Behind the Bar Snap Shot

Inside Tiki Farm, the Biggest Tiki Mug Manufacturer in the World

Lono Tiki mug.

With the second-wave Tiki revival in full swing, Tiki mugs have been elevated from throwaway thrift store finds to eBay gold. What was once a mere Polynesian-themed vessel from which to enjoy a drink is now functional artwork. An industry of carvers and mug manufacturers is growing in force, not just carrying on tradition but elevating it with well-crafted and artistic portable homages to Tiki culture.

“Nobody was doing artist-commissioning mugs for properties in the past,” says Holden Westland, the owner of the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world, Tiki Farm. “They were buying stock designs from Orchids of Hawaii, Otagiri and Daga. So we decided to make it an artistic endeavor versus a vehicle to house a beverage.”

Tiki Farm works with the top artists in the industry, including Crazy Al, Shag and Tiki Diablo. Nowadays, people will line up for limited-edition mugs in the hopes of either adding a coveted design to their collection or selling it for hundreds of dollars. The whimsical cocktail cups have also become a way to mark special occasions, be it the launch of a liquor brand, movie or event.

When Lono, a tropical-themed bar located off Los Angeles’ Hollywood Boulevard, was still merely a sticky note idea in co-owner Austin Melrose’s notebook, he knew a custom Tiki mug of Lono, the Hawaiian god of rainfall and music, was a must. A year and a half before the bar actually opened its doors in 2017, he hooked up with Holden to make that happen.

Initially, legendary carver Ben “Benzart” Davis, who has been carving for 40 years, was slated as the designer for the mug. But he was only able to get as far as the beginning stages of a carving before health issues forced him to bow out. The Lono mug project was stalled for several months, even as the bar opened and celebrated its first anniversary.

Austin and his Umbrella Hospitality Group business partner, Zachary Patterson, were frustrated by their muglessness, but then the Tiki gods smiled down upon them. Holden booked Tom “Thor” Thordarson, another well-known designer responsible for such beloved bar mugs as Death & Co’s Pirate in New York City and Three Dots and a Dash’s Fijian Mermaid in Chicago, as well as the highly sought-after “Magnum P.I.” mug.

But it was during the lag time between carvers that Austin was able to meditate on exactly what he wanted in terms of a design: a statement piece that showcased the god Lono’s prominent headdress that was also an ode to old Hollywood. The cocktail bar, after all, is located down the street from what many consider the birthplace of Tiki, the site of the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant, which was in business from 1933 to 1985.

Lono’s mug would incorporate film reels, clapperboards and a Walk of Fame star. He also wanted it designed so that when a guest held the mug it would feel the same way as when someone holds an Oscar—one hand around its middle and the other securely on the bottom. The idea will no doubt play well on social media.

Finally, the Lono mug is in production, on the cusp of making its Hollywood debut at the bar around November. There will be an initial 1,000 made, and the glaze will be switched up to keep would-be collectors interested. A limited-edition Oscar-inspired gold-glazed mug is planned for awards season.

Below is the story of the Lono mug, from its concept to reality.

Large companies or design-based companies will usually present a style guide if the mug is based on an existing character. But Austin came up with his own design deck, which included desired dimensions and proposed themes and characteristics.

Thordarson is able to take in Austin’s ideas and render a composite using ZBrush, a digital sculpting program. Lono is striking an Oscar pose while holding a shark’s-teeth-edged sword. This version appears chiseled in stone, but the bar owners found that they wanted it to be more tropical and jungle-inspired.

The mug is now designed to look like aged wood, with cracks and a pronounced grain. Long, thick, twisty vines partially obscure the Lono clapperboard and film reels on the back, as if they’ve been sitting there for a hundred years. Instead of a flat rim, a scalloped rim that makes up the point of Lono’s headdress is inspired by old Benihana mugs. “The technicians run it on a sandbelt, so they have to do it by hand,” says Holden. “It’s a little extra work, but it’s more thoughtful.”

A positive 3D version is then printed in resin. It’s used to create a urethane master negative, which is impervious to damage even when dropped. “If you drop your master and ruin it, you’re hosed. But urethane will bounce,” says Holden. “Boing!”

Clay is finally poured into the mold and left to sit. Its sitting time is dependent on the time of year, weather and temperature.

Once the excess clay is poured out, the mug is left out to settle for a certain amount of time, again dependent on weather and temperature.

After the clay becomes stiff and hard—Holden describes it as “a leather jacket that has been calcified so it’s not going to lose any of its shape, deform or sag”—the mold is pulled off in pieces.

The mug that was freshly pulled from the mold is now getting cleaned up.

The clay pour spout is removed.

The mold’s flash, or excess material, is cut away with a straight-edge razor. If it’s an area with heavy detailing, the worker will go back in and add a little bit of detailing that may have been lost.

Once the mug is cleaned up, it’s ready for the bisque (unglazed) initial stage firing, which primes it for glazing. “You don’t want to glaze wet clay, because that would be a disaster,” says Holden. “The bisque is like the canvas.”

The fired bisque mug has been freshly glazed, thus its glossy appearance, which will turn matte after a short period of time. This pink is not the mug’s finished color, which will be a green hue.

The finished mugs are sent back to Tiki Farm HQ for quality assurance and, if approved, will be shipped out to Umbrella Hospitality Group. Lono will throw a party for its debut.