How MMclay’s Handmade Tableware Became Celebrity Chefs’ Signature “Dishes”
Published August 2016
Handmade tableware for restaurants, personal chefs and individuals.
2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Winner
San Francisco, CA
Mary Mar Keenan is an artist in the truest sense of the word. Her passion is ceramics, and her “happy place” has always been throwing pots at her potter’s wheel. Creating is like breathing to her, and her work shows it.
After graduating from college in 1996, Keenan moved to San Francisco, to become an artist “out west.” She founded a co-op studio and quickly learned that she needed to know more about running a business before striking out on her own. “I thought about graduate school but knew, if I went that route, I’d just end up in debt,” explained Keenan, owner of MMclay. “So I went to work for a ceramics supply company to learn more about technique, firing and supplies. I also did some sabbaticals at craft schools in North Carolina, Italy and Colorado.”
In 2000, she opened a studio and gallery with two other ceramic artists in the Cannery at Fisherman’s Wharf. It became a popular tourist spot, eventually selling the work of 30 Bay Area ceramic artists. “Rent in San Francisco isn’t cheap, so, in addition to running the gallery, I worked waiting tables on the side — and developed a real love of food,” Keenan said. “The restaurants all started ordering a little something from me — salt servers, oil pots, small specialty items. Chefs would talk to me about bigger orders, but I wasn’t in a position to deliver a full production run.”
The Turning Point
After seven years, Keenan closed her Fisherman’s Wharf gallery to focus her attention on the fine art of motherhood. “It was time to start a family, and I wanted to spend my time and energy on the kids,” Keenan said. “So, it was the right time to close.”
But, even while tending to babies, her creativity kept going strong. To “keep busy,” Keenan started an online business selling customized baby plates, called Purple Bird Designs. When her daughter turned two years old, and son turned four, she headed back to the studio. “I shared space with a chef named Stuart Brioza. At the time, I had no idea what a big deal he was. We’d talk about food and pottery and became friends,” Keenan said. “He pretty much stopped coming to the studio after he opened a very popular restaurant called State Bird Provisions. But, he’d still pop in from time to time.”
One day, he popped in with an idea for his second restaurant, called The Progress. “He wanted to feature a lot of different pottery; display it on the wall, serve food on it — as well as sell pottery out of the restaurant. I told him if he was going to do that he’d need an art director, and wrote up a business plan for him,” Keenan explained. “It became obvious from looking at my plan that, although it was a great idea, it would take focus away from the business of running the restaurant. So, he looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you make all of the pottery for the restaurant yourself?’”
Keenan weighed the options. With a two-year-old at home, the timing wasn’t exactly right for her. But, then again, how often would a chance like this come along? “I loved the idea of working together with Stuart to create the glazes. He’s a great friend and knows the work it takes to create pottery,” Keenan said. “And, after seeing State Bird’s success, I thought I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like this.”
Before the restaurant opened its doors, Keenan’s work started getting publicity. After opening, things really took off. The Progress was a mega-hit, known both for its innovative menu and the artisan tableware on which the food is served. “I’ve been told that people came back to The Progress just to eat off of the plates — that still gives me goose bumps,” Keenan said. “Stuart said, ‘Get ready. Something big is going to happen.’” Keenan wasn’t about to fall asleep at the wheel.
A New Brand. A New Focus.
“My work had changed; I was changing the way I ran my business. I wanted my website to reflect that. I also rebranded myself from Mary Mar Keenan Ceramics — which is a mouthful to say — to MMclay.”
Restaurant owners and chefs started calling, ordering their own sets of The Progress Collection, as well as custom-designed pieces. Individuals were stopping by the studio, and purchasing pieces online. Food bloggers were displaying their food on her plates, then tagging MMclay in their posts. Yes, it was happening, and time to think about next steps.
“Every year, I create a vision board, so I can visualize how I want the business to grow. I had cut out this silhouette of a guy at a computer and said, ‘That’s my business manager/marketing person,’” Keenan said. “Although I wasn’t in the position to hire anyone, this guy named Kristof Puchner kept calling, saying he really wanted to work here. When he walked in and told me his background was in marketing. I thought, ‘ding, ding, ding, ding,’ I now have the guy I had on my vision board. “
According to Keenan, hiring Puchner as her studio manager and marketing guru was the best decision she’s ever made. She’s also brought on two part-time employees to help produce the growing number of orders. “Bringing in employees has changed everything, “ Keenan said. “Back when I wasn’t so interested in running a successful business, I used to be a purist. Now, I’m a realist. I have to sell a lot of pottery to make money, so, I need a lot of hands helping.”
All Fired Up About Winning FedEx Small Business Grant
When Keenan found out about the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest through Etsy, she had high hopes that “someone would notice us.” She made it to the Top 100, recorded her video and never stopped believing that she had a real shot.
Although Keenan says that winning a grant was one of the best days she’s had since she’s been in business, the news that she won came on a day that was one of her worst. “On a particularly challenging day in July, we unloaded a kiln, only to discover that all of the glazes were wrong. That means either the material was wrong or someone mixed something incorrectly,” Keenan explained.
Her only option was to get rid of all the materials and glazes, wash all of the pots and re-glaze everything again. Not only was she going to lose a lot of time, but a lot of money. “That same day, the call came in to say we won a FedEx small business grant,” Keenan said. “It meant that we weren’t going into the red on that mistake.”
Although Keenan currently outsources packaging and shipping of her products, she’s looking forward to bringing that process in house, with FedEx as her preferred shipping company. She’ll continue to work with restaurant clients, while growing her e-commerce business. Most importantly, Keenan has transformed her passion into a successful business she loves. “I love what I do and look forward to coming to work every day. Not a lot of people can say that,” Keenan said. “The funny part is, I keep hearing how lucky I am because ‘all of this happened overnight.’ It’s been amazing, but it sure didn’t happen overnight.”
And, as much as Keenan loves MMclay, and as romantic as her job sounds, don’t think for a moment that, as an artist, she’s exempt from the challenges, frustrations and stresses that impact every small-business owner. “People say pottery is therapeutic. Not if you want to make money at it,” Keenan laughed. But, she wouldn’t trade the opportunity for anything in the world.