Monday, December 21, 2015

Mast Brothers: The Artisanal Catch-22

Mast Brothers: Actually Just the Devil?
I'm at my day job right now. I have bills to pay so I can't pursue my life's passion, but then again, I'm not sure what my life's passion is. I used to write this dumb blog a few times a week, then I started to get paid to write for other blogs, then I kind of got bored so I tried my hand at a pop-up restaurant, then I started a beef jerky company, then I tried to make my daughter a YouTube sensation (shameless plugs, every last one of them). None of these make money (and only one has a very minor investor who doesn't meddle), so the decisions I make are solely based on my lazy work ethic and fickle personality. I don't have to answer to anyone holding a sack with a giant dollar sign sewn into its canvas. There are no real revenue targets, no SMART goals, really nothing from the two years I spent getting a part-time MBA. I do it because it makes me happy. I wish like hell that the business side of things was as enjoyable as the creative side of things for me, but it's not the case. In fact, the opposite happens. Money and management dilute my creativity, which is probably why I'll die penniless (sorry, kids).

I'm meandering towards a point here, which is the paradigm shift that happens when small business becomes big business. Last week, took a big dump on the Mast Brothers. The author claims they're not actually a bean-to-bar chocolate company, their chocolate is worse than an order of fries at In-n-Out Burger (my description, not theirs), and their claim of being artisanal is based solely on being bearded and from Brooklyn. It's the second time they've been called out for having shitty chocolate (the first in a Slate article earlier this year), and the first time for being a total sham. Personally, I love the brand, but their chocolate isn't my favorite (I don't really like sweets to begin with). Flavor aside, however, there's an inherent flaw in the concept of artisanal foods, and that's the ability to scale. I just googled the term artisanal, and the result was "made in a traditional or non-mechanized way."

According to this definition, the only way you can grow your business is with more and more hands, which means more and more money, which means "oh shit, we're broke because of our quest for the way things used to be." Civilization advanced because of industrialization. We also fucked ourselves along the way, but it's a long road back to the barter economy, and nobody wants to put the machine in reverse. All the while, the decision makers have been, and continue to be, the ones holding those dollar-sign-emblazoned bags I mentioned previously. It would be one thing if the Mast Brothers stayed in their hometown of Iowa, where labor and real estate are probably cheap as shit (didn't really do the research to find out) and rents don't spike as soon as Goldman Sachs figures out some complex math to trade on, but they started in Brooklyn. It's the right play because that's where all the cool kids are (and where all the money is), but growth has to be part of the business model. Otherwise, failure is imminent. In order to do so, you need to figure out how make your inputs cheaper so your outputs can yield higher margins, especially if you have someone else footing the bill. Take the case of a $10 chocolate bar with a sexy wrapper. When you figure in raw materials (and getting them from the far reaches of the globe), labor, packaging, rent, etc., you're probably making $2 per bar, which is fine if you're making them in your kitchen and trading at the local farmers' market once a week. But if you want to sustain (not to mention grow) a going concern, you've got to sell a shitload of chocolate bars. This requires a healthy amount of working capital, which usually means outside investors (or a trust fund), which could mean finding yourself on the wrong side of the closed-door meetings where real decisions are made.

Maybe this is what happened to the Mast brothers. A skateboarder whose name I don't remember was once accused of selling out, to which he replied, "You gotta sell out to eat out." It sounds smug, but it's the truth. As much as I want to hang onto the reins of my beef jerky company and tout the virtues of artisanal products, there will (hopefully) come a time when it's just too damn big to be "made in a traditional or non-mechanized way." If and when that happens, I'll be faced with the same difficult decisions. No matter how much you try, you just can't be everything to everybody. Keep it small for a select few, the masses will brand you a snob. Figure out a way to get your product in more hands (so you can ultimately enjoy a bit of success), the early adopters will burn you at the stake like a goddamn Salem witch. My incoherent two cents on the matter.

Read all about the witch trials here.
And here's Mast Brothers' response to all this shade.
And here's a link to buy my beef jerky.

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