ST. PAUL — The scale of production that Deneen Pottery can achieve from its 40,000-square-foot warehouse in northwest St. Paul dwarfs that of the two-car garage where the family-owned business began, and which figures prominently in the company's lore.
On any given weekday, more than 60 artisans can be found working out of the facility. While potters in one room mold clay at their wheels, craftspeople in the next paint or glaze the day’s product.
Elsewhere in the building, the company’s signature, round-bellied mugs dry on rollable shelves in varying stages of completion or are loaded into the kiln to be fired.
The result, according to Niles Deneen, the company's president and CEO, an estimated 3,000 mugs per day.
Those mugs can be found on restaurant tables, National Park gift shops and bed-and-breakfast cupboards throughout the U.S. They have inspired a small but loyal following of collectors and have, on occasion, been resold for hundreds of dollars on eBay.
"Our core target last year was one mug in every household in the U.S.,” he said in a recent interview. “It’ll take us about 14 to 16 years before we will have been able to make enough."
Founded in 1972 by husband-and-wife team Peter and Mary Deneen, the company currently employs a staff of about 90 and has grown from a specialty dinnerware manufacturer to one that deals chiefly in the wholesale of custom, glazed mugs to other businesses. Since 2012, their son Niles has managed more and more of the day-to-day affairs, though the couple still plays an active role in the business.
Company policy and staffing decisions, Niles said, are gradually becoming his and the management's to make. Peter, a native of the city's Como Park neighborhood, will likely always be there to consult on business matters or on the ceramics themselves, Niles said, but together with Mary is slowly stepping back.
"He's allowing our team to make the decisions," Niles said. "Good or bad."
Splitting time between the warehouse and their home in Maiden Rock, Wis., Peter and Mary typically come into the office a few days each week. Along with her twin-sister Martha Winter, Mary tends to the nurturing of the company’s culture while Peter oversees its finances and business development.
The expansion of the company has not changed the fact that the family, like most that run their own businesses, wears many hats.
“I spent all day yesterday on new mug shapes,” Peter said during an Oct. 31 interview.
In their own words, Peter and Mary are “kind-of retired," a life-and-work style they are figuring out as they go. Even as their son continues a transition into leadership, however, their approach to making pottery remains.
After returning to St. Paul from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Peter and Mary spent part of the early 1970s selling their pottery at art fairs and festivals before they decided to open their first studio outlet in the city's Lowertown neighborhood.
Mary, who grew was born in Henning and spent part of her childhood in Ventura, Calif., before moving back to St. Paul, had long aspired to be a professional artist. Peter Deneen, meanwhile, transferred into Luther's art program by way of its business school. He said he didn't begin to practice art seriously until the switch but, coming from a family of craftsmen, took to it easily.
"When I discovered clay, it was just one of the easiest materials I ever worked with compared to wood or rock or metal," he said.
The two were taught how to make pottery by Dean Schwarz, a former pupil of the famed Bauhaus art school alumna Marguerite Wildenhain. Both would later train with Wildenhain herself at one of the workshops she held on a farm near Guerneville, Calif.
The couple said that the strict discipline they learned from Schwarz made a lasting impression on them and applied it easily to the mass production of stoneware. Many of the workbenches inside the company warehouse in the Saint Anthony Park neighborhood were custom-ordered, and the men and women who staff them use tools that the couple designed to more accurately form Deneen-style pottery on the wheel.
In many ways, Mary said, learning to make pottery from Schwarz was like learning a language with a grammar and syntax all its own. Once you understand those basics, she said, you have a foundation to express yourself more freely.
By that same hand, she said, you can reproduce the same kinds of work with a finer degree of precision.
When the couple first started to sell their dinnerware after graduating from Luther, they were aware that it would compete on a market infatuated with the folk-style works of the late Warren Mackenzie, the famed potter and University of Minnesota professor who influenced an entire region. The two styles, Mary said, can be thought of as cousins.
"They're the same, but different," she said.
The couple later opened a second retail location — recruiting from local art circles, halfway houses and Hmong communities — and toyed intermittently with wholesale before they hit pay dirt in mid-1980s. Together with artist David Christofferson, Peter Deneen developed a method of affixing highly customizable engraved medallions to the stoneware they produced.
