A light that never goes out

Ritual clay company does things its own way in high falls; photos by Elijah Goldberg
Photo by Elijah Goldberg

If there is one thing that Sara Kozak of Ritual Clay Company is good at, it’s subverting expectations.When she announced that she would be opening a brick-and-mortar location for her small pottery business in Rochester’s historic High Falls area, I was surprised but eager to see what she was working on.

“I knew that I wanted to do more direct sales to people that would actually be using my pottery instead of going through other people.” Kozak told me when I met with her in her 234 Mill Street location.

In order to understand the storefront pivot for Ritual Clay Company, you need to hear the whole story. Ritual Clay began as the Potter and Woodsmith in Kozak’s little farmhouse on the Finger Lakes with just a $75 kiln she found on Craigslist and the longing to return to her pottery practice. After finding success selling in markets and teaching classes in Rochester, she landed a wholesale contract with aesthetic lifestyle juggernaut Anthropologie.

“It was this trial by fire where I was figuring everything out as I went along. I was trying to pull skills from all the different hats you have to wear as a small business owner unexpectedly when it happened. But it was such a cool opportunity, I had to take it.” While the Anthropologie deal dispelled any doubts about Ritual Clay’s prosperity as a brand, it also clarified the things that Kozak desired most in her business.“I realized that the connection of see- ing people with my work was the core of what had meaning to it for me. I knew that I wanted to do more direct sales to people that would actually be using my pottery instead of going through other people.”

While pivoting from small pottery artist to curated storefront and maker space wasn’t my nosy idea of what would be the presumed next step, when you connect the dots, it was truly the only way to continue with the success of Ritual Clay Company.

Kozak found a beautiful spot in High Falls that she recalls feel- ing like exactly the right place as soon as she parked her car. The landlords were incredible and artists themselves, the area was picturesque and historic, and the space came together quickly into a dreamy little gift store right at the mouth of the Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge. Ritual Clay Company was ready to show Rochester what it had to offer and opened their doors for business on February 22, 2020.

Yup. You read that right. Ritual Clay Co. opened its storefront two weeks before New York State shut down completely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[COVID] made me have to adapt really fast.The ability to adapt has only strengthened us and our ability to kind of navigate everything moving forward. Our first holiday season was basically curb- side for December. And then we realized, while this space is quite small for wrapping packages, people were lining up at the doors; everybody was so supportive.”

As Kozak and I discussed the immediate gut punch of opening a business on the precipice of a pandemic, a customer comes in holding an empty candle jar. Megan, a member of the collective of artists that call Ritual Clay their home, stands up from the table we’re all sitting at to help give the candle new life. One of the innovative ways that Ritual Clay has set itself apart has been by offering refills for its in-house brand of candles. There’s nothing sharper than the double-edged sword of wanting to burn a well-loved candle but also not wanting to burn it down to nothing.

Kozak branched out from a pottery-focused practice when she realized that her interests were less about the medium and more about the concept of building rituals in one’s everyday life. She expanded first to candles in her handmade vessels and then to apothecary goods. Now the storefront is densely filled with objects that allow its customers to invite beauty into their lives by forging their own everyday rituals.Whether this is lighting a candle, taking a luxurious bath, journaling, or sipping out of a handmade mug, Ritual Clay encourages you to find more small joys in your day. “We deliberately make them in a way where we’re putting intention into each candle. So many people that come in, and certain milestones in their life are represented with the candles that we make.Whether it’s the loss or remembrance of a loved one, a really exciting time in their life that they want positive energy for, or they’re trying to bring in abundance in their life, they come to us for not just a candle but more of an experience. They know the people that made it made it knowing somebody was going to light that candle for a specific reason. It’s the same thing with the pottery; we’re making it and putting it through these processes of high heat, this high temperature, in order to bring it out the other side for something that means something to somebody; it’s not just pulled off a shelf or mass-manufactured.”

Nearly a year after opening the storefront on Mill Street, Ritual Clay Company expanded to a larger location on Brown’s Race while keeping the original location as a studio and manufacturing site. Learning not only to survive during the pandemic but thrive enticed the team to search for more space. Recently Kozak shared a post on Ritual Clay’s social media that they were stepping back to just the Mill Street location. Traditionally when a business announces that they are consolidating it is seen as a sign that they are struggling or something is amiss: expanding means business is good, and consolidating means business is in trouble. Kozak concisely explains why the contrary was true for her business.

“There was a disconnect between people who didn’t realize how much of what was over there was what we made. Merging them back together brings the emphasis back on the fact that the people you are buying it from are also the people who are making the products. It’s a lot easier when you’re seeing it firsthand.”

Kozak coyly hinted to me that there was something in the works at their former location at Brown’s Race. “It felt like a disservice to the community to have two buildings when what’s available for certain businesses is kind of narrow [in the High Falls area]. It’s going to be nice to be able to, hopefully, give different things for people to do instead of two buildings that are for us. My goal now is to have a smaller building where I can reach out into the community and be like, ‘hey, we need this down here.We need that down here.’What can we bring down here and what are people asking for?”

Shortly after I spoke with Kozak, Hayden Welch of Hinterland Tattoo Studio released a statement that the business planned to move out of its cramped office space on Monroe Avenue and into the former Ritual Clay location.

Kozak and her team of creative makers refuse to comply with the expectations of a business in the rat race of today’s consumer-driven society. They will open a storefront when online shopping is taking over, flourish during a pandemic, and make space for other businesses instead of grabbing for more territory. Ritual Clay Company is the kind of place that not only supports local artists by carrying their work in-store but is eager to enrich the community it’s made home by encouraging more businesses to have a seat at the table. In a world where we are constantly barraged by screaming voices begging us to buy, Ritual Clay Company encourages you to light a candle, have a sip of tea, and sit quietly with your own thoughts. 


Learn more at ritualclayco.com

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