Started in a garage, woman-owned and operated Convival production reached national reach
A little stubbornness has served Chentell Shannon well.
As a student at Wheaton College in West Chicago, she often heard that there were few jobs in the arts. “I guess Friendly was my answer to that,” Shannon laughs.
In 2013, with a degree in community art and urban studies in her pocket, the native of Hawaii traveled to Kansas City, the hometown of her husband Stephen.
She soon set up a small ceramic workshop in their garage, where, alone, she produced what would become the first pieces of Convivial Production. These plates, cups and bowls – all white – sported simple, clean lines inspired by the “architectural elements” she had noticed on walks in the Windy City.
His goal was both simple and stimulating: to create a collection of functional and attractive handcrafted pottery that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. One designed to improve “usability”, defined as “the quality of being friendly and lively”.
“I always knew I wanted to run my own business, and I didn’t want to do everything myself,” she explains. “The plan was very clear to me.
In three years, his local business was making and selling enough ceramic items to move to a much larger warehouse in the West Bottoms. Today, Convivial occupies an entire floor of the same building, or 8,000 square feet.
And on a sunny spring morning, almost every square inch is filled with activity – a dozen workers at various stations are mixing, molding, firing, glazing and detailing the clay. Nearby, two other employees inspect and fulfill orders queued on a row of clipboards – some destined for large wholesale customers like West Elm; others for nearby businesses, such as mugs for Ibis Bakery featuring its ibis logo, and food for local restaurants such as The Campground, Fox & Pearl and The Antler Room.
It is quickly evident that the workforce here is all female, with one exception. At a table in a corner, the lead mixer Tanner Martine loads the slurry mixer, the first step in transforming the powder into products.
“We weren’t planning to hire only women, but that is what the vast majority of our applicants have been,” Shannon says.
Some arrive with ceramics on their CVs. Casting Lead Molly Lenhausen is a recent graduate of Kansas State University. She says she was “thrilled” to find a place where her technical training and ceramic skills could generate a regular salary.
Others are novices, attracted in different ways by the mission of Convivial.
Jailyn Harrison admits that three years ago she knew more about coffee than clay. She meets Shannon Climbing, applies to Convivial and is hired for the production team. She is now also a casting lead.
“Chentell is a great teacher,” Harrison suggests. “It presents the background that we need and gives us the context of what we’re doing.”
As for the favorite part of Harrison’s job? “I like the physique,” she says. “It’s a bit like rock climbing.
Around the room, bits of joke sometimes float above the industrial din. But equal amounts of focus and intensity are also present.
“Every move you make has to be intentional,” says Madison Jones as she and other production assistants subtly shape the edge of a salad plate with sponges. “You really have to stay focused. It’s almost meditative.
The opportunity to work for a woman-owned business appeals to many applicants. So does the pride of helping handcraft beautiful items destined to spruce up tables, counters and gardens across the country.
But as Shannon points out, the bottom line is that it’s still manufacturing work. “You absolutely have to be resilient to do this,” she says. “The work culture that we are trying to create here is one of resilience. . . strength of mind and body.
This resilience has been tested by the speed of growth of the company. As sales continued to increase throughout the pandemic, Convivial found itself adding staff to meet demand.
As a result, studio manager Briana Taylor oversaw a series of changes to the production line, measures designed to streamline the process and reduce turnaround times. “It’s a huge studio,” she explains, “but as a growing company we have to work very hard to be strategic and organized at all times to maximize our production, quality and efficiency.
Which brings us to another chapter in Convivial’s story, one that Shannon’s plan didn’t foresee.
Combine plants and ceramics
“The flower business was not what I originally thought about,” she says of Verdant, the botanical store that opened at a crossroads at the end of last summer. “I was thinking of a sales area for Convivial.
But Verdant quickly proved that plants and ceramics are natural partners in hospitality.
The cozy 18th Street storefront (previously home to YJ’s Coffeehouse) is full of houseplants and flowery items. Greenery that customers can associate with vases and planters fresh from Convivial’s ovens.
“People spend so much time at home these days. What better way to brighten things up than with flowers? asks Verdant manager Jackie Bartholme.
The store’s inventory also includes candles, cards, botanical books, and a festive mix of handmade items, perfect for gift giving. User-friendliness strikes again!
“We see a lot of loyal customers,” Bartholme reports. “It was really fun getting to know them.
The company’s foray into flowers can prove to be valuable in another important way.
“I continued to hear from Convivial customers who wanted something new or something more,” says Shannon, adding that she can’t roll out new products seasonally or every few months.
“It’s not viable for the way Convivial operates,” she says. “We’re adding a few things here and there. But now with Verdant and the kind of perishable items he offers, we have a way to keep people coming back. We develop a routine that is good for both parties.
Customers can also shop at Convivial Production’s studio, 1026 Hickory St., which receives a limited number of visitors and hopes to resume large studio tours when the pandemic subsides. All items are also available on the studio’s robust website, www.convivialproduction.com.
Top: Convivial Production, a ceramics studio in the West Bottoms, has built its success on clean, minimalist designs. The fast-growing, woman-owned company employs mostly women workers, including Jennie Vu (foreground), one of 25 employees. (photo by Jim Barcus)