.Makers and Purveyors

Those who can, make

The entrepreneurial spirit has always thrived in the East Bay. It’s time again to celebrate some of the makers and purveyors whose contributions showcase that spirit.

Talavera Ceramics and Tile

Former Berkeley City Council member Linda Maio and her late husband, Rob Browning, a Mark Twain scholar at Cal, had no intention of becoming purveyors of handcrafted Mexican tiles, ceramics, rugs, mirrors, textiles and folk art. But while Maio served on the council, she helped shape a plan to improve University Avenue, and in the process discovered a small business selling brightly colored, handmade talavera ware. “We fell in love with their things,” she said. 

So, 20 years ago, when the business was put up for sale, they bought it. Later, they added another building, as they continued to add items sourced from families they met while traveling Mexico. Tiles include sought-after Puebla tiles, still made with classic designs that originated in Spain’s Talavera de la Reina. “Different families have different esthetics,” Maio said. Talavera items also include tableware, lamps and garden pieces.

The shop maintains a relationship with Oaxacan weavers still dyeing their rugs with red pigment derived from cochineal insects, as well as with artisans creating traditional folk art animals and carvings called alebrijes. “These use Mixtec and Zapotec iconography,” Maio said. Mirrors come from an artist in San Miguel de Allende.

All the shop’s tableware is tested in a local lab for safety in food use. Every effort is made to keep items affordable, while paying artisans fairly for their work. Jesus Sosa, an alebrijes artisan from San Martin Tilcajete, in Oaxaca, will be in-store from noon to 4pm, Dec. 2. Join the mailing list for updates on other in-store events.

1801 University Ave., Berkeley. 510.665.6038. www.talaveraceramicsandtile.com

The Food Mill

Peanut butter trivia: 

  • As much as we love him, George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter. It was the Incas, centuries before, who pioneered it.
  • Peanut “paste” was popularized in the U.S. in the 1890s by that nutty nutrition pioneer, John Harvey Kellogg, who endorsed a plant-based diet long before most people had heard of “vegan.”
  • Local organic-food pioneers, the Denis family, founded The Food Mill in Oakland in 1933, and began grinding grain brought in by local farmers, and their own nut butters.

Ninety years later, the Watkins family continues the tradition. In 1969, 16-year-old Kirk Watkins began packaging Food Mill cookie bars part-time, working his way up to manager and eventually buying the business. The Food Mill still uses the original machinery to grind their smooth and crunchy peanut butters, made from organic Spanish peanuts grown in North Carolina. These butters have no peer, according to Breanna Watkins. Spanish peanuts are known for their sweeter, more intense flavor. “The peanuts are slow-roasted in the original slow roaster. Nothing is added. Both smooth and crunchy are just peanuts,” she said.

Then the original grinder creates the textures. In fact, said Watkins, The Food Mill retains as much as possible the mission and atmosphere of its incarnation. “We are still a mom-and-pop store, and we strive for the best customer service,” she said. That includes helping people customize gift-basket items, starting with a jar of peanut butter, of course, and perhaps including some of the store’s famed cookie bars.

3033 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. 510.482.3848. www.thefoodmill.com

Paco Collars

Ana Poe (they/them pronouns) had a dilemma. They couldn’t find a high-quality collar for their beloved year-old pitbull, Paco, that would make him look good but not intimidating. “I had been to every pet store,” said Poe, but they found nothing suitable. Their mentor at the doggy daycare where they worked had shown them how to make leather leashes and suggested Poe make their own collar, writing Paco’s name on the collar in studs. Bingo! In 2002, Paco Collars was born.

Other dog owners noticed the artisan-crafted collar and asked Poe to make collars for their dogs. This side gig turned into a business, which Poe described as “a scrappy start-up.” In 2009 Paco passed away, and days later Poe moved into the West Berkeley studio where Paco Collars still resides.

Working at the doggy daycare, Poe saw as many as 120 dogs, and was able to gauge statistics on breed neck sizes and heights. This knowledge is used to create collars for any breed or mix of dog, using Latigo leather, the same leather used in horse tack. It is treated to withstand all weather conditions, and all Paco collars have a lifetime guarantee, Poe said.

Customers can custom-build a collar on the website, as sparkly or simple as desired. “Our goal is to be collar matchmakers,” Poe said. Many collars are purchased as gifts, and gift certificates are also available. Orders are completed in three to five weeks.

The most unusual requests are not canine. “We’ve made a harness for a pig who rides shotgun on a motorcycle,” Poe said. “And we once made a tiny harness for a bearded dragon.”

2905 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 510.848.7226, http://pacocollars.com

ClayPeople

In the industrial warehouse district of Richmond sits a potters’ utopia: the more-than-half-a-century-old ClayPeople.

Founded in 1971 in Marin as Marin Ceramics Supply, current owner Doug Johnson bought the business in 1994 and moved it to its current, much larger location, where it is now Northern California’s major purveyor of clay, glaze, plaster, stains and ceramic tools.

The clays come primarily from Southern California manufacturers, with flatbed trucks arriving carrying as much as 48,000 pounds of clay, Johnson said. ClayPeople serves ceramics companies, as well as local professional potters and hobbyists, in about a 50/50 split, he said. Some clay also comes from Industrial Minerals Company in Sacramento, and locally from custom claymaker East Bay Clay.

Clay types include options suitable for high-fire, mid-fire, low-fire and porcelain. The company also offers firing in its electric kiln and fireplaces. Johnson is proud that ClayPeople offers a “huge” selection of tools and clay implements for both wheel and hand-building. “We carry 12 lines of tools,” said General Manager Wyatt Matthews.

Employees are highly knowledgeable about products and creating ceramics. “Collectively, they have about 100 years of experience,” Johnson said.

“We get a lot of unusual requests,” Matthews said. “If we don’t have exactly what they want, we can find something that’s pretty close.”

ClayPeople displays and sells some of the pieces produced by employees.  

Most importantly, said Johnson, “clay is a culture,” referencing its thousands of years of history. “Clay people are a tribe. We are an access point for that tribe.”

623 S. 32nd St., Richmond. 510.236.1492. https://claypeople.net

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