All eyes are on the table this time of year.
The dining room table serves as a place of merriment and celebration, a place to give thanks for all that we have. It’s where we savor our favorite culinary delights and our family traditions.
What our favorite dishes are served on — plates and platters, bowls and mugs — can be just as important.
In Tucson, HF Coors makes ceramic dinnerware — some of it handpainted and with a Tucson flare. The company, across the street from the main post office on Cherrybell Stravenue, creates up to 200,000 mugs, plates, platters, bowls, salt and pepper shakers, teapots, figurines and other ceramics each month. Among the company’s customers are restaurant chains and the U.S. Navy.
HF Coors was first opened in 1925 by the Coors brewing family and moved to Tucson in 2003. It’s now at the height of its busy season, as restaurants and revelers are looking to create the perfect table for the holidays.
“People are looking for something that is lead-free and made in the USA,” said Dirck Schou, president and CEO at HF Coors.
“You have to be able to trust that it is made with materials that won’t leech out lead, cadmium or other materials that could cause health problems. You want something that will stand up to the oven, the dishwasher, the microwave, the freezer and the broiler.
“But mostly you have to love it,” Schou added.
So what goes into making that perfect plate?
The work starts early in the morning at HF Coors. At the south end of the 33,000-square foot manufacturing facility, clay and glazes are mixed. HF Coors uses up to four tons of clay each day.
“We make all the clay, all the molds, all the glazes and a lot of the tools,” said Schou, who owns HF Coors with David Sounart. “This is a soup-to-nuts operation.”
A mill crushes and refines huge batches of the glaze material to make for a smoother finish.
Down the way, artists handcraft specialty items – teapots that will be painted in gold for Lenox and statues of Winnebago Indians.
On a recent afternoon, artist Steven Clark created teapots by hand.
“It’s always something different,” said Clark, who has worked in ceramics for 35 years. “It’s challenging combining the artistic and technical aspects.”
Other workers created olive-oil dishes, using a mold. They created coffee mugs for the Ellen DeGeneres Show Shop, plates for Fox Restaurant Concepts, mugs for the Navy, ceramic roses to adorn baskets and other art.
The pieces are fired at 2330 degrees over 10 hours, moving through a 200-foot, gas-fired kiln, making them very tough. Schou calls them “busboy proof.”
In other rooms, artists hand paint pieces. Bob DeArmond has been with HF Coors for nearly 40 years, and moved to Tucson when the company relocated here nearly 11 years ago.
He hand paints scenes near and dear to Tucsonan’s hearts — the entry way to Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, desert scenes with quail and hummingbirds and a javelina that took him years to perfect. He was inspired by a javelina he saw on a T-shirt promoting the local band Calexico.
Also popular are DeArmond’s Day of the Dead pieces, with skeletons dancing and playing the violin. There is a skeleton patterned after him, paint brushes in hand.
DeArmond created some of HF Coors’ most popular dinnerware patterns, including Bella Flora, Tuscany, Aurora, Colors of Tucson and Acapulco .
Most of this custom work ranges in price from $19.99 for a mug to $199 for an elaborate platter.
“I get to be creative every day,” he said, as racks of handpainted Beyond Bread plates with a cobalt swirl dried next to him, along with plates adorned with delicate quail.
“A lot of people hang my art on the wall but I encourage them to use it. I don’t want it gathering dust,” DeArmond said.
His favorite pieces are in his Day of the Dead collection.
“I didn’t know anything about Day of the Dead until I moved out here,” DeArmond said.
He also created a special plate with the Community Food Bank logo on it, and a percentage of sales from that collection benefit the nonprofit.
While HF Coors is known for bright colors — akin to Fiestaware — and eye-catching patterns, the biggest seller among the 22 patterns is basic white. Much of the work is sold to restaurants that often don’t want distractions from the culinary art.
Among local restaurant clients are Pastiche Modern Eatery, Jonathan’s Cork, Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant and the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain. Patterns are available for purchase at Table Talk.
“Chefs come in and tell us, ‘I’m opening a new restaurant and this is what I want,’ ” Schou said. “And we make it for them.”