers how strong it was. Whenever I heard it, I’d cringe. They’re strong, but they’re not that strong.”

Schou must still be cringing back in his office, a few feet from the factory store. “Whenever I’m in the store, I take a couple of bowls and smash them together for customers,” says master artist Robert DeArmond. “They’re always taken aback. The stuff is just really, really strong.”

Located just south of downtown Tucson on Cherrybell Stravenue, the HF Coors factory turns 20 tons of clay and 5,000 pounds of glaze into more than 25,000 dishes every single week. The factory is 33,000 square feet of clay-covered motion. Gray crumbles crunch under white-dusted shoes. It is a tactile place—it is impossible not to touch anything, from jumbled piles of earthen curlicues to bins filled with floppy clay mugs that didn’t make it past quality control. A machine invented on-site to glaze mugs gushes shiny white paint in two crisscrossing streams, a Willy Wonka fountain of pigment.

And that’s just the factory. People come to HF Coors from all over the world for their hand-painted dishware and colorful designs. “No two dishes are the same,” says DeArmond, who has created most of the patterns that crowd the colorful factory store. The pottery is imaginative, distinctive, diverse. It is heavy; it is homey. It is used in hundreds of restaurants across the United States, dozens in Tucson. Four Ritz-Carlton locations use HF Coors dishware; guests on the Ellen DeGeneres Show sip coffee from mugs made by HF Coors.

And it is all made in Tucson.

President and CEO Dirck Schou, standing in the HF Coors factory store, got into the pottery business because, he says, "I got a job at a pottery."

President and CEO Dirck Schou, standing in the HF Coors factory store, got into the pottery business because, he says, “I got a job at a pottery.”

The business that would become HF Coors began in Tucson in 1990 as Catalina China, a pottery specializing in commodity mugs. “When we started making mugs, we were making three million mugs a year,” says Schou, who started Catalina China with David Sounart, now HF Coors’ vice president. “It was a barebones commodity; it would sell on price,” he says. “But the objective was always to do more than mugs.”

Schou is soft-spoken and precise, quietly likable. His posture is impeccable; his khakis, pressed; his cell phone is set to military time. After six years in the army, he earned his MBA at Harvard Business School, paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs. “They didn’t pay my living expenses, so during the summer I ended up working for this pottery in Pennsylvania,” he says. It was then one of the biggest potteries in the country, with a 200-year-old pottery in England that Schou managed—and eventually bought—after he graduated.

“But I wanted a company here in the states,” he says. Although he spent only a year of school in Tucson—fourth grade—Schou has always called Tucson his hometown. His grandfather was a professor at the University of Arizona; his parents met there in college. “My dad was a mining engineer, so we lived in Bisbee for a while. We lived all over South America. But we always came home to grandma’s house, which is right near campus,” he says.

Vice president David Sounart spends most of his days on the factory floor, troubleshooting machinery and working quality control on orders.

Vice president David Sounart spends most of his days on the factory floor, troubleshooting machinery and working quality control on orders.

Schou met David Sounart in 1989 through a mutual business contact; they quickly joined forces, founding Catalina China in the Grant Road Industrial Center. But after only a few years in business, “the Chinese came in,” says Schou. “When we started, they still hadn’t come into the market. And then they came in like gangbusters. They just decimated us. We were making a commodity product, so they could beat us on price. Very few people wanted Made in America back then.

“That’s when we decided that we’d better change,” says Schou. “And then Coors came along.”

Perla Cervantes pays close attention to a bowl's finishing details.

Perla Cervantes pays close attention to a bowl’s finishing details.

The HF Coors China Company was founded in California in 1925 by Herman Franklin Coors, the son of the Coors you know. After being told by his father, Adolph Coors, that his older brother would be taking over the Golden-based brewery, Herman moved to Southern California in 1922 to pursue a “valuable clay deposit,” according to the company’s written history. “Mr. Coors developed formulas for china bodies, and glazes, equal to the finest Eastern and European products. He then felt that he was qualified to successfully manufacture vitreous china for the hotel and restaurant industries.” In 1925, he opened the HF Coors China Company.

Eventually, he would pass the company along to his son, Robert Coors, who would sell the company to Standex International Corporation, which continued to operate HF Coors out of Englewood, California, until 2003, when the company went up for sale.

