Curious Conversations: Lindsay Redifer

I am often astonished at how different the published version of an article/interview is, compared to the actual and real encounter with the writer. My personal experience with most writers is wonderful and the civilized and respectful conversation is often lost in an edited blur of misleading information and click bait. Respect, truth, and transparency may not get the clicks - but I know we all prefer it.

So I'm going to try something revolutionary (to me at least). In the name of transparency, and the search for some truth, I will try and post all of my actual conversations with writers and journalists in order to bring some respect to the topics discussed.

If you get a chance, read the insightful interview below and then track down the actual article. It is at least an interesting study of modern journalism, and the games publishers are forced to play to be heard online.

Let me be clear, I had a lovely conversation with Lindsay via email and found the interaction respectful and, well, curious.

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Lindsay Redifer (LR): What was the moment you decided to be a chocolate maker?

Rick Mast (RM): I decided to get into chocolate when I realized that one of the most beloved foods on the planet was the least understood in an industry that is deeply ripe for change.  Plus, it is insanely delicious.

LR: What part of making chocolate is the most challenging? The best?

RM: Every part of chocolate making is challenging and, therefore, the best. From farm relationships, ingredient sourcing, fermentation, production techniques, to packaging - there is so much to innovate, consider, to teach, and to bring a unique perspective. If I have to choose one, my favorite part is sharing what we’ve made with others. Connecting customers to what we do is far and away the best part.

LR:  Looking back, what was your biggest takeaway from what happened with Mast chocolate back in 2014?

RM: I try and laugh through it but Iet’s face it, Internet smear campaigns are no fun.  Especially if you are the target (understatement of the year). What can seem funny on the surface is often some serious bullying, or worse. We realize we are not the first company that has had competitors successfully spread lies about them so we’ve largely just moved on. It’s too bad when falsehoods like these get picked up by media outlets and regurgitated for clicks. So a bunch of people now think we melt Hershey bars and repackage them for $10. That’s obviously nonsense and a huge bummer. It’s super confusing and misleading to the public. Especially since we have been making our own chocolate, from bean to bar, since day one – and there are way more important factual things going on in the food industry that should get more attention. These days, little by little, the public is becoming more discerning and hopefully demanding more from their news sources and their food sources. That’s a good sign. I’m thankful for that. 

My wife and I, and even my oldest son, get a kick out of my look and mannerisms being satirized in the media. We think its hilarious! We’ve been portrayed on everything from the Simpsons to a couple New Yorker covers and we get a huge laugh out of it. That’s super fun and trust me, I don’t take myself seriously in the least. In reality I’m a dorky dad and husband first and foremost, and my wife would never allow me to take myself too seriously.

All that said, we learned a ton from that experience. I’m still learning from it.

Good food needs to get out of our Brooklyn echo chambers and into the pantry of the American family kitchen in order to have real, positive impact. Outside of only a few neighborhoods, craft food is largely seen as exclusive and elitist. Precious and not practical. Irrationally priced and inaccessible.  It took a public pummeling to fully understand this and realize I can play a major role in this change. I keep on hearing the William Gibson quote “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed yet. Seems particularly applicable to the craft food industry.

I also learned that the future of food needs leaders not just experts. Both are important to change the food system but we are short on leaders. Leaders inspire, build up, and are willing to take the heat. They put their money where their mouth is. They present solutions and ideas in the form of action and investment. They look inward, holding themselves accountable. Leaders have an undying optimism and can tune out the noise, keeping focused on achieving goals. They care about others. We just spent thanksgiving with our sister and her incredible family. They are sustainable farmers in northern Minnesota, sacrificing a lot, and are really making a difference. It’s inspiring. That’s leadership. I’m proud of the leadership role Mast takes and I want to get better at it.

LR: Did you ever consider leaving your chocolate business and trying something else? If so, what made you stay?

RM: Ha! Love this question. Of course! However, the awesome thing about being an entrepreneur is that on any given day you get to be a chocolate maker, an architect, a therapist, an activist, an accountant, a janitor, a writer, an engineer and just about everything in between. It’s my dream job.

LR: Looking forward, what are your goals for Mast Chocolate? 

