By Jay Gonzales –
Iconic Mimbreño Designs Return
HF Coors Produces Dinnerware of Fred Harvey Fame
Dirck Schou is excited. Really excited.
After nearly a decade of negotiating for the licensing of a legendary design, Schou, president and CEO of HF Coors in Tucson, finally can produce dinnerware with the iconic Mimbreño pattern derived from ancient pictographs.
The Mimbreño pattern has deep roots in Arizona. Its creator was Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, a renowned architect in the 1900s who decorated the El Tovar Hotel and designed Hermit’s Rest, Desert Watchtower and Hopi House on the rim of the Grand Canyon. The Mimbreño dishes were used exclusively by Fred Harvey in his hotels and railcars.
“Bringing back the Mimbreño design is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Schou said. His company is now manufacturing the iconic design in Arizona. The original dinnerware was produced by the Onondaga Pottery Company in Syracuse, New York, under the Syracuse China brand.
“We are the last surviving West Coast company manufacturing ceramic dinnerware that is of high value and quality,” Schou said.
The pattern stems from Colter’s passion for Native American art. The Mimbreño designs are based on the pictographs of animals and geometric patterns left behind on clay pots by the ancient inhabitants of the Rio Mimbres Valley in southwestern New Mexico around 1100 AD.
The Fred Harvey Company used the dinnerware in its hotels – including the El Tovar – and in dining cars on the “Super Chief” and other trains of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway from 1936 to 1971.
Though production of the Mimbreño dinnerware discontinued, some originals can still be found today in service on BNSF Railway business cars, which merged with the Santa Fe in 1996. Original Mimbreño is identified by the exclusive backstamp on the bottom of the dinnerware – “Made Expressly for Santa Fe Dining Car Service.” The rights to this stamp are currently owned by the BNSF Railway, and it was this licensing that Schou worked so hard to secure.
In the summer of 2015, HF Coors launched a series of mugs, and by the first of the year they will produce the full dinnerware line.
“The mugs were introduced to great acclaim,” Schou said.
“The first person to receive mugs was Allan Affeldt,” owner of the Colter-designed La Posada Hotel in Winslow, which Affeldt has painstakingly and authentically restored. “He’s been a major cheerleader for us over the years we’ve been trying to get this off the ground.”
The resurgence of the Colter design reflects one more evolution for HF Coors. Founded in 1925 by Herman Coors, son of the famous brewmaster, H.F. Coors China Company was based in California. When Schou’s company, Catalina China Co., acquired the business in 2003, he immediately moved it to Tucson. Schou dropped “China Company” from the name, but wanted to retain the strength of the Coors name which is “well-known and respected in the restaurant industry, with a reputation dating back to 1925,” he said. “I wanted to assure potential restaurant customers that we were carrying on where Coors in California left off.”
The Colter Mimbreño dinnerware is one of 17 patterns offered by the company, in addition to custom designs. Master artist and designer Robert DeArmond is the talent behind the art. The onsite retail store also offers limited-edition designs by other artists.
Today, 38 percent of the customer base remains restaurants. HF Coors provides the dinnerware for 25 restaurants in Tucson and another 325 around the world.
The company started offering products to consumers in 2007, a market that now represents 22 percent of its revenue. Custom mugs – including the Ellen mug for “The Ellen Degeneres Show” – are about 21 percent of the company’s revenue, with a little more than 11 percent from the private label “UncommonGoods.” The remaining revenue is primarily government-contracted business, Schou said.
During the recession, Schou had to cut back nearly a third of his employees and reduce production, but since then the consumer demand to “buy local” has produced a resurgence.
Competition with cheaper manufacturing markets – including China and India – have challenged the company’s staunch commitment to maintaining its “Made in America” brand. “Not all businesses – especially restaurants – see China as a partner,” he said. “It’s also about quality, and relationships matter.”
Vito Prencipe, assistant GM at North Italia restaurant, agrees. “HF Coors’ quality and service is amazing,” he said. “They offer a unique design for us. Even our customers compliment the dinnerware.”
Schou’s career began in England and he has customized the plant’s equipment based on European manufacturing models. It allows greater adaptability on the line, and the ability to produce custom products. At full capacity, the plant will produce 7,000 mugs a day. It also allows them to serve customer needs quickly.
“When we need it, they can always get orders to us quickly and that’s important for our business,” Prencipe said.
Looking ahead, Schou says they will continue to be innovative and responsive to the market’s demand for quality dinnerware with a focus on growing both the restaurant and consumer markets.
“We make a fantastic product – and we’re proud that we can do that here in Arizona.”