If you follow the world of fine chocolates, then you might know of Mast Brothers, a leading brand of artisanal chocolate manufactured in Brooklyn, New York. The bars go for around $10 a pop, and they feature signature packaging, wrapped in beautiful vintage paper. For a lot of people, spending a Hamilton on a piece of chocolate seems a bit daffy, but for others, Mast Brothers chocolate is the equivalent of a nice bottle of wine, or simply a kind of status symbol—either one is affluent enough to eat $10 chocolate, or one is cool enough that if you must be seen with a high-end chocolate bar, then Mast Brothers is the brand to accessorize with.
Their makers, Rick and Michael Mast, are the poster boys for the hipster artisanal movement, manufacturing their chocolate in small batches using single sources of cacao beans imported by sailboat, all while sporting enormous beards, dressing in vaguely quasi-amish garb, loudly proclaiming a dedication to purity and simplicity, and initially selling their bars at various outdoor markets. Since then, however, the Masts have become a successful chocolate brand, earning plenty of media adoration and love from celebrity chefs. Longstanding concerns over the authenticity of Mast Brothers’ products, however, have erupted into a full bore repetitional scandal that could threaten the long term value of the entire company. It is the kind of thing that a solid compliance program could have avoided.
A few years ago, the Masts started making chocolate in their tiny Williamsburg apartment. But they weren’t making just any chocolate. They were doing it “bean-to-bar,” which means they were handling every single step of the process, from processing the cacao beans all the way to the finished bar. Bean-to-bar chocolate making is a much more intensive way of making chocolate, but if you’re devoted to making an especially pure product, or one that eschews the various kinds of corner-cutting that goes into modern chocolate making, then it’s the way to go. Done on a small scale, it’s extremely expensive and time-intensive to make, which is why a Mast Brothers bar goes for upwards to $10 while a Hershey bar costs far less.
Various folks in the fine chocolates industry openly doubted the Mast Brothers’ claims of authenticity, however. Early on, their chocolates looked, tasted, and felt like they were not truly bean-to-bar, but were remelted bars that involved industrial chocolate—chocolate made in bulk by third parties and sold to chocolatiers who would remelt it and further tweak it into their own products. Meanwhile, the Masts brushed off such claims as professional jealousy, and doubled down on their own assertions that their products were bean-to-bar, were always bean-to-bar, that they were chocolate pioneers, and that they were receiving flak mainly from a fine chocolate industry that saw them and their methods as dangerous outsiders.
Things came to a head this December, when a Dallas-based food writer Scott Craig published a detailed four-part deconstruction of the Mast Brothers’ historical claims of authenticity and transparency. Criticism of the Masts was nothing new—they had plenty of haters who simply didn’t care for their hipster aesthetic, or who resented their success despite the notion among experts that their chocolate simply wasn’t all that good. However, the Dallas articles accused the Masts of lying about their claims that they had always been a bean-to-bar chocolatier, and that their history of fibbing and revisionism implies that as a brand, and as businessmen, the Masts simply cannot be trusted.
The story was so damning that it soon blew up and became one of those media events where a deeply detailed story about a niche subject got covered and recovered by increasingly more mainstream media sources until finally, the New York Times got in on it. By the time the Times was on the story, the Masts finally admitted that, yes, early on, some of their products were made with remelted industrial chocolate. But it did not matter, they asserted, because those years were well behind them; they were actually making bean-to-bar chocolate at the time when they were also making remelted chocolate, and they never really intended to deceive anyone. The media backlash that followed was so swift and prolonged that even outlets such as NPR and the Financial Times felt compelled to weigh in on the matter.
The Masts’ transgression is a case of professional dishonesty, true. But there are no binding industry regulations or consumer laws at play here that could have been broken, so the Masts will face no action there. And even though you can practically hear the ghost of P.T. Barnum slapping his knee over this, the Masts aren’t likely to face a class action from disgruntled suckers who paid $5, $7, or $10 a bar for chocolate not even remotely worth that price, especially when so much of what constitutes Masts Brothers’ value isn’t the chocolate itself, but its vintage packaging, and the larger brand story built around the chocolate.
But we will see. After all, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that after this scandal broke, the New York Times published its own list of the best bean-to-bar chocolate brands, and Mast Brothers did not make the cut. Likewise, the last time Scott Craig took down a chocolate-maker that played fast and loose with the facts, it was in 2006 to expose Noka, the maker of the world’s most expensive chocolate, as a fraud. By 2011, those allegations had helped to drive Noka out of business.
So far, it is probably too early to tell if this will really have any lasting effect on the Mast Brothers company. Other artisanal chocolatiers have been ruined when it was revealed that they were less-than-honest about their products or processes, and surely there are those hoping that the same fate befalls the Masts. But that might be premature.
The big question is whether Mast Brothers suffers any lasting damage over this. Mast’s subsequent acknowledgements and peevish response on their company website suggest that Craig’s allegations sting because the truth hurts. But this also has the look of a situation where the people who don’t believe the Masts, the people who do, and the ignorant people in the middle who just want to buy expensive chocolate are all going to remain in the same camps that defined them before this scandal broke. It is worth noting that those who propelled the Mast Brothers to fame and fortune were never all that keen to examine closely the product or people they were supporting in the first place, and they’re probably not going to be turned off now.
What this scandal underscores most is the need for honesty and transparency even in a company’s earliest days, when it is likely that nobody is looking. In today’s modern media environment, no transgression is too small to overlook, especially if your brand and its key executives inherently aggravate your rivals and critics. Likewise, no legitimate allegations of wrongdoing are too small to consider if they have the potential to collect enough moss to warrant a call from the New York Times. What if this had occurred and Mast Brothers was a public company? What if artisanal chocolate was a closely regulated industry? We might be covering an uncomfortable boardroom fact-finding mission instead of detailing the finer points of what is amounting to professional schadenfreude among high-end chocolatiers and part of a public backlash against those who seem to be less devoted to authenticity than to the appearance of it.
Bill Coffin is the Editor in Chief of Compliance Week.