Think Willy Wonka no longer. So long to the flamboyant machinery, the spray-tanned oompa loompas, the bratty children, the kitsch-laden factory and the orderly trucks pulling away for mass distribution. Instead, envision billowing russet beards, stylish horn-rimmed glasses, deep blue eyes, butcher wrapping paper – little kinks, smooth wooden counters, old world maps, and sailing ships. Meet the Mast Brothers. The two dashingly handsome siblings seem to have been cut and pasted out of a Wes Anderson movie, and yet their story is as real, tangible and as accomplished as the chocolate they make.
“I think [our chocolate] conveys that we don’t take anything for granted, we question everything we do, from the ingredients we’re using to how we’re wrapping our bars,” says Michael. The chocolate is organic, the process is hand-crafted, and it combines the honeric with a mission impossible bad-assness which is, quite frankly, pretty sweet (forgive the pun), from start to finish. Sweet though it may seem, the meticulous process that turns cocoa bean into a “Serrano Peppers”, “Stumptown Coffee” or “Fleur de Sel” bar, according to Rick, is sending out the message that “chocolate is food – not candy”.
The incredible appeal of their produce, dubbed “cacao like caviar” by Crain’s New York Business, has led to an expansion from the Mast’s originally tiny Brooklyn store. Their chocolate is now sold in one hundred and twenty stores and restaurants, and there is a waiting list of a whopping 1,500 anxiously awaiting worldwide businesses. But the brothers prefer to keep things local: “as opposed to the goal being consistency and mass distribution, we’re looking, in a way, for an inconsistent product, so your taste buds are not only enjoying the sensuality of it, but your brain is learning something while you eat it.”
The business combines a serious work ethic with a “fiercely independent” spirit, a love for detail, and the beautiful naiveté of a childhood dream. Their take is old school, and part of the fascinating innovation of their approach is the ancient craft methods they use to make, well, everything: from the chocolate to the designs on the wrapping paper, everything is made in-house by their small and trustworthy team, friends and family. Through their craft the Mast brothers are magically resurfacing a hidden memory of some not so distant past, drummed to numbness by the ever-advancing pace of a highly mechanized, mass produced, industrial modernity. Theirs is a taste for a nostalgic era, a curious, caring, beautiful way of making, not for the sake of selling, but for just that: making.
Their creative prowess doesn’t stop there, either. Instead, it is combined with a restless and daring inclination towards adventure that marks every step of the journey of the precious cocoa bean, from soil to mouth. They say, “any idea that makes us scared or nervous that it won’t happen, we know we’re on to something, and sailing the beans is definitely the biggest thing”. No kidding. The transportation of their chocolate is as ancestral as their production methods and as idiosyncratic of any of Willy Wonka’s quirks – good nut, bad nut testing squirrels, for instance. At the same time, sailing is one of the brothers’ dearest shared memories, and the veritable voyage endured by the chocolate they sell in their now 2,000 square foot factory is proof of it.
A commitment to quality, a fierce and courageous embrace of all that is uniquely personal, a love of craft and the authentic process of the hand-made – all this coated by lyrical adventure, a child-like curiosity and a magic of times long-gone by – make the Masts a new paradigm of food, business, tradition, innovation and passion. This is “an old mentality that is now new, and I think it’s spreading like wildfire too,” says the bright-eyed Rick, fingers running down his fiery red beard. I, for one, definitely hope so.