Meet Kate Slavin, The Co-Creator Of Your Favourite Cast-Iron Cookware
The savvy entrepreneur behind Ironclad Pan shares how her ‘friends and family’ business is a feel-good enterprise
Ironclad, our very own made-in-New Zealand cast iron cookware, has asserted itself on the cooking, design and environmental scene and, with a three-generation guarantee, it ain’t going anywhere.
More modest in her ways is co-creator Kate Slavin who refers to herself as a full-time mum. “My husband Levi is the one with the full-on job, he supports me amazingly well, and I feel very privileged.”
Although she’s struggling to find the joy in homeschooling her 8 and 5-year-old boys through lockdown. “I’ve given up,” she sighs. “Everyone is more relaxed when we are outdoors walking or riding the bikes, so I have gone back to keeping everyone happy rather than educated.”
Those lost hours when the boys were at school was Kate’s time to work on Cottonwood Studio — the one-woman graphic design company that has also suffered neglect since starting the Ironclad Pan business two years ago.
It’s a juggle, and she laughs that she has no idea how she ended up here. “I wanted to be a painter!”
The crossroads came after high school when she couldn’t decide whether to do fine arts at Elam or head to Design School in Wellington. “My father said, ‘Go study design because you already know how to paint’ — he was really meaning you’re more likely to get a career.”
She doesn’t regret the design school decision, working at top advertising agencies in New Zealand, London and New York for big-name clients, which won her awards; and she has continued to paint and exhibit, but there is that small matter of time.
Kate’s family used to own a restaurant, where she was manager at a young age and, having worked in other restaurants throughout her studies, she ponders whether it was this understanding of hospitality and hanging out with chefs that led to Ironclad. Retrospectively, she says that it probably is, but cookware wasn’t the intention.
“Levi (who is also an advertising creative) and I had been talking about creating something. I guess because design is such a service-based industry, creating a brand and story around a product of our own was really appealing.”
It did start in the kitchen though, where the couple were talking with a friend who was enthusiastic about his friend’s bike pump creation.
“We agreed that this was the sort of product that was cool to build a brand around,” says Kate. “We started talking about what our object could be and, as I was using a cast iron pan that was handed down to us, I had that ‘what about one of these!’ moment. We instantly got excited about telling an awesome story of how cast iron pans last forever and get handed down through the family. There’s real value in that.”
Son Arlo was their next consideration. The product had to be okay with their little eco warrior, and the pans’ forever qualities had the environmentally friendly box ticked.
“We couldn’t make something that he wasn’t okay with,” says Kate. He’s a real watchdog, always keeping us in check. The other day he questioned why I would buy hummus in a plastic container when I could make it myself. I’m like, ‘sigh, can you make it?’” She says that they are doing their best to eliminate plastic and waste.
The expertise of Kate, Levi and third partner Joe Carter, meant that the Ironclad Pan Company had low start-up costs. Kate did all the product design, learning 3D drawing along the way.
Levi came up with the name and worked with Kate on the design and brand story, and Joe got Ironclad out to the people. Kate credits Joe, who has recently quit his job to work on Ironclad full time, with doing the lion’s share of the work.
“It’s still a labour of love, we don’t pay ourselves,” Kate laughs. “We hope to once we’ve figured out supply issues. We have demand, but there is only one foundry in New Zealand that was prepared to work with us — they were already at capacity and have to work overtime to meet our demand, which we need to double. I don’t think they thought it would get to this stage and were almost humouring me when I first met them, but we are so grateful to them.”
Kate’s also thankful that her brother-in-law has picked up the accounting side of the business and her good friend Felicity Morgan-Rhind, the recipe creation, styling and photography.
“Much of Ironclad is friends and family,” she says. “Morgan-Rhind was our Covid silver lining. She's an ex-chef who agreed to work with us in her spare time, but when her film-directing work was paused through the first lockdown we got her full time. She now balances her day job with creating a recipe each week to inspire our fans and we benefit from her incredible cooking and film director's eye.”
Through Felicity they got pans to Peter Gordon (who she used to work for in London), who has been an advocate from day one, as have a number of our best chefs — many approaching them directly and endorsing the product off their own bat.
“It blows me away,” says Kate. “We are not paying people to do this, and the Ironclad family (when you buy a pan you become part of the ‘family’) are the same — sharing their foodie creations on Instagram. They genuinely love their pans and are really invested.”
The money this sort of publicity costs is not lost on Kate, who says it’s not about the money, it’s about the “thing”.
“There are real health benefits to cooking in cast iron and it doesn’t mess up the environment like Teflon does. It might not be particularly business savvy to create a product that people are never going to replace so I guess we’re in it for the feel-good factor.”
There are expansion plans. The Australians are also enthusiasts, and the team are looking into having pans manufactured there to support local businesses and keep the carbon footprint in check.
Kate hopes that this will come with that “tipping point” where they can afford to pay others to carry more of the load and give her back time to paint and be a mum.
“They’ll probably be teenagers by then,” she laughs. “That will be more stressful than homeschooling.”