More from our conversation with Mwanzi’s Jermain Todd
Where can we find some of your stuff around town? At 4 Hands Brewery in the tasting room and at Nico. We're going to be redoing the interior for Sweet Art, some new tables and a new counter; we've already done two community tables for them. We're also working on a big project for the new Pi downtown and hoping to do some benches for Sump Coffee. Flaco's Cocina will be opening up a sort of Caribbean/tropical lounge in their basement, and we'll be doing all his tables and possibly some furniture.
How long does it take you to build one piece of furniture? With our current project for Pi, we're doing some pieces using something probably never used in a restaurant before – re-planed shipping-pallet woods that we gathered from around St. Louis. We found about 25 to 30 pallets, prepped the wood, cut it, stained it a red color, jointed it, planed it and made about 42 feet of booth seating with it. You'll see nail holes and saw marks and paint marks and odd text that you'll find on pallets left in there. It adds to the character. Each booth took about a week to make. We do lots of tables – it's sort of our specialty. Another specialty is using locally harvested woods. That means something to people, that the wood came from their area.
How did you get started making furniture? It's been a winding road. I started Mwanzi, which means "bamboo" in Swahili, in 2005 as a distributor of bamboo flooring; it's a rapidly renewable building resource. I eventually got a little bored with that, so I opened up a small showroom and started selling other things. I was selling a lot of bamboo plywood to furniture designers, and one day something clicked and I thought, I can do this, too. Then I learned about sustainable goods made out of sorghum and sunflower husks, and so on. I started fooling around with coffee tables and bookcases. Eventually I got my own tools and a woodshop, and here we are today with our own cabinetry line, our own furniture line, and we do lots of custom furniture, too.
Tell us more about your contributions to the new Pi that just opened downtown. This is by far the largest restaurant project we've ever done. We're doing all 22 of the tables in natural walnut, a premium wood. There are two large community tables made of solid, natural walnut harvested here in St. Louis, four benches, 42 feet worth of booth seating made out of pallet wood, a 14-foot long bench made from pallet wood in the waiting area, and their servers' station. Our wood shop is just four people including me, so it's a big project for us.
Are you working with clients outside of St. Louis? Yeah, but I consciously try to keep as much of our business as I can here in St. Louis, because I think it's really important that cities sustain themselves, and that people seek out locals companies. I'm not interested in taking business away from someone in another city. It's okay if the client can't find what they need in their city, but otherwise I'm kind of against that.
Does Mwanzi have a showroom? We have a 1,300 square-foot showroom where we sell floors, countertops, cabinetry and furniture by appointment only, in Benton Park West at 2757 Wyoming Street.
Why are more and more restaurants turning to companies like yours for local and sustainably sourced wood? I tend to believe that most of these businesses are not of the chain variety; they're local restaurants looking to create a unique quality for their space. I'm more open to all kinds of design and creativity. Companies that are not chains are going to be more inclined to incorporate something local into the space to say something about the community that they live in and service. Reclaimed doors from a warehouse down the street have history and value. At 4 Hands Brewery we made the biggest community table you'll find -- it's about 14 feet by 4 feet. It's made out of the building's original dock door. We painted it, sanded it down, put a glass top on it, and welded a steel base under it. People can say, "that's St. Louis, that's our town." The client communicates that to the customer. And we can do that in every way from flooring to countertops.
What's the weirdest thing you've built furniture with? Everything that we do is strange, because we use extreme ways to get materials. When we collect wood in St. Louis, sometimes it takes 11, 12 weeks for that wood to dry in a local kiln. Recently, the strangest thing is the pallet wood. Sometimes we have materials that come in on trucks, and we keep the pallets, too. (Laughs) We also use a lot of barn wood.
How did you originally gravitate to this kind of work? Without sounding corny, I wanted to do something that mattered. I wanted to do something that I felt contributed something good. If it's sustainable, that means it's going to be around for a long time. We sell hardwood that hasn't been clear-cut from forests; it's culled in such a way that the forest still exists, so that there will continue to be forests. We won't use wood treated with formaldehyde, which contains carcinogens, and you'll still find a lot of that in the industry. Sustainable products, I think, will eventually become the norm, but it takes effort from folks like me and consumers.
Mwanzi, 2757 Wyoming St., St. Louis, 314.200.4123, by appointment only, mwanzi.com