Local Artisan Finds Raw Beauty In Concrete

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In the three years since completing his masters degree in product design at Edinburgh Napier University, Litchfield native Scott Durbin returned to Montgomery County, got married, accepted a position as art teacher at his alma mater, Litchfield High School, and is now in the early stages of launching his newest venture, Cafe Beton, a small business dedicated to making concrete goods for the home.

“I have always been kind of a hobby craftsman. I grew up on a farm and spent a lot of my childhood working with my hands,” Durbin explained. “The idea of working with concrete has been an ongoing fascination as well, so when I went into my thesis, for my masters degree, I knew that I wanted to focus on creating with concrete. I started looking at non-conventional applications for concrete. At that time, I wasn’t really thinking about how to profit from my work, but, like most Americans, I do have a very capitalist mind-set, so I am sure that the idea of Cafe Beton was forming even then. It wasn’t until the degree show, where everyone showcased their masters projects, and I ended up winning Best in Show that I realized people might really be interested in my products.”

Durbin, assisted by his wife, Chloe, has converted the basement of their home in Hillsboro, into a workshop where the couple has spent much of the last year perfecting the process Durbin initially developed in graduate school. Funnily enough, the first products Cafe Beton has officially launched, concrete cups, were the result of Durbin having a limited work space.   

“When I was in school, I needed to make small pieces because I didn’t have a lot of space to pour really big items. Plus, I love coffee, so cups seemed like the perfect fit. I have always viewed concrete as being ruggedly beautiful but, in general, concrete has a connotation of being a really brutal, cold material. I was really drawn to the idea of taking this non-traditional material and not only utilizing it in a different way and making it more approachable to a broader audience, but making it aesthetically appealing as well. I hadn’t seen concrete used in this way before but I knew that I could do it, so I just dove in head first.”

Easier thought than done, Durbin has found himself continuously refining his technique since he first began working with concrete and is understandably proprietary about his process.

“Chloe is the only other person that knows the process and she can probably do it as well as I can at this point. Her degree is in French and international business administration but she got roped into helping with Cafe Beton, whether she liked it or not, when she married me,” said Durbin with an impish laugh. “I definitely needed the help, and she is a huge asset to me and the business.”

After Durbin creates the mold for the said product, the couple pours the raw concrete and allows it to sit and cure for several days. Then they sand and seal the items. After a lot of trial and error, and years of research, they have found a food and drink safe sealant that holds up under temperatures of extreme heat. Durbin states that they can generally turn a cup around in three to four days and that they usually pour five to six cups at a time. The concrete is dyed while wet, which Durbin feels gives the finished products a more uniform look.

Cafe Beton quietly released a limited amount of their cups in the fall of 2018, when the Durbins did a brief stint at the Litchfield Pickers Markets. More recently, they partnered with Black Rabbit in Hillsboro to sell their cups as a Christmas time promotion.  

“The shipment we had at Black Rabbit was the first time our products have been displayed in a storefront and the first time that we have put them out there and actively promoted Cafe Beton. We have known Isaac and Bailey (Reynolds) for a while and have chatted with them about getting Cafe Beton off the ground, so when we finally got to the point of being ready to launch our cups they offered to help,” Durbin explained. “It was a really cool feeling to see them displayed in a store after all this time. And they have been flying off the shelves, which is even more exciting for us. Chloe and I are just extremely grateful to Isaac and Bailey for helping us out.”

Cafe Beton’s concrete cups and saucers are currently the only product available for purchase at the moment but the Durbins are busy behind the scene developing a much larger product line. They are working to expand into offering different styles of the popular mugs and have two different designs currently in the testing stage of production. Durbin is also playing around with incorporating copper and steel into his concrete-based products to develop a line of whiskey tumblers. In addition to drinkware, Cafe Beton plans to eventually launch a line of concrete subway tiles to be used as back splashes.

“Our concrete cups are the only product available for purchase right now. When I started a couple of my mentors warned me against trying to launch too many products at once. They emphasized finding one or two products and doing them really well. So, while Chloe and I are in the workshop dabbling, and have plans to release a wide array of home-goods items in the future, drinkware is going to remain Cafe Beton’s sole focus for the time being.”

While Cafe Beton is focused on producing stylish, durable products, sustainability is just as important to Durbin’s creative process. 

“The planet is changing and not necessarily for the better in terms of the climate, so I personally feel like it’s our responsibility, as a small business, to do our part to make sure our products are as environmentally conscientious as possible, especially because we are working with concrete, which is a very carbon and energy intensive product,” said Durbin.”

One way Cafe Beton is working to make their products more sustainable is by using reclaimed aggregates, particularly reclaimed pieces of their own products.

“Everything about starting a small business is a learning curve and one of the things we have recently started doing is to ask customers to send back broken items so that we can reuse them. For example, if someone drops their cup we ask that they send the pieces back to us so that we can use them to create new products. We offer a discount, on the next purchase, to anyone who sends their broken items back to us, as a way to promote this initiative.”

Durbin has his hands full trying to juggle the semantics of establishing a small business, creating and marketing merchandise, and managing his full-time job as an educator, but he hopes to see his items  for sale at area businesses in the near future. Currently, Black Rabbit is the only place Cafe Beton’s items are available for purchase.

For more information on their concrete home goods follow the Cafe Beton page on Facebook. A website is currently in development.    

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