RED WING, Minn. — After September, it’s going to get a lot harder to find new products from Minnesota’s iconic Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery.
The owners, Bruce and Irene Johnson, have confirmed that they will be closing their current manufacturing and retail location at 4909 Moundview Drive in Red Wing this fall. The couple cited health issues and other business opportunities as the reasons for closing.
“We will not be doing anything, no manufacturing, no selling out of that location come Oct. 1,” said Bruce Johnson.
The equipment and products will be transferred to the business’s other property at 1920 Old West Main St. and stored there until the Johnsons figure out their next move.
“Any time you close a chapter like that, it’s always very sad,” Bruce Johnson said. “It’s been such a fun experience. It’s been such a privilege to work with the people in this business.”
Collectors and lovers of pottery hate to see it go.
“It’s a sad day. It’s an end of an era,” said Paul Wichert, president of the Red Wing Collectors Society.
For the community
The couple rescued the ailing pottery business six years ago, purchasing it in 2013 from former CEO and co-owner Scott Gillmer, who had planned to shutter the 146-year-old business that has been nearly synonymous with the town’s identity since the late 1800s.
“This was basically something we did for the community, for the family,” Johnson said. “We wanted to jump in and try. We built it up pretty good.”
As Red Wing residents and former owners of a software company, the Johnsons said they knew they faced multiple challenges in making a profit with pottery. It’s a product whose sales have been declining since the 1940s due to competition from lower-priced imports and big-box discount chains.
Capitalizing on the revived interest in handcrafted items, the Johnsons decided to trim the business, make it more efficient and expand online sales.
“Millennials certainly love quality,” Johnson said. “We’ve done a good job getting our social media platforms out there.”
Reshaping the business
The Johnsons combined Red Wing Stoneware, an earthenware manufacturer on the western edge of town, and Red Wing Pottery, a retail salesroom that has been operating since the 1950s, into Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery.
They hired a business consultant who streamlined the manufacturing process and also tried their hand at the branded merchandise market — making small-batch custom pieces for business clients.
And, according to Bruce Johnson, business was good.
“We’re having a fantastic year,” he said. “We had built the business up where we’re fairly confident in our processes and our products. … I think the market is there.”
‘Scary' health issues
Johnson said health issues with his lungs severely handicapped his ability to keep up with all his entrepreneurial ventures.
“It’s very scary. I’ve had pneumonia four times in the last five years,” he said. “We may have to change our environment completely.”
Lifelong Minnesotans, the Johnsons have considered moving to a warmer, drier climate as well.
“To think of not being here is almost impossible to consider,” he said.
He’s also had another business, Grillight, which offers tools for grilling, grow quickly and wants to turn his attention to managing its growth.
“We’re now in a couple thousand stores around the United States,” he said. “We are looking at how to support that business.”
No ill will
Johnson said he wants to make it clear that the closure has nothing to do with the trouble the couple experienced in 2015 within the business community that led to a lawsuit.
The Johnsons initiated a trademark-infringement lawsuit against the Red Wing Collectors Society Foundation, which operates a museum in the city, alleging that the museum was using its logo — a single red wing — on souvenirs without permission. Those problems were resolved that same year and are behind them, he said.
The Johnsons have put the Moundview Drive property on the market but aren’t actively pursuing a sale.
“We had a couple of bites,” Bruce Johnson said. He’d like to see someone else pick up where they left off. In the meantime, they haven’t ruled out releasing new collections on a much smaller scale.
End of an era
As for collectors, Wichert said he’s seen several pottery businesses close over the years.
“Pottery’s been going for well over 100 years and now it’s gone, and that’s sad for everyone. It’s just something that can’t be sustained anymore,” he said.
Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery designed a commemorative spittoon for the society’s annual conference.
“It was well received by our members and it’s the last one, from them, anyway,” Wichert said.
He doubts the closure will increase the value of collector’s items, because collectors have been focused on products produced before 1967 when the original pottery closed.
But he said it may spark interest in more recent collections.