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Economy and Business

Thanks to Starbucks, East Liverpool's pottery comeback continues
A year after Starbucks gave East Liverpool's American Mug & Stein its biggest order ever, things are still looking up for Clyde McClellan's business -- and the town's long-gone ceramics industry.

Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
Bob Davis hand-dips mugs before they go into the kiln at American Mug & Stein in East Liverpool. Most overseas companies have machines that can do this much faster.
Courtesy of Amanda Rabinowitz
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In The Region:

This time a year ago, a small pottery factory in East Liverpool – on the brink of shutting down - made national news when it got a huge order from Starbucks. 

WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz recently went back to the “Pottery Capital of the World” to check in on American Mug & Stein. And what she found is encouraging for the business and the battered town’s vanishing industry.

LISTEN: Amanda Rabinowitz on American Mug and Stein

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Everything's changed...and stayed the same
Nothing and everything has changed for American Mug & Stein owner Clyde McClellan in the past year. His employees are still hand-pouring clay into heavy molds, smoothing the mugs’ edges and dipping them one-by-one in glaze. He’s still firing up what he calls his “dinosaur” 35-year-old kiln. But unlike last year when he was ready to close one of East Liverpool’s last remaining ceramics factories, McClellan says business is bustling. American Mug & Stein makes each mug by hand, a process that is overshadowed by Japan and China's cutting-edge technology

“I can’t tell you how many times people said, ‘Oh I heard about you on NPR or I read about you,’ and you know, ‘Can we do something?’” McClellan says. 

Last June, NPR and The New York Times reported on McClellan’s American Mug & Stein just as the small factory had completed its biggest order ever --- 20,000 mugs for coffee-giant Starbucks. It was a move Starbucks made to try to shift some of its manufacturing from high-tech, cheaper Asian factories back to the United States, where the industry once centered in eastern Ohio’s Appalachia region. 

McClellan says since he completed the order for the “Indivisible” brand mug, Starbucks has kept the factory busy making another mug that sells at Starbucks’ Pike’s Place store in Seattle. McClellan says the monthly contract supplies about 50 percent of his business and has allowed him to retain his 20 employees.  

“They’ve raised their monthly orders almost each quarter,” McClellan says. “And the projections that we’ve gotten show a significant increase in volume.” 

A new factory opens nearby
Not only is McClellan’s business growing, but the Starbucks deal has also brought life back to another shuttered pottery factory just a few miles down the road.

The man at the helm of American Pioneer Manufacturing is Ulrich Honighausen. He owns Hausenware – a company that supplies the mugs, tumblers and other items to Starbucks. After working side-by-side on the Starbucks order with McClellan last year, he decided to buy this 18,000 square-foot factory and retool it. 

 “There was a time when this factory had 150 employees,” Honighausen says. “So in those days, this building brought energy, it brought life to the town.”

Bringing Japanese technology to rural Ohio
While McClellan’s shop does everything by hand, Honighausen’s facility is automated with Japanese technology to compete with overseas production. The massive machine has hundreds of buttons and robot arms that load the clay automatically, cut it to size, drop it in a mold and move it down the production line. He can make in a week what McClellan’s factory makes in six months.

“A big part of our advantage is we’re only three days away from the distribution centers in this country,” Honighausen says. “So, we can turn orders around fast and we can crank the volume out of the building because of a piece of equipment like this.”

Doing the math
American Pioneer Manufacturing has six full-time employees working on a 100,000 mug order from Starbucks to be shipped in November, and he expects to add at least 10 more employees to meet demand. 

Manager Jim Tanley of nearby Chester, W.Va, used to work for McClellan at American Mug & Stein. But now, he’s an expert on the high-tech mug machine after spending several months in Japan learning how to operate it.

“Having been in the factory in Japan and watching what they’re capable of, makes you realize what we’re capable of doing here,” Tanley says. “Once we get all these pieces worked out, look out. We’re on our way.” 

