Q&A: Housekeeper Crockery Goes Back to American-Made Cookware Basics

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Raw cast iron skillets from Housekeeper Crockery. | Photo courtesy Housekeeper Crockery via Instagram

Forged in America, the company wants to bring artisan values back to our kitchens.

Most of the cookware found in stores today — with a handful of exceptions — is made overseas and not made to last. But Sara Dahmen is out to change that. She's the founder of Housekeeper Crockery, which manufacturers high-quality, American-made cookware that can be passed down through generations. The manufacturing process involves working with companies around the country, from sourcing the copper in Texas to spinning it in Ohio and making the copper rivets in Wisconsin, where Dahmen is also based. 

We asked Dahmen about her goals, what it takes to keep it Made in America, and what she envisions for the future.

Can you share a little bit about the history of Housekeeper Crockery? What made you start the company?

Housekeeper Crockery founder Sara Dahmen.

Housekeeper Crockery started in early 2015 and has subsequently created the House Copper branch and brand in 2016. So, it's all relatively young. The concept began after doing extensive research for my historical fiction books (Doctor Kinney's Housekeeper is the first published, hence the company name!) and realizing that much of what was in traditional American kitchens could no longer be found: 100 percent artisan, American-made, built-to-last generations and made from local materials. Everything is made to toss out in a few years, and almost everything in our kitchens is made overseas. So I set out to re-create the American (and pioneer!) kitchen tools. What started as a bit of a whim for branching out my fiction books has taken a mind of its own. As a wedding planner for 10 years, I was used to starting and running my own company, but I had zero information on metal or fabricating. Crash courses, research and great mentors later, and I now feel well-versed in metallurgy where cookware is concerned.

Why did you decide to make manufacturing in America a priority?

The philosophy behind Housekeeper Crockery, and House Copper, is that I want everything to go back to basics. Our great-grandparents either received heirloom pieces for their kitchens, or bought local — the blacksmith was pounding and pouring the iron for your pots, the copper cookware was made by the nearby smith (or repaired by the traveling tinner), the pottery was hand thrown by the potter, the spoons turned on a lathe at the woodworkers or by your own hand, etc. So in order to truly re-create that, I couldn't just design reproductions and ship them off to get made by a company I don't know, and have no notion of the provenance of the materials. If I ask for a CDA110 electrolytic cold forged solid shank truss-headed copper rivet, and I'm not able to personally visit the company where they are made? Well, I can't exactly guarantee my customers that what I'm selling is truly and actually what the product is. It was important for me to do everything properly, and keep everything as local as I could not only to keep supporting small, local, family-owned and operated businesses, but because then I could physically meet and see all the wares being made, with no cultural barriers to boot. 

Your manufacturing process takes place all over the country. How do you make the logistics of that work?

Keeping everything made here in the USA does mean there's some wild goose hunts at times. When we realized that grey iron handles wouldn't work on the copper cookware, we had to find someone who could pour ductile iron with the ability to add elongation. Plus, they needed to be able to use my match-plates, so they needed to be able to re-gate and use my tools on a B&P processing machine. About 20 cold calls later, and we discovered the foundry in Lodi, California. Our original foundry in Wisconsin shipped off the plates without batting an eye, eager to make the project work for us however they could. But logistics so far have been manageable. We are still quite young as a company — I say "we," and I mean me and the husband — so there is some guesswork on the supply/demand and what items to stock pile, what components to order extra. But we know our lead times and if we ever run out of a product, can give a reasonably accurate estimate on next availability. It's worth the bit of hassle to keep everything here state-side.

"The philosophy behind Housekeeper Crockery, and House Copper, is that I want everything to go back to basics. Our great-grandparents either received heirloom pieces for their kitchens, or bought local… in order to truly re-create that, I couldn't just design reproductions and ship them off to get made by a company I don't know, and have no notion of the provenance of the materials." Sara Dahmen, Housekeeper Crockery

What hurdles did you have to overcome to manufacture in the US?

The biggest hurdles to manufacture here as been finding the right artisans to partner with. For instance, there's only one fabricator that was willing to do the trial-and-error process with us to spin the copper components on the CNC. That's Ohio Metal Fabricating in Dayton, Ohio, and they have been magnificent to work with because they're willing to work with my ideas and will go the extra mile to see if things work. They really take care of me — and I do feel like we're in it together when working on a new idea. When I say I want copper bowls, it's a whole process to what hardness to make the tool to what gauge to spin, and nobody has any answers — we just have to jump in and figure it out as we go.

There are very few people doing the kind of processes I want to do — I think the only thing that is more available is the foundry (Roloff Foundry in Kaukauna, Wis.) —  there are still a lot of foundries in operation. But the guys at Roloff are wonderful. They work very hard to make sure the finished pieces are beautiful cast iron skillets. The tinning of the copper pots — there are literally a handful of people able to do hot forge hand-wiped tin for copper cookware, and the Metal Coating Company in Lima, Ohio is the one we work with. Dan is very much an artist!  And the rivets…don't even get me started on the manhunt for the rivets! Finally found them in tiny Markesan, Wis. at Prairie Rivet. I still remember finally unearthing Bill, and he was like "don't email me — I fax!" and it was very much a handshake type deal. You don't get that much anymore and it's wonderful. But, still a bit of a hunt to find the right people. The coppersmith who makes my handles for the soon-to-be available copper bowls? A random Facebook acquaintance through my apprenticeship to a master tinsmith. Tom is a three-tour Vietnam Vet and he hand-hammers all the handles in copper. I think working with small artisans, who I know I'm able to directly pay and support, is a bit of extra paperwork. But again, worth it!

What is the response from people when you tell them your product is Made in America?

Everyone loves Made in America. The whole notion is certainly uplifting and patriotic. There are those who think of it as a bonus, but they're really only looking at the price tag. And then there are the ones who love that it's made here, and will buy the items no matter what.  However, people do often balk at the price, especially the House Copper, which is probably the hardest sell. Even though the same size pieces can be found for the same price that are imported, people do rear up at bit, which is a shame because they'd be supporting SO many American manufacturers and artisans to buy the wares, plus they'd know exactly how and where it was made. Win-win in my book, but I think I'm an optimist.   

What does the future hold for the company?

We are still developing additional products, especially the House Copper line and some pottery. There's been a lot of interest and requests on making larger cast iron skillets. I hope to be able to hire help as well, and start making some jobs here in my office, and we are hoping to start to get some recognition in the food industry and the organic/pure market, as some of our goods are organic. If that happens, we could start selling more pieces and therefore keep a lot of people busy across the country.

Visit Housekeeper Crockery and House Copper.