Innovative Retailer – Mast Brothers

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The Name: Mast Brothers

The Place: New York City, London and soon to be Los Angeles. And expanding.

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Mast Brothers, London

The Story: Let me ask you a question. What’s the definition of a difficult sell?

Well, let’s see, there’s snow and Eskimos: Harder.

Coals and Newcastle. Harder.

Give up: Trying to get people to part with £8 for a single bar of chocolate.

Surely you jest: No honestly, it’s happening very regularly at Mast Brothers chocolate emporium in Redchurch Street in London’s Shoreditch and in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn where they are churning out 5,000 bars a week.

What are they putting in it? Some sort of mind altering substance I shouldn’t wonder. Listen, I am assured that people of sound mind are doing this – they are lured in by the chocolate factory on-site according to the retail manager of Mast Brothers Lani Renee Kingston.

So these brothers have an actual chocolate factory in each shop: I say factory – actually in London it is several rooms attached to the shop but crucially people get to see the chocolate being made and when they see the effort and considerable time involved then it is out with the wallets and purses. And it’s “yes please I’ll take three of those £8 bars of chocolates”. Bingo.

I think we’d better be introduced to the Willy Wonka brothers please: Certainly. Meet Rich and Michael. One is a chef and one is an accountant so all bases are covered there. Seven years ago they hit upon the idea that chocolate was then one of the great un-mined knowledge areas in food. The populace they decided was very ignorant about where chocolate comes from and how it can taste.

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Excuse me I’m very well acquainted with the differences between a Twix bar and a Snickers: Yes, but their point is that the individual farmers may look after their crops differently and produce different cocoa beans but for mass produced chocolate they are all lumped together to produce the taste that we are all accustomed to.

And love: Yes. In their apartment they started experimenting with different chocolates and initially they took them to the farmers markets and high-end restaurants.

So I’m guessing this was a certain kind of area in Brooklyn: Correct, Williamsburg has a strong foodie movement, and demand for artisanal goods. And those food hipsters went crazy for it. So this is where we get innovative.

About time: In the Brooklyn unit the focus was initially to fulfil the wholesale markets such as retailers and restaurants but as people do, customers then wanted to buy direct from the Mast Brothers.  So a shop front was added and then the balance begins to tip towards selling to the general public direct.

I’ve said it before. How demanding people are: But then it seems to be required that consumers indulge in a bit of chocolate therapy on-site so, and this is the bit we like most especially, the ‘brew bar’ is added to the mix.

I’m so on it. Bringing the craft beer thing into chocolate: Indeed. It’s just like a brewery tour with a tap room at the end – but only for hot chocolate.

I bet they are turning them away in their droves: Ms Kingston goes so far as to describe the store visitors as “going on a chocolate pilgrimage” no less and coming from far and wide just to visit that one shop and take the chocolate home.

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Hoping for the same devotion in London obviously: Yes, it’s only been open for three months but they carefully chose Shoreditch as the same kind of creative-driven, cash-rich and niche-seeking hipster area.

Not forgetting facial hair-sporting: I would imagine beards figure, yes. So the bean-to-bar concept is now here but you can’t go on a tour just yet – they are just working towards full manufacturing production (possibly 1,500 bars a week) and then perhaps in June the factory will throw its doors open to the Violet Beauregarde’s of the UK. As before the wholesale market will lead the general retail market.

Talking of Willy Wonka, what exactly is in this chocolate to make it so expensive: Brown gold. There are three Mast Brothers collections. Original – eight varieties of cocoa with just cane sugar added and nothing else, Artisan – eight varieties of flavoured chocolate such as black truffle, almond etc. And finally Milk where there are three varieties using different milks. Every single bar costs exactly the same.

Yes, eight quid don’t remind me: Lani Renee Kingston maintains that education is key. Without the factory to demonstrate to people the intricacy of the process such a cost could never be borne. When the minimum 40-days involved in making each bar is explained then £8 suddenly doesn’t seem too much. And crucially people (she hopes) don’t go back to their Hershey bars or Cadbury’s once they have tasted Mast Brothers.

Best sellers? Chocolate with sea salt.

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OMG, what is it with salt in sweet stuff nowadays? The shop decor and label packaging are also very carefully considered, for example the Artisan collection design is based around neck ties. It’s all got an industrial feel to it but it’s laid out like an expensive fashion store. i.e. about as far away from a traditional sweet shop as you could get.

What about the brew bar? Looks like an alcoholic bar – with siphons and pumps. They change the nibs every week so no drink will taste the same for long. There are four different types to try.

Actually that’s pretty cool: Ready for a pilgrimage to Shoreditch?

Yessir: Ready to convert.

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