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This Cult-Favorite Pottery Brand Was Founded by the Great-Grandson of Henri Matisse. Now, Its Factory Is an Experiment in Equitable Labor Practices. In Asheville, North Carolina. East Fork makes pretty, durable dinnerware. But its progressive culture and policies have made it a regional leader in manufacturing. Here's what it's like to work there.

By Frances Dodds

entrepreneur daily

This story appears in the July 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Mike Belleme

East Fork didn't start out as an equitable workplace experiment. Its 2009 origins were more "intense, heady, craft legacy stuff," says cofounder and CEO Connie Matisse — in part because her husband and cofounder, Alex Matisse, is the great-grandson of the impressionist painter Henri Matisse. But as the couple and their friend John Vigeland grew the pottery company into a cult-favorite, direct-to-consumer brand — complete with a viral mug — things got heated in different ways.

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It started in 2018, when they moved their headquarters — from a tiny North Carolina town to a larger factory in nearby Asheville. They wanted to hire a diverse staff, but also to be conscientious of what that meant in a city with extreme racial and economic disparities. "We wanted to be intentional," Connie says. That resulted in a company-wide culture of radically open dialogue — on everything from structural racism to gender identity. As a result, East Fork now offers a $22 minimum wage, and invests in new equipment that reduces strain on workers. "Work," Connie says, "is only one part of being a human."

1. Daniel Vuono, director of production

What I'm really interested in is East Fork creating factory jobs that emulate the lifestyle created by companies like GM in the heyday of American vehicle manufacturing. Before this, I was fortunate to work for some longstanding manufacturers. They were outliers to national trends, because they were often considered some of the best jobs in the area. Unfortunately, as the relative wages of manufacturing jobs have dropped over the years, so has job quality and interest in working in factories. Here, we have an opportunity to push back against these trends and promote healthy employment.

2. Mike Suber, pug mill assistant

Before I came here, I was working for a private sanitation unit. I heard East Fork had a chef… I'd never worked at a place that prepared food for the employees. That's something my stomach appreciates! No, but honestly, what really makes East Fork is the people. Edward — I call him Unc, short for uncle — has definitely been there for me on my darkest days. The team is a flexible bunch and knows how to make meals out of breadcrumbs. During the pandemic, some of the executives and people on the EF team took a pay cut to ensure operations continued and others of us still got paid.

Related: 3 Steps to Building the Workplace Culture You Want

3. Allison Shearouse, Asheville store manager

One of the focuses of East Fork is creating a warm, welcoming, inclusive environment. I try to make sure customers feel comfortable asking questions, and that they know they can take their time picking and choosing their items. We sell cutting boards made by Andy McFate, a local woodworker in Asheville, and I love seeing our pottery placed on them as a little charcuterie board. Eggshell is the most popular glaze at the store, and the mug is always a bestseller — especially in the current seasonal glaze, Fiddlehead.

4. Sarah Melosh, glaze developer

I started working at East Fork at the original site in Marshall, North Carolina, up the hill in updated tobacco barns. I was glazing pots and loading the kiln, cleaning out buckets and sponges under the one-studio water spigot. Making beautiful pots on any scale takes a wild amount of troubleshooting, resilience, and crowdsourcing solutions — doing the most with the least. I'll never forget how our team moved all our tools and equipment from the Marshall location to a factory closer to Asheville, in U-Haul trucks, like a bunch of buddies helping with a home move.

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5. Freddy Watkins, forming generalist, mugs department

It's truly bewildering comparing East Fork to places I've worked in the past. My last factory job I was working 12 to 13 hours a day for half the pay and double the stress. Now I use a meditation app that's a part of our benefits to tell me bedtime stories. Our morning meetings are really more for "shouting out" our appreciation for whatever our coworkers. have done for us. Sometimes it's a little cheesy, but it reinforces a positive atmosphere. With the company growing so fast, it feels like a communal effort you can have pride in.

6. Tony Pearson, roller tool team lead

I'd been working in a nursing home for four or five years, making like $10 an hour, so this job was a big financial jump. In my time here I've just been trying to figure out my own little path. I worked on the glaze team for a couple years, then I went to forming, then trimming, and now I'm on the roller tool team. I think it's good to spread your wings and try different things. I'm into graphics, and during the pandemic I came up with an idea that I pitched to Connie and Alex, to do some T-shirts for the company. So that's on their website right now. It's called Drip Life x East Fork.

Related: 4 Ways to Harness Your Leadership Brand and Transform Your Workplace Culture

7. Jasmine Michel, food systems associate

The culture here is like a family that's gone to therapy. There was a day when Mr. Edward, the production supervisor, started telling me a story, and at some point he stopped and asked, "Hey Jaz, can I ask you what your pronouns are? I don't wanna assume anything." I was taken aback because Mr. Edward is an older, cisgender Black man with holy scriptures on his shirt. I thought, This has to be a very supportive environment for Mr. Edward to learn something he probably knew nothing about. That vulnerability requires a community of support.

Image Credit: All Photographs by Mike Belleme
Frances Dodds

Entrepreneur Staff

Deputy Editor of Entrepreneur

Frances Dodds is Entrepreneur magazine's deputy editor. Before that she was features director for, and a senior editor at DuJour magazine. She's written for Longreads, New York Magazine, Architectural Digest, Us Weekly, Coveteur and more.

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