“I had known about Coors for a long time,” says Schou. He’d been looking at potteries across the United States with an eye to acquisition; when they bought HF Coors, Schou decided to relocate the company to Tucson. “In order to do that we had to buy this building, because we didn’t have a building,” he says. “It took us roughly a hundred 54-foot trucks to ship everything over here. And we had two months to do it.” Today, remnants of that move are still scattered in front of the factory: machinery that didn’t fit into the new space, the kiln that had occupied the old one, as if the company is still settling into its desert home.

HF Coors dishes begin as bags of minerals. Silica, feldspar, alumina, ball clay, kaolin, stacked in 100-pound bags in front of the factory. “We want to control our process as much as possible,” says
Schou. “We start almost 100 percent with raw materials.”

Minerals become clay becomes dishware in a south to north progression through the rectangular factory. There are molds everywhere—stacked on top of cages, stored behind machines. A master mold makes a mold; a mold makes a mug; makes a plate, platter, or pitcher. As the company grows, as they offer new product lines, “we have to figure out what to do with all the molds,” says Schou.

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Michelle Lorona (left) and Maria Carpio work the mug station together. Mug handles and mug bodies are made separately and then attached together by hand.

North along the factory line, at a ram press, a mold is making a platter. A worker places a log of clay below the press and flips a switch. A hundred tons of force presses the clay against the mold. It is sharp, deliberate. Clay squelches out the sides of the press like mud under a tennis shoe. The press lifts. Compressed air pffts, separating platter from machine; the worker removes the platter with what looks like a pizza peel and places it on a cart where dozens more platters rest, awaiting paint and fire.

It is a mesmerizing process. Every station has its minutiae, its messes. Sixty people are employed by HF Coors; 40 are on the floor during a typical shift—it’s mostly women, says shift supervisor Lourdes Gerardo. (“Los hombres se cansan,” she says. Men tire.) At the mug station, a worker feeds a tube of clay into a machine, which plops measured portions into the mug mold. The mold looks like a lampshade with a hollow opening the size of coffee mug. Every few seconds, a mold rotates forward and a cylindrical metal rod presses the clay into the shape of a mug.

A few feet away, a queue of handles awaits their mugs—a handle without its mug looks like a question mark, an interrogation. Two women are tasked with attaching handle to mug, and they
do it quickly, efficiently. Handle to mug, handle to mug, handle to mug, again and again—3,000
mugs a day. They fix handle to mug until there are enough mugs to fill a drying rack, enough mugs to start the glazing fountain, enough to fill a cart—enough to wheel to the kiln.

Marybel Montoya applied a base glaze to mugs at the glazing machine invented by HF Coors.

Marybel Montoya applied a base glaze to mugs at the glazing machine invented by HF Coors.

Walk into the factory and your attention first goes to the spinning clay, the ram presses and fountains of paint, but behind it all the kiln thrums—it is the heart of HF Coors, quietly beating, breathing, radiating heat.

Firing at 2,330 degrees, the kiln is one reason why HF Coors dinnerware is so durable. The kiln is a tunnel 195 feet long, roughly the wingspan of a Boeing 747. A cartful of pottery enters one end—an angry line of orange and red visible in its distant interior—and emerges on the other side 10½ hours later. The kiln is so hot that pottery shrinks by 12 percent during firing. The kiln runs nonstop, Tuesday through Friday. The kiln is why HF Coors pottery survived the fire on Mount Lemmon and endured 17 years of abuse at a Chinese buffet.

The kiln is where the elements that make a strong piece of pottery cohere. Industrial pottery should be vitreous, or glass-like, says Schou, which means that it won’t absorb water under pressure or over time—“that is the key test for strong pottery,” he says. “Strength is based on the minerals used and the formula for mixing the minerals. Strength also depends on the product design, and on the ‘fit’ of the glaze to the clay. All of [that] is designed so that the high temperature can be withstood and create the overall durability of the product.”

One of the only companies, and the largest, still manufacturing pottery on a commercial scale in the United States is West Virginia’s Homer Laughlin, which makes the ubiquitous Fiestaware. “They are huge,” says Schou. “They have a plate machine with eight heads on it. So they can make 24,000 plates on that one machine in a day, and they might have two of those machines. They’re just spitting out Fiestaware.”

“We don’t compete on price,” says consumer sales manager Mike Petrosky. “We compete on quality.”

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Marybel Montoya tends to a tray of mugless handles.

Quality is what distinguishes HF Coors from its competitors, and yet quality is not what drives many consumers. When you can walk out of any big box store with a 16-piece dinnerware set for $59.99, why venture to HF Coors, where that 16-piece set might cost $200?