It’s not an entirely high-tech plant, though. Some of the work is still being done by hand using the plant’s vintage equipment.

Thirty-year old Erin Kell works start-to-finish on the mugs. She lives right down the street and describes herself as a mall rat, struggling for years working in retail. She’s worked at American Pioneer Manufacturing for about six months.

“It’s real work to me,” Kell says. “It’s an honest day’s living.”

Similar businesses breed collaboration, not rivalry
Bringing faster, high-tech mug-making technology from Japan to East Liverpool might make someone like McClellan nervous because his American Mug & Stein works at a snails’ pace in comparison. But Ulrich Honighausen explains the two plants complement each other.
“What Clyde does in casting, offers a lot of variety, much more variety than what we offer here," Honighausen says, "so I’m able to hand over those customers to Clyde. The same way he gets requests for large volumes that are not suitable for his factory, he sends them my way.”

To McClellan, business is good and he welcomes Honighausen as his neighbor and his partner.

“I look at it this way,” McClellan says, “the more people that are working out of this valley, the better it is.”

Whether it’s high tech or handmade, Starbucks officials say they will continue supplying work to the East Liverpool-area factories indefinitely. And for a region whose largest industry is all but gone, the backing of a Fortune 500 company is hope for the future in this “Pottery Capital of the World.”  

(Click image for larger view.)

Related Links & Resources
NPR: Starbucks Order Gives Ohio Mug Maker A Jolt

New York Times: For Ohio Pottery, a Small Revival

The history of East Liverpool's ceramics industry

Listener Comments:

I once lived very near East Liverpool and watched potteries close one by one. I only buy china made in USA even if it means Ebay. Have purchased two of the Starbucks mugs and they are truly perfect. Will buy more for gifts for friends and family still in Ohio buy also widely scattered throughout the US. Thank you Starbucks

Posted by: Loretta Brenner (Washington DC) on November 10, 2014 11:11AM
I just purchased 2 of these mugs when I learned Starbucks was selling mugs made in the U.S.A. I immediately noticed the quality of craftsmanship, which prompted me to go online to learn more about the company, who made my mug, and my search brought me to this article. Thank you! This is a great mug. I buy few items these days due to a very tight budget; so, it's always wonderful to come across a quality item that's been made in the U.S.A.

Posted by: Janine (San Diego) on March 27, 2014 2:03AM
Trying to find out who made my plate 58 yrs ago it is a picture of Jesus Last Supper Thank you Stella

Posted by: Stella (Grove City,Ohio) on October 23, 2013 7:10AM
This is a great story. I am going to buy one of these mugs from Starbucks today!!

Posted by: Kathy (California) on July 28, 2013 11:07AM
The East Liverpool Area also is home to Homer Laughlin China Co and Hall China Co. These two company's produce some of the best restaurant ware in the world. Next time you are at your favorite restaurant turn over a plate and see where it is made.If it is made in the U.S.A. Complement the manager about serving on American China Products. Should it be foreign,mention food looks and tastes better on American made

Posted by: Robert Spratley (Westerville Oh.) on July 27, 2013 1:07AM
Thank God we are bringing manufacturing back to the states! Thank you so much Starbucks for supporting and backing up your words with honorable actions! This is why I only stop at Starbucks 24times a month! This is an amazing story full of hope that puts trust in, not only Starbucks, but hope that the American Dream still thrives and that all things are possible! Thank you to these wonderful men whom stuck out the hard times and fought for, and are continuously fighting for, your passion in a fair understanding way!

Posted by: Jezka (TX) on July 13, 2013 12:07PM
Good news from East Liverpool and New Waterford, Ohio.
Happy to hear they are doing well.
Always great to support small business, they are the back bone of our great country !!

Another reason to "Drink Starbuck's ".

Posted by: Patricia Brinker (Florida) on July 11, 2013 6:07AM
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