Leeds’ Earthborn Pottery expands international reach to Hong Kong

Earthborn Pottery owner Tena Payne with a shipment for Hong Kong.

Earthborn Pottery had already established itself as an international retailer, but recently the Leeds- based business made its first sale to Hong Kong.

The locally-owned shop on Parkway Drive continues to reach new milestones. Since its humble beginnings in owner Tena Payne’s home, her pottery began finding prominence when discovered by Chef Chris Hastings in 1997.

It wasn’t pottery, but mushrooms that brought her and the famous Birmingham chef together. Payne once had a surplus of shitake mushrooms, an abundance that set her on the path she continues on today.

“We ate them, we dried them, we gave them away, we froze them,” Payne described the dilemma. “I sold them to Bruno’s. And we were still giving them away to everybody. It occurred to me, ‘Who uses fresh shitake mushrooms? Chefs.’”

She visited Hastings. This was at a time before chefs had convenient farmers markets. She noticed broken pottery on his floor and let him know about her pottery business.

“He had been in town for six months when I met him,” she said. “So, we kind of grew up together.”

In 2003, Hastings took Payne’s pottery to a chef’s trade show. That’s when Payne began selling pottery to the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Word got around fast. In 2008, Payne met Shimon Bokovza, the managing partner of Samba Brands. The New York-based company operates restaurants in London, Amsterdam, Turks and Caicos and now, Hong Kong. And Bokozva has relied on Payne’s pottery for each new venture he begins. He became a fan after testing the pottery for a year and noticing its most unique trait —durability.

“He flew me to New York City,” she recalls. “And his assistant said, ‘He won’t do business with anybody until he looks you in the eye.’ We met in the airport. He pulled one of my pots out of his bag that he was carrying that I had shipped him previously. He said, ‘You want to know why I like your pottery?’ And he tossed it into the air there in the airport and it hit the ground—onto those airport carpets—and it just bounced and rolled. He said, ‘That’swhy I like your pottery.’”

Now she and her team will have to do the hard work. Bokozva expects the full shipment for the opening of the Samba Brands restaurant in Hong Kong to be delivered by Aug. 5.

“There’s a misconception that pottery is fragile,” she said. “But pottery is not fragile when it’s done right. [Earthborn Pottery] stays in service for so long after it has been ordered that I’ve had to continually add new accounts to keep busy. Chefs move on or they will open new properties, and they’ll come back to me.”

Payne and her husband grew up in Homewood before moving to the Leeds area in 1985. As her national spotlight continues to grow, she has no intentions of moving her shop from the place they have grown to love.

“I could not find a better place to work,” Payne said. “What I bought this building for — what I paid for the square footage — it’s ridiculous. I’m happy to be here.”

Earthborn Pottery offers pottery classes and “Sunday Suppers.” The latter includes a meal prepared by an Alabama chef that uses the pottery in their restaurant and a pottery set to take home. They have become so popular that Payne has created two series for 2020, allowing for one supper each month. To learn more about classes, events and to shop online, visit earthbornpottery.net.

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