Everything that is on the shelves is all that is left of Pot Luck Ceramics’ supply of Catalonian cookware. The cottage at 4473 Gertrude Street will close at the end of September 2020. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

QUINN’S QUIPS: A poignant farewell to Pot Luck Ceramics

As of Sept. 30 Pot Luck is closing its doors, a victim of COVID-19.

This week is bittersweet for Helma Swinkels. A decade ago, she had a vision that a for-profit business could be formed within a non-profit co-op to help raise regular funds for a charity. Nine years ago, Pot Luck Ceramics opened.

For the past few years the shop’s eclectic volunteer-run cottage has been a fixture on Gertrude Street in Port Alberni. As of Sept. 30 Pot Luck is closing its doors, a victim of COVID-19.

Pot Luck Ceramics raised approximately $130,000 for Ty Watson House Hospice over the years, and executive director Teresa Ludvigson wanted to make sure people understand what that has meant to the people who have worked and lived at the hospice. “We would like to formally recognize and thank them for what they’ve done for us,” Ludvigson said.

This was the core of Pot Luck Ceramics: a way to raise funds for Port Alberni’s unique model of end-of-life care. The enterprise donated a minimum of $10,000 to the hospice every year, sometimes double that, and some years was able to donate to other local charities as well.

The connection with hospice was a personal one for Swinkels, who became involved with Ty Watson House when Lynn Turner was trying to get it off the ground. Swinkels trained as a dietitian, so was put in charge of setting up the kitchen. “Ty Watson House is a home, and every home has a kitchen,” she has said in the past.

“The kitchen is the heart of the house.”

If the kitchen was the heart of Ty Watson House, Swinkels was the heart of Pot Luck Ceramics. She helped gather a strong core of volunteers who kept Pot Luck operating, never losing sight of their goal. When COVID-19 hit, and Swinkels realized the store would not survive the pandemic, she sent all the volunteers home to keep them safe. She has spent the past month making appointments with customers to try and sell as much of the leftover inventory as possible.

While thousands of us can boast that we got colourful, solid ceramic dishes out of the Pot Luck cottage experience, Swinkels said she got so much more out of the enterprise. So many memories it was difficult for her to single out any one.

“One of the best things is Pot Luck gave me my best friend, who turned out to be the woman I set up the co-op with,” she said. That would be Val Startup. Swinkels said she knew they would be an awesome team when she met Val, and that setting up the co-op was made easier because of her talent and enthusiasm.

The co-op was nominated for a Prime Minister’s Volunteer Award in 2013, and won numerous other accolades over the years for its unique setup.

The volunteers are another key aspect of the enterprise for Swinkels. “Seeing volunteers and the community come together and unite in something everybody thought was unique, that was tons of fun—the enthusiasm of the volunteers and the customers.”

The early days of Pot Luck Ceramics were spent in a barn on Swinkels’ property. Her husband moved his boat out of the barn and converted it to storage and display space for the pallets full of items that would arrive by barge from Catalonia. Swinkels travelled to the region in northeastern Spain and forged relationships with the owners of small, family-run factories that made ceramics—some of them exclusively for Pot Luck.

A heated seating area was set up at the back of Swinkels’ barn, there was often warm cider available in winter and the barn was always tastefully decorated for the season. It offered an experience for shoppers and volunteers too. When it snowed, it was magical.

The co-op started the tradition of a spring picnic for volunteers that turned into Taste of Tapas, an event that demonstrated how to cook with Pot Luck’s ceramic products. The monthly newsletter often featured Catalonian or other dishes that volunteers created in their own kitchens.

Pot Luck was meaningful to a lot of people, and its closing will leave a hole in the community. If I know Helma Swinkels and her core of volunteers though, we haven’t seen the last of their ingenuity.

Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor and owns a cupboard full of Pot Luck Ceramics’ cookware.

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Bowls and plate of all sizes from Pot Luck Ceramics. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

The snack-sized bowls were always a popular seller, Pot Luck Ceramics’ co-founder Helma Swinkels said. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

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