Mike Totah has a thriving business making stoneware for top restaurants. He originally went the route of the starving artist, selling his work through galleries in San Diego and southern California. A chance conversation with a chef for a local Hyatt restaurant led him, at first reluctantly, toward a high-volume business called The Wheel that focuses on dining establishments. His business grew by word of mouth, and Mike now creates custom stoneware for some of the strongest restaurants and casinos in the country. With a growing enterprise that has now gone global, this surfer and self-declared food lover embraces a simple life and an unexpectedly fruitful career.
With such a growing interest in artfully prepared food, it only makes sense that those chefs and restaurateurs would want to present their food on artfully made dishes. What led you to focus on this type of client, and what has the response been?
Wow, it was absolutely, 100% by accident! When I first started, I had a gallery. I opened a gallery that I lived in, and I had a studio in the back. And I went to Café Japengo, which was for a long time the Hyatt’s leading national restaurant, revenue-wise. Asian-themed, sushi bar, kind of Asian fusion, Pacific Rim. And I was having lunch in there, and the chef asked me what I did because I guess he was bored. And they were having problems getting stuff from Japan and having it take three or four months to get there, and they were not happy with where they were getting their product. So I made them some samples and ended up working extensively with the general manager, the food and beverage person at the Hyatt, the manager of the restaurants and the chefs, and we just sort of developed an Asian line for the sushi bar and some neat platters for the hot food service. And that was where it started. You know, if he hadn’t asked me that, I have no idea what I would be doing right now!
And I wasn’t that enthralled about it, but this was sort of in the recession of the early ’90s, and selling art was really tough. Not to mention I was just starting out, so the quality of my work wasn’t probably up to snuff. So I wasn’t really that into doing the restaurant stuff, but it kept coming at me because this restaurant was so successful. Over the period of the next five years, I ended up with restaurants all across the nation just from word-of-mouth from this one restaurant. I got a chain of eight restaurants that was based in Chicago, and it was amazing that without any marketing whatsoever — strictly word-of-mouth and chefs moving around — over the next five or six years I just started getting all these other restaurants.
Even at that point I still wasn’t that into it, and I was still searching for the magic thing that I was going to be able to make a living with. Finally, I realized, ‘hey, this is a nice niche.’ There’s a serious need for handmade plates, which I really never would have thought of, so I sort of decided to jump on and really get a little more into it. I hooked up with a marketing company in, I think, the end of 2003. And they were big in Vegas, and they really sort of started pushing the sales nationwide and getting into some bigger casinos. And that has sort of gotten me to where we are today.
Who are some of your restaurant clients now?
My claim to fame, casino-wise, is the Wynn casino in Vegas — I’ve done a bunch of buffet gear for them, I’ve outfitted their Asian bistro, and we do every plate they use. I don’t even think they use a little white ramekin. Everything in there is from The Wheel. And then when they went ahead and built the Wynn in Macau, we sent three containers of buffet ware to Macau, and I had a stamp made strictly for that order that said ‘Handmade in the U.S.A.’ Sending plates to Asia is pretty funny, if you think about it. So that’s something we’re pretty proud of, selling plates to Asia! And so we’ve been expanding in Vegas — I do a lot of the local Indian casinos, and we’ve really been trying to get more into the banquet area as well.
I sell to Hyatt nationwide — they’re one of my biggest clients. You know, obviously starting with the Hyatt restaurant was a good thing, but we’ve done a breakfast buffet line that they actually photograph and use in all their training materials, which is great. So that’s been a great partnership. We’ve done stuff for MGM, Treasure Island, some of the other big casinos out there.
My other big client is The Cheesecake Factory for their new concept called RockSugar, which is a pan-Asian concept, and that’s been a great partnership. They only have one right now, but I know when the economy gets better, they’re going to start putting those up everywhere. That is a great testament to our durability, because they do more volume than any other restaurant I’ve ever seen. They’re doing like 1300 covers a day between lunch and dinner, and that’s just insane! They have the formula figured out.
Tell me about your background in ceramics and stoneware. Were you creative growing up, and did you study this craft in a formal manner?
Not really formally. My mom is an artist, and she always really promoted any sort of art and drawing and painting. I think my first pottery class was a summer school class in junior high, and I did it all through high school and loved it. On the funny side, I did take ceramics twice in college, and I failed it twice! It was the only class I’ve ever failed in school of any kind. And it wasn’t because I didn’t do the projects — it was my attendance and sort of being a little too social.
So I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I took a semester off. My mom lived in Maui, so I went there for a summer. And she signed me up for this pottery class, and it really just turned me on. Then I ended up going over to the Big Island and apprenticing with the guy I took the class from for a little while. And basically watching him make a living, I said, ‘Hell, I can do this — if he can do it, I can do it. I just have to go for it.’ So I just went for the trial-and-error model and really no super-formal training. It was more a matter of just doing it.
I came back to San Diego to continue going to school, but when I realized I was going to do this and had the opportunity, I just stopped going to school and set up the gallery and sort of went for it. I definitely had a lot of support to get started. And the first five years were absolutely brutal — in the middle of a recession as well, so that didn’t help. It’s bizarre, because I really resisted doing the restaurant thing — even though I was doing it, I was constantly looking for something else, like the magic product or something. At one point, I had twenty art galleries in San Diego that I was showing at, but when you have stuff on consignment and you’re waiting to see if something sells, it’s a little different.
Describe your process in creating custom stoneware for these clients. Do they come to you with a clear vision, and what sorts of questions do you ask them?
