Small Business

Inside the Mast Brothers chocolate drama

Brothers Rick and Michael Mast pose for a photo at their chocolate factory in Brooklyn, New York.
Candice Choi | AP

In foodie circles and beyond, one of the most viral stories during the holidays has been a Dallas food blog's detailed account alleging some initial remelting of chocolate into artisan, small-batch bars — an accusation that contradicts the "bean to bar" business model and ethos of New York-based chocolate maker Mast Brothers.

In a four-part series on the Dallas blog, the December articles charge the company's founders, brothers Rick and Michael Mast, are the "Milli Vanilli of chocolate," a nod to a lip-syncing pop duo. The chocolate makers "costumed themselves with quaint clothing and showy beards," according to the series titled, "What Lies Behind the Beards."

Media outlets have since chimed in including NPR and . There were fresh stories this week from the Financial Times and The New York Times, and ongoing Internet chatter about small-batch food production and the craft of chocolate making.

Mast Brothers co-founder and CEO Rick Mast has responded to the "misleading, unsubstantiated and in many cases unsourced articles being circulated by the media" in a statement on its website.

"To set the record straight, before we opened our first chocolate factory, my brother and I experimented and honed our craft constantly for nearly a year, which is typical for any entrepreneur, craftsman and innovator," he said. Mast Brothers opened its first chocolate factory in Brooklyn in 2009.

The company in its initial phase did test "couverture Valrhona," a reference to using industrial chocolate. "We sincerely apologize if you or any of our other loyal customers feel they were misled about the chocolate we made when our company was just getting off the ground," Rick Mast said in the statement. "Mast Brothers is a 100 percent bean-to-bar chocolate maker."

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But why so much delicious gossip and social media slaying on what amounts to the initial ramp up at a small business, now with roughly 50 chocolate makers? (A smartphone-yielding woman at a Manhattan nail salon recently leaned over to me and asked, practically licking her chops, "Did you read THE blog? About Mast Brothers chocolate?")

In the end, the hipster marketing lesson buried in this viral pile-on might involve a trendy word, "authenticity."

"The marketing lesson for targeting younger consumers is to be authentic," says C.C. Chapman, a marketing consultant. He knows about things like experiential marketing. He once sent horror fans fake vials of blood in the mail to generate buzz in advance of HBO's release of "True Blood."

The Dallas blog's allegations of dishonorable chocolate making have sparked supportive and hateful Tweets. Even a reference to Theranos, the health-care tech company that's facing complaints about lab and research practices.

Chocolate maker co-founder Rick Mast also described some of the unsubstantiated articles as a "mean-spirited 'takedown' by determined individuals with an agenda to harm our reputation."

Be 'authentic,' or else!

Bigger picture, the Internet is a crowded place of selfies, "Insta" images on Instagram and angry Tweets, all just waiting to pounce on something. And Internet judgment can be swift, when companies face allegations of a false foundation and backbone.

"The Internet has made it really easy to pile on. The culture we live in today, people get upset and freak out on a daily basis about something new," says Chapman.

So the larger business lesson might be that if you're selling anything artisan — and wrap a marketing message around roasting, cracking, winnowing, stone grinding and aging small batches of stuff — the Internet will be watching.

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Once the Dallas blog spread, the unique details of Mast Brothers' narrative was up for dissection:

  • The $10 price for a 2.5-ounce artisan bar.
  • The chocolate's thick, colorful wrapping paper.
  • The founding brothers' image, including their beards.
  • The very essence of hipster Brooklyn, where Mast Brothers has a flagship location.

"The younger demographic doesn't want PR or spin," Chapman said. "They want authentic."

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