Have you ever torn your gaze away from the food on your plate at a restaurant to examine the vessel itself? If so, you are, in the words of ceramics designer Jono Pandolfi, a “plate flipper.”
Pandolfi, whose sprawling, light-filled studio in Union City boasts jaw-dropping views of New York City, is familiar with the plate-flipping type. He’s hearing from more and more of them, as he’s established himself as the go-to custom dinnerware designer for some of the top restaurants in the country and around the world.
Since the early 2000s, Pandolfi has worked with more than 250 restaurants, fashioning them everything from small sharing plates to cereal bowls to expansive platters. From swanky New York and West Coast hotspots to over a dozen eateries here in New Jersey, he can rattle off high-profile chefs, hotels and food world up-and-comers as clients of his eponymous company, Jono Pandolfi USA. But “it’s more than a vendor-buyer relationship,” for his handmade works, Pandolfi explains. “It’s more of a collaborative feel.”
And diners have taken notice (whether that’s before or after digging in, though, who knows). The demand from plate flippers of the home cook variety is growing even faster than the hospitality side of the business, Pandolfi admits. These ‘serious home cooks,’ as the company dubs them, are not only drawn to the simple, stripped-away aesthetic, but also to the implied workhorse quality: After all, if his plates can stand up to frenzied restaurant shifts and still carry culinary creations beautifully, they’re built to last in the home, too.
Pandolfi and his growing team are leaning into the love from home cooks. “There’s no bigger compliment,” he says, than a diner leaving a restaurant wanting to track down his dinnerware.
We caught up with Pandolfi to chat chefs and home cooks, the joy of eating off his own plates and his picks for holiday gifting.
TH: How did you find your niche working with chefs and restaurants?
JP: Back in the early 2000s, the MoMa had just renovated and I collaborated with friend on bud vases for the Terrace Cafe. It was my first time doing work for a restaurant, and it opened my eyes to the phenomenon that chefs were very, very interested in custom ware. No one else was doing that kind of work, so it was a great opportunity to start pitching New York City chefs on designing dinnerware. As more work came, the more they responded positively, and it reinforced my inclination to gear the business towards hospitality. Doing that early on was great because it allowed us to extremely carefully design our product in terms of durability, functionality and design. I’m grateful I’ve been able to work with top chefs.
TH: You’re now focusing on making your work accessible not only to chefs, but also ‘serious home cooks’ through your website, jonopandolfi.com. Why?
JP: The most exciting thing that can really happen to me, as someone who makes things, is for people to encounter my work in the world, in a restaurant, and feel it’s so great they want to flip it over, potentially track me down and buy plates from me. It’s a massive compliment, and has become a cool aspect of our brand story. We will always be a company that focuses on hospitality, but our direct-to-consumer business has been growing and it’s just as important.
TH: Who’s been your typical customer buying for the home?
JH: There are a lot of folks who notice our plates in a restaurant and are looking for second dinnerware set. Maybe they registered for white china when they got married, but our different aesthetic of letting the unglazed clay show, people fall in love with it, and say ‘This is what I want to eat off.’ For others, it’s a reminder of a special meal or an experience at a favorite restaurant.
It’s been really fun to learn about our home customers and understand who are repeat customers and fans and what they’ve bought.
TH: You don’t advertise or sell in stores. How do you explain this growing interest in your products?
JP: I think it has to do with the fact that people are a lot more interested in where their ingredients are from, from CSAs to organic meat. This is sort of an extension of that, of knowing where the things you buy come from. People take comfort in knowing that we make things here in New Jersey, that we offer health insurance and sick days to our 16 employees. People know it’s locally handmade, beautiful and durable. Our dinnerware is something you’re going to interact with every day, and I think it’s great to see people willing to invest in a quality product.
Also, two years ago my brother Nick [Pandolfi] joined as general manager and partner. He’s helped inject a lot of growth potential, maximizing our hospitality outreach and exposure. I tend to fall back and think people know about us, but so many people haven’t. And the more restaurants we ship out to, the more plate flippers find out about us along the way. Home cooks are going to eat us up and track us down.
TH: What can home cooks get online versus what you sell to restaurants? Which pieces do you recommend for holiday gifts?
JP: Our hospitality catalogue has over 50 different shapes, and we offer 12 to 15 on the retail site, though that will continue to expand. We’re just streamlining and making sure we can ship without a long lead time. We’re never going to manufacture overseas, what we offer is special and we want it to stay that way.
Our oval platters are killer because they fit in the dishwasher and are great for serving family-style meals or cheese and crackers, especially if you entertain. I also recommend buying lots of little bowls and mugs for gifts.
TH: You moved your studio to New Jersey from Brooklyn 10 years ago, and you also live in downtown Jersey City. Where do you like to eat? Do you ever spot your plates when you’re dining out?
JP: At home, we eat off my dinnerware every day—a lot of the plates are my dinnerware decorated by my two little girls, who are nine and five. My wife and I don’t eat out as often as we’d like, but some of our favorite local spots are Corto, Razza, Porta, Roman Nose, White Star Bar, Frankie and Hamilton Pork [Frankie, Corto and Razza use Jono Pandolfi dinnerware; see all of Jono Pandolfi USA’s clients here]. It’s totally fun to eat off my own plates in a restaurant, it doesn’t get old.
TH: You open your Union City studio once a month to the public to shop one-of-a-kind pieces, pieces with slight imperfections and overstock from restaurant orders. What’s that like for you to interact with customers?
JP: Those have been great, it’s awesome for local folks who can make it here. To me, the process is the interesting part, I love the process and the studio, and I could talk about it all day.