"We basically invented this process to sell souvenir mugs at the renaissance fair,” Peter Deneen said.
The method proved popular enough for such giants as the Pillsbury Co. to place orders.
Then in 1988, roughly a year after Black Monday and just before the recession of the early 1990s, the pottery went into bankruptcy. The company attributes the downturn partly to a retailer that defaulted on a payment owed to the pottery for approximately $50,000.
Ownership of the company and its assets changed hands first to the bank and then to a new buyer, who relocated it to the city of Hayward in southern Minnesota, gave it a new name and hired Peter Deneen on as an employee. He wouldn't work as his own boss again until several years later, when he bought a kiln from a friend and relaunched the company.
Back in the family
The Deneens would eventually shift their focus toward the production of branded mugs for the hospitality market not long after they landed an account with the Broken Egg Cafe, a Louisiana restaurant that today has franchise footholds in more than a dozen states. Restaurants would order fewer mugs at a time, Peter said, but ordered them more consistently.
"They used the mugs to serve their morning coffee out of, and then their guests wanted to buy them," Peter recalled. "They’d use the mugs, sell them and then need to order more."
Over time, the mugs became the pottery's flagship product. And their warehouse produces more than 700,000 of them a year by Niles's estimate. They have sold in all 50 states as well as in 12 different countries.
Niles, who joined the company's sales and marketing team in the mid-2000s, won't take credit for any strides the company has made in recent years. He credits new business and new hires to the efforts of the company and its employees.
The pottery's success, Niles said, depends on the ability of its staff to work as a team.
That belief, he said, stems from his background in sports. A former University of Minnesota track and field athlete, he still holds the school record for the 110-meter hurdle with a time of 13.95 seconds.
While he originally went to the university to study art, and reckons that he and brother Owen had thrown clay since age four or five, he later switched his major to graphic design.
His background in industrial art, he said, was at odds with what he was taught as an art major.
After graduation, he pursued a modeling career that took him briefly to Australia before he returned to Minnesota, where he earned his private pilot's license. He said the only classification he didn't achieve was his instrument rating, which certifies that one can fly a plane solely by using flight instruments instead of visual cues.
The thought of not being able to see the sky while still being responsible for passenger's lives deterred him from becoming a professional pilot, he said.
Seeking fulfillment, he returned to the pottery at a friend's encouragement. One year following his promotion to the title he now holds, according to the pottery's website, the company added approximately 50 people to its staff.
Since then, it has also added such customers as Death Wish Coffee, purveyor of the "world's strongest coffee," to its client roster and expanded on a partnership with the National Parks that began in 2010 to include more locations.
Other changes have come to the St. Anthony Park warehouse itself, the company's base of operations for 20 years. In 2017, the company installed an array of 400 solar panels on the roof that helps to power its kilns, an investment that Niles said cost roughly half a million dollars.
The mugs, though, remain largely the same as ever. Granted, a keen eye can still detect the difference between one made today and one made years ago.
Seated in the company conference room last month, Niles viewed a picture on his phone that a friend sent him of a 7-year-old mug that is still in service at an Original Pancake House location in Ladue, Mo. It has a wider rim, he said, a sign that it was likely thrown by his uncle.
Just as no two people throw clay exactly alike, none of the Deneens appear to have an identical approach to running their business. Where his father was more of a top-down leader, Niles said he sees himself almost like a team captain.
When the lines between family and business blur, such differences can at times be taken personally.
"I get envious of people who just have their business life and their family life," Mary joked. "But then I think, on the opposite of that, is that you don’t really know what the other person’s life is like.”
That's only natural, Niles said, when dealing with something as close to home as a business that bears your name — especially if you built that business "from nothing."
Niles said that for his parents to slowly cede decision-making power to him, then, must not be easy.
"I don't know what that's like," he said. "Maybe one day I'll be lucky enough to experience it."
Whether he will go through something similar with his own children is up in the air: if they want a job at the pottery by the time they're old enough to work, he said, they will have to apply for one like anybody else.