“Coffee tastes better out of a ceramic cup,” Jon Schmidt insists. The owner of the Mocha Monkey coffee shop in Waconia knows what he’s talking about—after all, he actually makes all the cups that he uses in the café.
Schmidt was a business management major at Gustavus Adolphus College when he took a pottery class in his junior year. He fell in love with the craft and wanted to do it all the time. It was too late to change majors, so he found the perfect solution: He found a business that would be an endless demand for his pottery. He bought the Mocha Monkey Coffee Shop from previous owners Mark and Pam Braumworth, also potters, who own the local Oliver Clay Company.
The 24-year-old potter and business owner has created an ideal situation where he can use his range of his skills: working behind the counter as a barista, managing accounts as owner in the upstairs office and creating as a potter in his basement studio. Schmidt set up the studio when he moved into the 100-year-old house; it’s complete with a kiln, a potter’s wheel, display racks and buckets of different-colored glazes.
All of the dishes and mugs that are used in the café are handmade by Schmidt. “When something breaks, I can replace it,” Schmidt says. “You’d be surprised at how much stuff breaks.”
He also sells his work at the café—his pieces double as attractive displays that line the walls. Schmidt’s dishes are lushly layered with color, the surfaces sometimes matte, sometimes shiny. Sales are brisk, especially for his special hand-warmer mugs and combination chip-and-dip bowls. He also fills custom orders from people as far away as Texas. All of his sales are from word of mouth. “I don’t advertise because I’m afraid I’d be overwhelmed,” Schmidt confesses. “I like not having to buy new cups for the café and adding unique mugs on a regular basis.”
The basement studio is filled with pottery in various stages of production: a wet mass of clay, unglazed bisque pieces and colorful rows of finished mugs, plates and bowls. He also uses the studio as a laboratory, where he can experiment with new glazes and shapes. He is currently busy making white ceramic lumieres for his upcoming wedding. His bride-to-be is collaborating on the effort, carving geometric shapes in the clay that will scatter the candlelight in patterns.
The potter throws his wheel pieces standing up, which is unusual, but allows for a greater range of mobility and is easier on the back. Schmidt watches TV or listens to the stereo while he works. “Most of throwing is about the feel,” Schmidt says. “I can easily glance up and keep track of the football game, and if it gets busy upstairs, I can hear it in the floorboards and dash upstairs to help.”
Once the pot is finished, he lets it dry, then puts it into a 1,600-degree kiln to fire the glaze. It’s impossible to tell exactly what it will look like when it emerges after 24 hours, which adds a fun element of surprise. It’s certainly not a big-factory production line; it takes five days to make one mug and seven to eight days to make a plate or a bowl. The kiln is small and can only accommodate a small number of pieces.
The Mocha Monkey is always humming with customers, serving as a gathering place for Waconians. Alongside his own work, Schmidt shows pieces by other local artists like painter Rhonda Tesch. He is also one of the founders and organizers of the popular Art Wander, which takes place every September and draws impressive crowds. Schmidt is grateful for the balance of business and art. “I love doing pottery but I don’t think I’d love it as much if I had to make 500 mugs a week,” he says. “Coffee is an art too, and I drink a lot of coffee.”