RM: Believe it or not, we are still foundation building. We have many aspects of our business that are still in start up mode and we are looking to build a truly sustainable business. It is in our DNA to innovate, collaborate and educate and so we often forget to just make enough chocolate and get it on the shelf.

LR: What do you love the most about running your business?  

RM: The business side of Mast is something I’ve had to eat a lot of humble pie on as we have grown. The good news is, I love it just as much! I love the challenge of building a business that has the same deeply rooted principles as the product it makes. From a $15 minimum wage, zero waste production systems, to best in class health coverage, I get to put my convictions into action. Sure we make mistakes (and we make lots of them) but as long as we keep on learning from them I’ll always love it.

LR: Anything else you want me to know? 

RM: Most know us from the beautifully packaged bars they see on the shelf at their favorite grocery store. But few may realize that Mast chocolate has been the choice of legendary chefs across the globe for the past decade. Chefs like Thomas Keller, Daniel Humm, Eric Ripert, Heston Blumenthal, and even the White House’s former pastry chef Bill Yosses (to name a few) choose Mast. It’s a huge honor and something we are super proud of.  One of the highlights of past year was working with Chef  Daniel Humm and Will Guidara on one of their courses (a Mast chocolate course) the year they won Best Restaurant in the World.  They made us feel like we were really a part of it and we love them for it.

Also, over the years we have invested millions of dollars sourcing from what I would consider the best cacao growing organizations in the world.  We have always been committed to purchasing the highest grade, organic beans at well beyond a fair trade premium.  Currently we are sourcing from Madagascar, Tanzania, Peru, and Dominican Republic. We work with Bertil Akessons Madagascar cacao, and have worked with him for a decade, and to this day it makes up a significant percentage of our signature blend. Over the years we have purchased over 100 metric tons of these exceptional organic beans. Tanzania’s Kokoa Kamili is an organization close to our heart. We were fortunate to be able to help them get off their feet, guaranteeing purchase of their entire first harvest of 25 tons. A pioneer in organic and fair trade cacao growing, Acopagro of Peru has been an incredible partner of ours for years. The Peruvian notes of lime and molasses give our chocolate a distinctive profile. And ever since sailing 20 tons of organic beans, using only the power of wind, from the Dominican Republic, we have held a special relationship with this region and its farmers. We continue to source from thousands of family farms throughout the country.

Throughout the years we have made meaningful investments in cacao purchases from brand new organizations. Besides Kokoa Kamili, we were able to support Belize's Maya Mountain first harvests over their critical first several years. It is exciting for us to now watch the region grow in the hands of Emily Stone at Uncommon Cacao. And early in their journey, we purchased several tons of Fortunato No.4 from Maranon Canyon in Peru that we have made into incredible single origin chocolates that we couldn’t keep on the shelf.

Our sourcing principles are best in class, not because we want to cover our labels in certifications and explanations, but because it is what we believe is right. We believe they are better, more delicious beans. Our goal is to make a complete product to be enjoyed, not simply admired.

It is now 2018, and this year we should see our chocolate available to millions of people in thousands of retailers across the country and beyond. It is an exciting time for craft chocolate – but this has to be just the beginning. There is plenty of room for dozens of passionate, ambitious craft chocolate makers to make serious, positive impact in this space. It’s a hard business, we know, so we will continue to do our part in pioneering what success can look like in hopes others will follow. Farmers and craft food lovers are depending on it.

LR: Got it! Thanks for this. I read you're downsizing a bit so as to focus on your Brooklyn facility. Is that true?

RM: Downsized our brick & mortar retail, yes, in order to invest in chocolate making capacity and distribution. We knew it would be a cash burn, but we were excited to introduce bean to bar chocolate making to not only New York but London and Los Angeles as well. Mast was able to personally welcome hundreds of thousands more folks to our factories and show how chocolate is made in real life, in their own cities. I wish every neighborhood could have one, but money is money and ultimately we need to prioritize our customers gaining access to our chocolate at their local specialty shop or grocery store - just as awesome and important. We are still welcoming thousands of folks every week into our Brooklyn flagship.