“We’ve bought other lines, cheaper china, commonly used in other restaurants, but they chip a lot more, even though they’re for commercial use,” says Penca Restaurant owner Patricia Schwabe. She says HF Coors dishes “are pricier but when you invest in them, you don’t have to keep buying new dishes every few months. They are maybe a little more expensive, but I don’t think they are expensive—saying that doesn’t justify the value because they last so much longer. There is a value in the price. And their appearance stays nicer longer. My dishes look beautiful and so my food looks really nice.”

“Sometimes things may cost a little more initially, but in the long run it’s less expensive,” says DeArmond, the master artist. “That’s the whole thing about buying quality products, whether it’s a cheap dress or anything else. You’re usually going to save money in the long run because you don’t have to replace it as often, or it doesn’t look as worn out. A lot of things look old quickly. I always tell people to pick out something they like because this stuff is going to be around for a long time.”

Sounart calls DeArmond “the archives.” He’s been working for HF Coors since the 1970s, longer than anyone else in the company. HF Coors dishes look the way they do largely because of DeArmond’s creativity—and it’s a popular look, earning the 68-year-old introverted artist a dedicated following, “unexpected so late in life,” he says.

He’s worked with dozens of chefs and restaurant owners in Tucson and across the country to craft the perfect plate to showcase their food. “Design can enhance the food and not be its competitor,” he says. “If it’s up to the chef, it’s been my experience that they want just a white plate because they don’t want any competition. The food has to be the star. It’s usually the owner or the manager who wants something that’s highly decorative.”

When DeArmond designed dinnerware for The Rumrunner’s Dish bistro, which has since closed, he played with colors already on the menu. “They would serve a lot of desserts with chocolate raspberry sauce, so when we designed a plate, I carried those colors out,” he says. “After, every time I ate there, people would take out their camera and take a picture of their dessert before they ate it. There’d be a little brownie thing with some raspberry sauce, and the colors would carry out and your eye would think you were getting this humongous thing—but a lot of it wasn’t even food.”

In 2010, DeArmond started a specialty line of one-of-a-kind Sonoran Desert dinnerware depicting scenes of the Sonoran Desert—javelinas among prickly pear, saguaros against vivid sunsets. It is art-gallery-quality craftsmanship on commercial-grade pottery. “I’m fortunate that my artwork goes on a piece of ceramic that is so durable, so bulletproof,” he says. “It could be one of those things they dig up in 3,000 years and still find it.”

Soft clay spins off the ram press, used to make plates.

Soft clay spins off the ram press, used to make plates.

Late on a Thursday afternoon, after most workers have left for the day, Sounart peers into the ram press. He says he’s trying to get the press to make a tighter push so that the stringy edges to those platters will get smaller with each press. Sounart is on the factory floor most days, checking the thickness of glazes on mugs, troubleshooting the mechanical kiln loader, packing orders.

“The desire to have products made in America used to come and go, but it kicked back in after the recession,” he says. “In 2008, we got customers back that we’d lost to the Chinese. People were willing to pay more to get American made.”

And increasing concern over products coming out of China has only driven more customers to HF Coors. “The FDA is supposed to be controlling the quality and toxin level of dinnerware that comes into the U.S.,” says Beverly Stripling, who oversees direct to consumer management and social media for the company. “But somewhere there’s a big hole, because there’s a lot of dinnerware coming in from other countries that has toxins in it, which will absolutely leach out into your food.” All HF Coors pottery passes or exceeds California’s Proposition 65 standards for toxic chemicals, including lead.

Sounart says they’re trying to get more customers into the factory, one reason why they started their first Saturday monthly sales, where customers can buy factory seconds at up to 90 percent discount. “We want to get people to see, to touch, to feel,” he says.

“There are some people who have been at the first Saturday sales every month for four years,” says Stripling. “People like Made in the U.S.A., but they also love that it was made in their hometown. If we spend our money here, we’re helping the businesses here, helping to create jobs here. It’s a great community investment, to partake in something that your community manufactures.”

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The 2,330-degree kiln burns red hot, transforming clay into pottery across its 195-foot path.

A cart packed with white mugs rolls slowly out of the kiln—shiny and hard, handles pointed parallel, seamlessly adhered by heat and glaze. Mug after mug after mug after mug. A banner hangs above the packing room—an old HF Coors advertisement. On it, a round lump of clay sits before a blurred background of molds and mugs. It says, simply, “Believe.”

Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.







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