The beards said it all, really.
Long and well groomed, attached to handsome young faces, they were the beards of men who worked the land. The beards of men who built things with their own hands, which, we all surmised, were callused, but clean. Those beards told a story about a New York-made brand of handmade chocolate of “meticulous craftsmanship,” produced “bean-to-bar” from cacao that the two bearded brothers and company founders, Michael and Rick Mast, brought back after journeying to tiny rustic farms overseas.
So when that carefully crafted image began to melt away — when the website DallasFood.org alleged that the Mast Brothers made their $10 bars from re-melted Valrhona chocolate and the rest of the food media piled on — it’s no surprise that everyone focused on the beards.
DallasFood.org titled its series “What Lies Behind the Beards.” People dug up old photos of the brothers beardless, dressed as typical frat bros, before they adopted their Mennonite-meets-Williamsburg look, as if that alone were proof of fraudulence: The emperor has no beard.
But just as that fabled emperor truly thought that he was purchasing a special (artisanal and handmade, we might add) suit, we all want to believe that we’re buying something meaningful when we shop at the kind of urban Pinterest boutiques where you find ceramic mason jars and terrariums and $10 bars of chocolate. Which is why the Mast Brothers story took off: Even though they acknowledged that they initially experimented with re-melted chocolate — but now produce their chocolate exclusively bean-to-bar — people felt duped.
But this isn’t the first time an “artisanal” brand has been unmasked — or unbearded — for not practicing what it preaches.
Those small-batch craft rye whiskeys, like Bulleit or WhistlePig? Some come from a factory distillery.
That “reclaimed” barn wood that surrounds you in your typical urban-rustic small-plates restaurant? Chances are, it’s not from some picturesque dismantled Amish farm, but from a website like Faux Panels, ordered in two-by-eight-foot panels.
That beautifully plated meal at upscale Washington restaurant Fig & Olive? As the Washington City Paper reported last week, it was partly made in a commercial kitchen in Long Island City, N.Y., before being shipped and reheated for your dinner. (The company president told The Post that the facility has since been shut down.)
But like Mast Brothers, each of these brands has a story to tell. And that — okay, the beautiful packaging doesn’t hurt, either — is part of the reason people unhesitatingly buy from them.
“The global market is really demanding and craving this authentic human element,” said Peggy Clark, the director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, which works to grow global artisan businesses. The easiest way for the average consumer to identify that human element, in many cases, is by the brand’s origin narrative. But when words like authentic — or artisanal, or all natural, or vintage, or handmade — become marketing buzzwords, they can become meaningless linguistic decoration.
The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise defines “artisanal” using UNESCO’s criteria: Goods “produced by artisans, either completely by hand or with the help of hand tools or even mechanical means, as long as the direct manual contribution of the artisan remains the most substantial component of the finished product.”
But there’s a lot of wiggle room in there. That’s why tchotchkes and apparel made via Etsy Manufacturing, a program that matches the website’s crafters with small manufacturing companies, can be factory-made and still artisanal.
Really, anything can be artisanal, if there’s a marketer with a good story behind it — and a public eager to believe.
“It goes back to the origins of humankind. What was marketing thousands of years ago? It was storytelling,” said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. “This is something that’s hardwired in us to connect with. Marketers have been smart to be able to tap into it.”
That’s because companies aren’t the only ones that want to call their stuff “authentic” — their customers do, too. Being a person who buys unique things can be a defining personality trait.
“If you buy this kind of stuff, this artisan stuff, you’re a more interesting person,” Reed said. At a cocktail party, for example, “When someone asks you, ‘What is that?’ you can tell a story. You can tell the company’s story.”
When those goods are actually made by hand, that can be a good thing.
“I think that if it ensures higher quality, that story behind that product is a wonderful thing,” said Clark, who equated it to terroir in wine. At the same time, “it could also speak to the fact that we’re susceptible to something that has a sweet story.”
Basically, give us a good story and we become a bunch of rubes. And if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck — or like a couple of stereotypical bearded hipsters sailing their artisanal schooner full of cacao into New York harbor, as the Mast Brothers once did — well, it’s not too hard to believe.
But even the beards that lent a homespun credence to the company’s authenticity have grown too long: An evolutionary biology study from 2014 found that “as facial hair grows more common it gets less attractive, and the clean-shaven look becomes more desirable to potential mates.” Which means that we’ve already reached peak beard: If they were, in fact, a marketing device, the Masts can feel free to shave now.
“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,” said the brothers in a lengthy statement on the company website.
Because there’s no easy way to measure or quantify authenticity, it’s hard for consumers of high-end handcrafted goods to be sure that they’re paying for more than tall tales.
“I think we’re going to have to develop some standard,” said Clark — like the Good Housekeeping Seal for handicraft and artisanal food makers. “What we need to demand is independent certification that’s somewhat complex, that has standards that relate to whether a product is handmade, and generally implies both fair social and labor standards, as well as environmental standards.”
And as debates about the Mast Brothers swirl, Reed thinks that the almost mythological style of origin-crafting will become less prevalent as a marketing strategy.
“As more and more companies are doing this,” said Reed, “it becomes less of a differentiating factor.”
After all, nowadays, seemingly every company got its ethical-hand-sourced-handcrafted start from a liberal arts major with a dream of “disrupting” their way to coffee/clothing/terrarium-making success. And they’re only a $50,000 Kickstarter and a beard away from making that dream a reality.