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TCHO New American Chocolate

A visit to the Mast Brothers in Brooklyn

After the Fancy Food Show, Jane and I went to Williamsburg to visit the Mast Brothers in Brooklyn. To get there, you take the L train that runs across lower Manhattan. Bedford Avenue is the first stop on the other side of the East River. A quick trip; great for all the artists and crafts people who live there, and the geeks agawking, like us, who want to visit them.

As one observer put it, with Manhattan officially dedicated to the super rich, Brooklyn has become the designated Art Borough.

Even the street markings for road work are artistic.

The nice thing about the art I saw in Brooklyn, as far as I’m concerned, is that you don’t need an essay by some art critic to understand what’s going on. This piece by Jonathan Schipper at The Boiler, for example, is composed of two Detroit muscle cars on a hydraulic sled that slow-motion crashed them together over the period of the installation—like the slow-mo wreck of the US auto industry.

Not that all the art in Williamsburg is so conceptual; this was on a roll up garage door of an industrial building:

And, for sure, not all of Williamsburg is art. Here’s the national pastime on an asphalt playground on a summer afternoon.

And I didn’t know it before, but Superman lives in Williamsburg too.

But you can’t escape the art. The Painted Word this ain’t—which is why I like it.

After that delightful stroll, we arrive at the Mast Brothers. Here’s the outside.

And here’s the inside. That’s Rick Mast on the left. And you’re looking at where the Mast Brothers make their chocolate, from bean to bar. About 1500 of those bars a week, plus some blocks for restaurants.

Rick is smart and has a bushy red beard he enjoys stroking, as well as a joyful laugh, which he deployed readily as we discussed our mutual, visceral fear of huge trade shows like the Fancy Food Show, which we attended and he didn’t.

Rick’s also laughing because he’s clearly reveling in this moment. Which is making pretty great chocolate as if he were doing a jazz improvisation. We did Beta releases, varying elements of the process and getting your feedback to come up with our final formulations. Rick seemingly doesn’t believe in final formulations. Every time he makes a batch of chocolate, he’s changing stuff. Changing the roast, the grind, the sugars. He obsesses on what he can change. Cure the liquor in old bourbon casks, even.

You gotta love what the Mast Brothers are doing. This is quick and nimble chocolate-making with an emphasis on playfulness. They make a batch of chocolate during the day, then invite friends over in the evening to sit around a big table and wrap the bars by hand, sharing a bottle of wine. They winnow beans right out on the sidewalk in front of their store.

They are keeping a lid on output, even though they have a waiting list, according to Rick, of 500 stores that want to carry them. Heck, they don’t even open their own store in the front part of the factory during the week, only on weekends. They are working hard, experimenting like crazy, own it all without bankers or investors breathing down their necks, and are having fun—and building a savvy myth based on passion, quality, non-marketing marketing, and the kind of scarcity that itself creates insatiable demand. Although Rick shyly admits to a dream: a bigger factory someday over in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Thanks, Rick, nice visiting with you. Come see us next time you’re out in SF.

After bidding Rick adieu, we repair to the beer hall a couple of doors down—where our waitress is a dancer from San Francisco who just returned from Slovenia—for a cold mug of Czech draft.

Nice place this Williamsburg.