Tena Payne sells top chefs on the value of hand-crafted, custom dinnerware.
By Rosalind Fournier
Once she found her passion for pottery, Tena Payne knew she wanted to use her talent to do more than sell beautiful pieces one at a time. “I’ve always wanted to make a living with it,” she says, “and it’s really hard to make a living making pots.”
She found the path forward, remarkably enough, thanks to a banner year for shiitake mushrooms, which she and her family grow on their property. With more than they knew what to do with, Payne went door to door to local restaurants selling them, and ended up coming face to face with Chris Hastings, chef/owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club, who was new to Birmingham at the time.
In what she can only describe as divine intervention, their conversation turned to pottery—with Hastings expressing interest in having her develop a new line for him. Earthborn Pottery was born.
Payne spent the next six years perfecting the science of making pottery that could withstand commercial use flawlessly, with Hastings as her guinea pig. “When he quit complaining,” she says, “I realized I had a product that I could sell to other chefs.”
Payne set off with her wares to a large restaurant trade show and walked away with a 5,000-piece order from the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The client list has continued to grow, now stretching from Birmingham (Hot and Hot, Ovenbird, the Renaissance at Ross Bridge) to Southern California (the Lodge at Torrey Pines), and of course Las Vegas (the Bellagio, Caesars Palace). Payne has found she has a special camaraderie with chefs. “Chefs have turned out to be the best customers you could imagine,” she says. “They are artists too—their medium is food; mine is clay—but our products really show off each other well.” She has also created custom lines for Bromberg & Co. and Nordstrom. In addition to dinner and serving ware, Earthborn also makes specialty pieces like custom-made sinks.
Today, out of her studio in Leeds, Payne has a staff of artists who help her execute steps along the way, but all the designs are still her own. And while the quality speaks for itself, the restaurateurs she works with gladly speak for it, too. “(Payne’s) work ethic and dedication to providing a quality product that is durable and elegant is worth more than one can imagine,” Idie Hastings, co-owner of Hot and Hot, wrote in a letter of recommendation posted on the Earthborn site, “and is greatly valued by our company.”∞