Thinking Outside the Pot

Business owner regrows a company with visions of minnow buckets and mason jars.

Some of the best ideas are generated from a day at the lake, not in the boardroom. In 2006, after owning a successful plastic fabricating company for 20 years, Edina resident Kurt Kuno purchased Terra Products, a garden pottery wholesale import distribution business in Lakeville. He was attracted to the interesting niche of the products, and he saw some fun things he could do with it. The company was buying from eight countries, sourcing their own product lines for garden centers and landscape designers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

Then the economic downturn sank the housing market and dragged the garden and landscape industry down with it. “Before I could fully learn the business, the great recession was upon us and I found myself in unchartered territory,” Kuno says. The precariousness curtailed spending for high-end garden pottery. “Almost half of our customers went out of business and the remaining ones reduced their purchasing. The market shrunk, and our largest supplier overseas went out of business,” he says.
The industry was dependent on foreign sources to develop product for Kuno’s markets. The process bothered him. Suppliers cut back on their product development, and he wanted to help his wholesale customers stand out.
That’s when he went to the lake with his wife Linda.

“I was fishing with my wife and I wasn’t catching anything, but I was looking at this minnow bucket, and I thought, people kind of like these minnow buckets, and there’s a history to them and it’s a shape not unlike a planter,” he says. He had a hunch. “I just thought, I wonder if we could make this. An updated minnow bucket as a functional planter,” Kuno says with a clever smile.
His daughter Kelsey sketched it, and he gave it to his suppliers. He quickly learned rendering a fish is difficult. “After a lot of iteration, a lot of drawings and back and forth, and fish that came back looking like Asian carp, we finally we got what was the start of the fishing collection,” he says. The minnow bucket evolved into a tackle box and next came the sinker.

Kuno’s next inspiration came from a vintage milk bottle, which evolved into a dairy collection including the churn and bowl. After dairy planters came turn-of-the-century seed packages. “I thought, the garden centers, the seed … I thought our customers would relate to that. So we designed our own retro seed packet planter, and you can see,” he says, sliding the corn seed planter on the shelf. “Do you think this sells in Iowa?” He chuckles.
With the help of a focus group consisting of his daughters Kelsey and Erika, wife Linda, and employees, Kuno has expanded the company’s product lines since retailers started carrying his proprietary designs three years ago. He continues connecting products to people’s emotions, present lifestyle and history.

“I saw Kelsey’s fascination with Mason jars and I just thought, well, why couldn’t we make a giant one and make a real planter and put some really good art on it?” he says.

That’s where they started—the minnow bucket, Mason jar, seed packets and dairy. But at first, he still wasn’t sure if people would get it.

“We took them to a trade show along with our standard products, and customers stopped in their tracks when they saw these,” he says. “We had all our products, and they’d just go right to these.” Kuno gives his customers products they will never see in a big box store by using his intellectual effort to create them.

Terra Products has developed a following. “Our customers love the array of new products we are developing each year. Many customers tell us we are the first exhibit they go to at trade events,” says Annette Meester, customer service manager.

Kuno likes dealers’ stories about how products sell as they are taking them off the truck. “That’s what’s really fun. To hear about people who really bond with a product. That’s been the most satisfying thing I’ve done in 30 years of business is connecting like that,” he says.

His fruit basket planters transpired from the charm of fruit stands. “Why can’t we enlarge that 50 times and make a cool one and have some fun? So we did,” he says about the four themed fruit basket planters made with a unique glaze only their source in Vietnam can do. For the most complex, rustic designs, Kuno hires a factory and sculptor in Vietnam, including his early designs plus crocks, cider jars, trunks, farmhouse basin and bathtub with pedestal feet, wine series, birdhouse and hatboxes.
Besides his family, Kuno had employees to think about when the economy plummeted. “They’ve been really important. They stuck with us through difficult years, and they encouraged me. They act like owners. They are as excited as I am when new products come in,” he says.
“We have always worked as a very close-knit group and have been fortunate to have many great customer relationships. While the future appeared very uncertain, we felt that by banding together we could somehow create a new path forward,” says Meester.

What’s on Kuno’s drawing board for 2019? “Mixed media,” he says smiling. “We’re combining clay, metal and wood.” Watch for his vintage 24-chick capacity chicken feeder, Lucky’s Horse feed bag, Sundance Stables watering pail and tractor tire planters.

“I’ve had my lowest moments here. I’ve also had my best moments. I have no regrets,” Kuno says before taking a deep breath. “I feel like I was made to do this—what I’m doing now. They always say, what would you do if you weren’t paid anything and I tell people I’m already there.”

With Kuno’s never-ending scouring eye and his quirky attitude, there appears to be no limits for this distinctive garden pottery designer.

Terra Products are available in all 50 states. Purchase locally at Dundee Nursery, Plymouth; Lilydale Garden Center, Lilydale; 101 Market, Otsego; Terra Garden Center, Lakeville; and Cal’s Market, Bloomington. View at the website here.  

Whether you prefer flowers or herbs, these custom planters add a unique touch to your outdoor space.