Meet Sara Dahmen: Copper Mom

To describe Sara Dahmen as a woman who can do it all–is the understatement of the century.

In fact, one of the many things she does is inspired by a century old craft of metalsmithing to create uniquely beautiful kitchenware in tin, copper and iron. We met Sara at this year’s International Home + Housewares Show where she debuted her modern cookware line, House Copper & Housekeeper Crockery: American-made cookware created with pure and organic materials. On the busy show floor at McCormick Place in Chicago, Sara’s stunning vintage designs, signature plaited braids and Wisconsin affability impressed potential partners and generated media interest.

It was her debut, prizewinning novel, Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper set in a mid-1800’s fictional town, Flats Junction in the Dakota Territories that inspired her business and set her on this most unique path as a custom, housewares manufacturer. When she’s not writing, hitting tin and copper at her apprenticeship with a master-smith, or sewing clothing for her family’s 1830’s reenactment encampments, she’s organizing the lives of her three young children, William, 6, Hannah, 4, and Jack, 2.

Sara is regularly published in magazines and blogs. She has spoken at TEDx Rapid City, and presents at writer conferences. Prior to her writing gigs, Sara was a print, radio and TV producer in Milwaukee before owning and operating a nationally award-winning event planning company for ten years.

I caught up with Sara from her Port Washington, Wisconsin home after another breathless, busy day. Here’s how Sara manages it all while making her dreams real.

Where does your passion for this old American value of metalsmithing come from?

I suppose it comes from an honest desire to be connected to my roots. Knowledge is power and I like knowing where my cookware comes from! Everyone cares about where their food comes from and that should extend to what they cook in.

Old school practical knowledge has been ignored and is lacking in most homes and I’ve always had a drive to preserve that.

What was the moment where you saw this passion as a business opportunity?

I didn’t expect this to be my soapbox when I started! I really just wanted to make pure metal American cookware available to the public in a way it has not been available in the last 50 years. I wanted it to be historic — using very American designs from 200 years ago. I set out to truly replicate what the smiths produced for pioneer kitchens. I wanted the quality of old school production — made to last. I want to shift from a throwaway society — and I want my kids to understand it, too.

Where to you get the energy to pursue this ambitious path?

I was raised Polish, where you get up, you work and off you go!

How does your metal cookware manufacturing tie into you work as an author?

I was intrigued with the idea that when a pioneer woman needed a skillet she just walked to the blacksmith. I want to replicate that experience for home cooks today and to give the consumer that same sense of ownership. Those pioneer women did not take that new skillet for granted!

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs with a passion or a spark of an idea?

Get over any paralysis that comes from the fear of showing you know nothing and want to learn more. One day I just set my mind to it — got the URL and the LLC and began my research of metals in phone call after cold call. I was honest about my limited knowledge and quite frankly asked these artisans to share their own. By being so humble — and bold — I was able to learn above and beyond what I ever hoped and turn it into success.

Any special advice for those moms with the next big idea?

The advice I would give specifically to moms who are looking to go entrepreneurial: Be completely aware of who you are because it will help steer the decisions. You will say yes to the right things and no to the wrong things. The trick I swear by is to make an incredibly detailed list for every single day — and I won’t go to bed until it’s done! I do the same with my children and they enjoy the regimen. Being productive requires an intensely organized day and follow-through is a big success factor!

Is there a mentor relationship that made the difference?

I happened upon Mac Kohler — the owner of Brooklyn Copper Cookware when he was in the building phase and he opened up his mind and resources and became my mentor. Even as competitors we collaborated and shared the information we each found to fulfill our dream of making copper cookware.

Has your work become a family affair?

I believe in involving my kids in every piece of this journey. They come along to my apprenticeship in the shop, where I set them to folding metal over tools from the 1700’s or other tasks. The same thing goes when they see me work on prototypes or talk to fabricators. I get great satisfaction watching them learn and grasp the process. I believe in a family business mentality where everyone gets thrown into it.

Do you have a parenting philosophy?

I don’t believe you should pander to kids. They thrive when they are a part of our lives where we show real passion and interest. 60 years ago big farming families had full participation and everyone grew up with practical knowledge that bettered their lives. That is lost now — so it’s important to me to share my world because I think it helps my kids and makes them better people.

You make it seem so practical and easy — juggling all of these pursuits while raising 3 busy kids!

Believe me, there are sacrifices: sleep, leisure time and the ability to do everything 24-7and enjoy it. There are times where I have to tell the kids to chill because Mom’s on a deadline. There’s guilt with that of course, but I know I am doing the right thing for them — and my business. At the same time, being a mother forces me to chill, slow down and smell the roses with my kids.

How did you make the commitment to go the Housewares show?

For me the networking was the foremost motivator. I am a firm believer in networking. It pays in spades even if it takes a year to come to fruition. The opportunity to connect with small boutique owners was the best and things have carried on since the show. I went in with high hopes and there is no reason I wouldn’t do it again.

What’s the advantage of being from Wisconsin?

Wisconsin is one of the foremost leaders in organic food and farming. It’s also really industrial. I can source what I need as a manufacturer right here. The flip side is that I’m not on either of the coasts and getting recognition in the press is difficult so I have to work five times harder — fighting the “backwater” view of Wisconsin.

Where do see yourself in 5-10 years?

As I am multifaceted — so in a perfect world all my books would be made into TV series. I could also imagine some unscripted work in my future — some sort of reality TV showing life in this end of the world! And, of course, I would like my cookware to be more mainstream — that copper would be a bigger piece of the kitchen landscape.

Would you let cameras into your family life?

Yes, if it were to share useable practical knowledge that would better lives. Ever since I was young my mother and grandmothers — one was 1st generation American — taught me a lot of “vintage tricks” before they were called hacks. I am thankful that this knowledge is cool again. My husband and I laugh — well sort of — that if our society died our family could probably survive in the wild if we needed. I want my kids to know that, too!

Are you looking forward to a special Mother’s Day?

I’m getting some attachments for my early 1800’s beading machine for vintage copper detail and my blacksmith uncle is handing off special stomp shears and bar folders for tinsmithing! Otherwise I look forward to hanging with my kids and hubby. So, that’s my idea of a perfect Mother’s Day: family and tools!