June 23, 2021

Maine pottery chain sold Salt Works began in Monroe in ’72

MONROE – Ceramics maker Monroe Salt Works, which began in a Waldo County barn 30 years ago and grew to include 50 employees and retail stores from Bangor to Boston, is being sold to a specialty housewares firm, the owner said Monday.

Founded and owned by potter Ron Garfinkle of Brooks, the company still produces its distinctive salt-glazed pottery from a converted barn in Monroe.

Garfinkle said Monday the business is under contract to Tawinbi Co. Inc. based in Keene, N.H. The sale is expected to be completed in January. He did not disclose terms.

Monroe Salt Works operates retail stores in Belfast, Ellsworth, Lincolnville, Boothbay Harbor, at the Bangor Mall during part of the year, and in Boston and Arlington, Mass.

Some of the 11 who work in the Monroe production facility may be able to land jobs with the new company, but Tawinbi partner Tom Abert said Monday the purchase offer did not include that part of the business.

The stores, which employ about 40, are expected to remain open.

Monroe Salt Works’ manufactured line follows Garfinkle’s hand-designed plates, cups, pitchers, vases and other tableware.

Garfinkle, 61, is a native of the Rochester, N.Y., area. He moved to Maine in 1971 after a two-year Peace Corps stint in Peru and after completing a three-year craftsman residency in North Carolina learning the art of making pottery.

In 1972, Garfinkle launched the business in Monroe, keeping it a two-person operation until the mid-1980s, when he decided it was time to grow the operation.

A state-run business initiative that brought Maine crafters to the New York Gift Show in 1986 connected Monroe Salt Works to a national and international market.

“My business really took off after that,” he said.

Subsequent visits to the New York show, financed by the business, paid off, he said.

Garfinkle opened his first retail store in Searsport in 1990 as a way of selling off a large stock of second-quality pottery. Soon he opened more stores, selling top quality pottery.

Salt glazing, a technique Garfinkle learned during his North Carolina residency, relies on salt being introduced into the kiln during the firing process, producing a distinctive but unpredictable look.

“It’s got a great look to it,” Garfinkle said, describing the firing as dynamic. “The results are always a surprise.” Much of the pottery also features painted patterns.

Abert, one of four partners in Tawinbi, said it was Garfinkle’s work and vision that attracted his company’s interest.

“Our strategy has always been to do what Ron did: have a mixture of retail and wholesale,” Abert said.

The shapes and forms Garfinkle developed and produced were a big part of the appeal for Tawinbi, Abert said.

“We’re really excited about his stuff,” he said. “They’re more than just utilitarian objects.”

Tawinbi is actually smaller than Monroe Salt Works. It employs just the four partners and two part-time workers, Abert said.

The company was formed by a married couple from very different parts of the world. Jesper Bisballe is from Denmark and Sitda Bisballe is from Thailand. Both were educated in the United States. They met in Switzerland, but now live in Thailand.

The company’s Web site features photos of Tawinbi’s brightly colored and whimsical housewares, which are produced in Thailand and sold wholesale in North America, Europe and Asia.

Abert said Monroe Salt Works production will be moved to Thailand, but he insisted this is not the familiar out-sourcing story.

“Thailand has a centuries-old ceramic industry,” he said, and with the rise of nearby China as a manufacturer of inexpensive goods, the country has worked to create high-quality production facilities to fill a niche. The Bisballes are able to use local connections to ensure high-quality production, Abert said.

The stores will begin carrying Tawinbi products along with Monroe Salt Works wares, Abert said.

“His stores get really good traffic,” he said. “We want to have our stuff out there.”

For Garfinkle, the sale comes at a time when he wants to enjoy being outside in the beauty of Maine, he said. And he also wants to return to art.

“I’ve been doing this for a really long time,” he said. The sale is like passing the baton after completing the first leg of a relay race, he said.

Garfinkle added that he is confident he is leaving his lines with an energetic firm that will do justice to the pottery.

“We’ve had a good run here,” he said.

For information online, see: www.tawinbi.com, and www.monroesaltworks.com

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