This week, sleek cookware brand Great Jones joined a long list of startups accused of hiding a toxic, harmful, and unsustainable work environment behind color-coordinated Instagram posts and pastel products. In a deep dive for Insider, reporter Anna Silman explored the behind-the-scenes drama that led co-founder Sierra Tishgart to apparently oust her business partner and longtime friend, Maddy Moelis, prompting all four of the company's full-time employees to quit on the same day. The exposé is full of shocking, occasionally disturbing tidbits; among other allegations, former staffers say Tishgart forced them to sit in uncomfortable, stylish chairs and pushed the company's one Black employee to discuss her feelings surrounding June 2020's Black Lives Matter protests. (A spokesperson requested a lengthy statement be published in full regarding this last incident. We’ve included it in the bottom of this article.)
“Managing people is not always easy and Sierra has learned a lot from that very difficult time. She wishes the former employees well. And she works hard every day at being the best leader possible. Today, the company is posting its best results ever and the team’s morale is strong,” a company spokesperson tells Refinery29.
But at the heart of the article (and Tishgart's reported feud with Moelis) is the underlying question of whether Great Jones is selling high-quality cookware, or just a misleading, aesthetically pleasing image. And if that image — of a cozy, colorful community — belies the toxic, messy truth, are people still going to buy these products?
According to Silman's story, Moelis and Tishgart co-founded Great Jones because they saw a lack of cute, affordable cookware geared towards millennial home chefs. Great Jones' products aren't cheap, per se, and the average person probably does not need to spend $75 on a casserole dish. But compared to their similarly chic, photogenic competitors, Great Jones' items are cute and affordable. The company's best-selling, cast-iron Dutchess costs $155, while a Le Creuset Dutch oven of the same size is almost double that price. Other products, including twee pie pans and baking sheets, are similarly cost-effective. Our Place's Always Pan, another Instagram favorite, is $145, and Great Jones' similar Deep Cut skillet is just $85.
Refinery29 spoke with several chefs and home cooks — all of whom engaged with Great Jones on Instagram — to gauge their reactions and learn how this brand got so popular in the first place. "I found Great Jones when I was looking for alternatives to Le Creuset Dutch ovens," Kari H. says. "I absolutely love Le Creuset and have used my mom's collection for years, but Great Jones stood out to me as a lower cost, high-quality alternative." Kari has made soups, pastas, and even sourdough bread in her Great Jones Dutch oven, and it still looks "brand new." Plus, it doesn't hurt that it's pretty: "I keep it displayed on my stovetop and always get lots of compliments on it when I have people over," she adds.
Another chef, Sophie London, also appreciated Great Jones' price point. "I wanted something heavy-duty, but I didn't want to pay hundreds for a Le Creuset," she says. She's found Great Jones' products to be equally "gorgeous and utilitarian," and, overall, satisfying. "I'm always amazed at how the surface deglazes stuck-on food, and it heats up very evenly. And the fact that it's dishwasher-safe makes me love it even more."
Like many others, Sophie came to Great Jones through Instagram; she saw colorful ads and collaborations with beloved chefs and food editors like Claire Saffitz and Molly Baz. The company has a presence on the app, and Tishgart, too, has positioned herself as the social media-savvy, fashionable face of the brand.
In the vein of other trendy startups with cool, now-controversial founders (see: Away luggage and The Wing), Great Jones doesn't just sell a product but also entrance into a community. Tishgart told Fast Company in 2019 that Instagram helps her identify "our strongest customers, people who we've then interviewed and invited to our events and are great people to learn from." The company regularly praises and reshares users' culinary creations. Sometimes, even Tishgart herself pops into the comment section. Former employees expressed concern that Tishgart prioritized branding over product quality, but would anyone purchase these pans in the first place if they were marketed differently? If Instagram didn't exist?
The answer is, probably not. Tishgart herself told Fast Company that the majority of customers find Great Jones through social media. "If it's not happening on Instagram, it doesn't exist in our universe," she said at the time. "[Instagram] hasn't changed how we do business — it's how we do business."
In a thoughtful response to Silman's story, Defector's Alberto Burneko asks if Great Jones can even be considered a cookware company. Tishgart's job, after all, isn't to manufacture or even sell pots and pans: Her job is to recruit "some other, less glamorous company, one likely without a slick social media presence" to create Great Jones' products, brand them, and then profit.
"It's very probable that no one in the direct employ of Great Jones even so much as touches or even sees the overwhelming majority of the goods off whose transfer from the people who made them to the people who used them to cook roast chickens its founders profited and grew famous," Burneko writes.
When it comes to appearances, very few people are disappointed: In conversation with Refinery29, customers described their Great Jones products as "very pretty," "gorgeous," and "Instagram-ready." Dissatisfied buyers are more likely to argue that the company is slow to ship orders, or that the products break in transit. (A Great Jones spokesperson said that items broken in transit are always replaced, and slow shipments were often a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
But if Great Jones is mostly selling a brand, that's what people are mostly purchasing, too. And like many other "disruptive" companies with controversial founders and dicey allegations (WeWork! Outdoor Voices! Once again, Away luggage!), Great Jones might have a harder time selling that brand now. Sophie, for one, tells Refinery29 that the the article was "disappointing," and although she still loves her Dutch oven, she "likely won't be making future purchases from them."
Still, despite losing nearly its entire staff, Great Jones reported its best quarter to date at the end of 2020. A representative told Lifehacker that the company also expects a 100% revenue increase in 2021. As long as there's a need for accessible, affordable cookware and as long as bright colors and matte finishes are in style, the taffy pink Dutch ovens and sheet pans might persevere.
"I bought the sheet pan for three reasons: it looks pretty, I am easily influenced, and it's not supposed to warp," home cook Cassidy Rose tells Refinery29. Unfortunately, she found that Great Jones' sheet pan did "warp a little," but not as much as other pans she's used in the past. But regarding that first reason, the pan didn't disappoint. "Aesthetics, eleven out of ten. Function, seven out of ten," Cassidy says. "Durability — check back with me in a few months."
In response to the allegations of a Black employee being asked to share their feelings on the BLM movement, a spokesperson also asked for the following statement to be published in full: “Sierra initiated a discussion on how the company should address the challenges of social justice. She asked how everyone was feeling, and a Black employee shared that she preferred to focus on business actions, not personal feelings. Sierra agreed, and the company worked to post a statement about Black Lives Matter on its website, make major donations to three separate organizations, and create a database of Black-authored recipes and cookbooks. Conversations around social justice are often uncomfortable and Sierra recognized this. As a society, it is important that all of us – individuals and corporations – confront injustice and forge a more equitable future. Sierra followed up with the employees after this conversation, and continued to work with the team in creating a strategic plan to support Black Lives Matter. Today, the work continues a year later and Great Jones has retained a DEI firm, Change Cadet, to support its continued efforts.”