Typically they’ll come to me with ‘well, I need an appetizer plate,’ and ‘I’ve seen this’ or ‘I like that.’ And then we’ll just make samples or try to find something we currently make that fits the mold. And then we try to glaze it so that it works in the restaurant and with the food they’re putting on it, and we kind of customize it that way. I try not to go 100% custom on everything, but if I can take an existing plate and glaze it so it fits in a particular restaurant, then that is a small form of customization. If it’s something where it’s big enough, then we’ll go ahead and design the whole line. But if somebody wants a couple dozen plates, I don’t go too crazy trying to do something that’s totally custom. But if they want a couple hundred or if it’s an ongoing thing, then we’ll go ahead and design something that works for them. If it’s a new restaurant, I’ll get the color board and look at the carpet and the fabrics and what the tabletop looks like and just try to fit it into their theme.
For a client like Snooze, which has a Happy Days-meets-Jetsons sort of look, were you challenged doing that aesthetic compared to your more Asian-inspired or rustic looks?
No, you know Jon [Schlegel, owner of Snooze] was a manager at Café Japengo at the Hyatt, and that’s how we met. And basically, the only customization is the stamp, which is their logo. And we just took their logo and tried to apply part of it onto the plate so it would identify with the restaurant. And I’ve done that with other restaurants with sort of an embossed look where you actually stamp into the clay. With Snooze, it’s just a stencil color — we make a little stencil and apply a color over the base glaze.
Do you have a favorite look or color palette you love to work with?
Oh, boy, anything new is always my favorite for a couple of months! I’m always looking for new glazes, and some of them are more difficult and have a smaller range of firing and I have more problems. And so aesthetically I think I’m biased, because some of them are a pain in the ass and some of them are easy. I think if I had to pick a favorite it would be the red — it’s actually three glazes. And when you get into stoneware, red is difficult and you don’t see a lot of it. You know, copper does a lot of different things. I can do copper and make it look like a seafoam or turquoise color all day long, but getting it to a really nice red shade is not easy. So that’s kind of a fun one, you get a huge range. And sometimes the red turns red and turquoise — you get a combination, and it’s really organic. And that’s one of my favorite colors just because I’m really turned on by things that are less contrived. I’m not into hand-painting things and decorating that way. I kind of like to get neat glazes that really break and do cool things, and it’s a matter of applying them correctly and firing them correctly to get the effect. I do a lot of pit firing, and you have no control over what’s going to happen. And to me that’s more of a turn-on. You get more neat surprises that way.
Are there other art forms you look at or pastimes you indulge in to inspire you or recharge you creatively?
I surf, and that’s an absolute stress-reliever. I’m totally inspired by the ocean and could never live away from the ocean — I’m addicted to the edge of the continent, I guess. And I’m really inspired by Japanese art, which is typically not contrived. I really appreciate the character of handmade. And when something strange happens, they embrace it rather than calling it a mistake — and that is definitely more where I am turned on.
I understand your stoneware is quite durable even in high-volume restaurants. Tell me about your materials and techniques that make it so well-suited for commercial use.
Well, it’s stoneware, first of all. If you buy pottery from Mexico or even Asia or all that Italian hand-painted stuff, typically that’s earthenware and it’s not fired as hot. The material is not meant to be fired hotter. It’s lighter in weight, and it definitely is not chip-resistant. In your home, you could probably get away with it, but for commercial use, you want to stay away from earthenware. So I don’t have a crazy clay formula that’s my own. I buy my clay from Laguna Clay Company — it’s one of their commercial clays and is half stoneware, half porcelain. It’s a real tight body, real dense, which means that it’s real smooth. It’s not real granular, and that keeps the chipping down. So when you get something with a heavier grain , a sandier grain, it’s not necessarily less durable but it will chip a lot easier.
Your story of focusing on the restaurant client is an interesting lesson in the value of developing a particular niche. Do you have any advice for those just starting in a creative field?
Oh, god, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but my only advice is do what you love to do, and somehow it will work out. And I’m a perfect example, because I love my lifestyle! I don’t necessarily love making a thousand soy dishes that are all the same, but it does afford me the lifestyle of working outside and being able to work with clay and make art. When I made the choice to do this, I knew that I wasn’t going to be making a lot of money any time soon. I think a lot of art forms are really difficult to turn into money, and there are definitely a lot of starving artists in every field. But I think if you love it and you stick with it, good things will happen and you just have to be ready for the opportunity when it comes up. I chose the lifestyle over the money, and hopefully it will pan out. I think we’re a success story now, but I think down the road we could even do better financially. But, yeah, I would just do what you love to do. And you kind of have to trust, you have to trust in the universe that it will present opportunity to you. If you’re following your heart, I think it will work out.
Where do you see it going from here? Do you have plans or does it evolve more organically?
It’s kind of been evolving more organically. I really have increased my capacity, and if I would have thought of doing the volume that I’m doing now back when I started, I would have laughed. Actually, the first big order I got for the Wynn Hotel, I got a deposit of something like $58,000. I put it in one of my drawers, and I laughed, like ‘I can’t do this order!’ I didn’t cash the check for two or three months — I just sort of sat on it and didn’t even think we could do it. But they gave us enough time where I felt comfortable giving it a shot. And we pulled it off, and, god, we’ve really blown my expectations out of the water in that regard! We’re really pumping out a lot more volume than I ever would have dreamed. I think the first order we did for them was something like 7,000 pieces, so that was pretty wild as a beginning. But now, after we’ve done it a few times, we realize ‘hmm, we can do it, and we can do even more!’
What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work directly or just make you happy?
The simple things for me. You know, a great meal. That’s probably what’s kept me in the game — I get to meet a lot of great chefs and I eat a lot of great food. I eat like a king, really! So I love to eat, I love to surf. I’m pretty easily entertained — I don’t have to go spend a bunch of money to have a good time. And obviously, just the actual getting dirty part of getting in the clay and creating something and feeling productive. When you throw pots all day, you can see what you’ve done and produced immediately, and that’s really gratifying.
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