LR: I asked you about your downsizing, but it was my understanding you were shutting down completely outside of Brooklyn, but your response looks like this isn't the case. Can you please just clarify for me what's happening with Mast outside of Brooklyn? I'm not there in person so I just want to make sure I understand. Can you tell me where exactly they're located?

RM: Awesome, yes thanks for reaching out for clarification. Super important.

Yes, we downsized our brick & mortar retail (closed our London and Los Angeles stores). We have moved all chocolate making for now to Brooklyn in order to make more chocolate, more efficiently.

Like I said, we opened the stores in order to introduce bean to bar chocolate making to London and Los Angeles and welcome thousands of visitors to witness our process and experience our company. We knew the move was going to be a cash burn and eventually we had to make a decision, continue to invest in our own retail expansion or invest in simply making more chocolate and getting to our awesome retail partners. We chose to make more chocolate. It wasn't an easy decision, in some ways it was heartbreaking. We put so much into those stores and they made hundreds of thousands of people happy. We still have a strong presence in London and Los Angeles, just not a retail one at the moment.

 Also, I know your company is known for its beautiful labels, but it's pointed out on several occasions that while you have great suppliers, Mast tends to not mention them on the wrapper. Will this change? Is there a reason you don't mention them specifically? If I'm mistaken please let me know. I checked your site to see the images of your bars and I only saw the front of each one. I may have missed something. 

We design our label to be beautiful, delicious and pleasurable. Our current back label focuses on clarity and simplicity of ingredients. I think I touched on it when I said, we source world-class cacao because it is what we believe in. - We don't do it as marketing or messaging strategy. Consumers are smarter than that. I think we can all agree that actions speak louder than words in this regard. Over the past decade, we have experimented with several different labeling methods and have found the most success with focusing on simplicity, clarity and beauty. In a crowded market where every product label is shouting at you why they are better, we find it can be nice to quiet down, focusing on simplicity and clarity. There are some changes to our labeling that you will see this year, but the philosophy remains the same.

 In a short article from Fortune, it states that you're projecting 100 million in sales this year. Could you confirm that for me? 

The Fortune article did not say that we are projecting $100m in sales this year. It said that we can increase capacity to $10m to $100m with the move into the navy yard. Very different, glad you double-checked :)  

 I really appreciate your time and your candor. I truly enjoyed reading through everything you had to say in your responses and hear your side of the story. I want to make this as balanced and as objective as I can, so anything you can clarify is very helpful. 

RM: Awesome, yes thanks for reaching out for clarification. Super important. Thanks and I wish you, the article and the editors of the new blog success. Keep spreading the good food word! And please let me know if there are any facts I can verify, etc..

LR: Thanks, Rick!

RM: Of course! Hope I was helpful

LR: Hi Rick. I know I'm bugging the life out of you, but I have to clarify two points: First, what is the official name of your company - Mast Brothers Chocolate or simply Mast Chocolate? I'm seeing both. 

Also, I need to know if your company saw any dip in sales after the bad press. I've seen a few articles that claim you didn't, but I would love to hear from your company directly as to whether or not there was a reflection of the rumors in your sales. 

Thank you so much.

RM: Hi Lindsay. Wow! Sounds like you guys are drilling down! Love it! 

Mast Brothers is the 'official' company name. We introduced the Mast Chocolate label several years back (we are launching a new website with our first blog in which I will explain the inspiration behind this decision). Read that post here. 

We don't disclose specific financials as we're a private business. As you know, the internet says a lot things so tread wisely :) But to address your question, anytime anyone or any organization is smeared on the internet, it has consequences. Sometimes financial, sometimes personal, sometimes (but rarely) to those doing the smearing. We've moved on a long time ago concluding that the internet is weird, having a business is hard, and life isn't fair. We get it. We're stronger because of it. We have a lot to be thankful for, so we just focus on what is important and growing our family business. 

Good luck with the article. It'll be tempting to cherry pick quotes from me to support a pre-conceived narrative that maximizes clicks to the new blog. I completely understand the pressure, so I just advise to help make the internet better. It seems like it was created as a Town Hall and Market Square but has digressed into a noisy bar and strip mall. You've got a tough job, no doubt about it. 

Hope you are well! Hopefully you are at least having fun :)

 

The very different published article appeared on Craft Sense, a new online publication

 

Rick Mast