Industrial revolution: Food manufacturers edge their way back to Brooklyn—with a modern artisanal twist.
By Rebecca Flint Marx
Once upon a time, Brooklyn was a factory town—home to businesses as varied as Domino Sugar, Gretsch musical instruments, Esquire Shoe Polish and the Corning Glass Works. That time, of course, came to an end years ago, long before the word Gretsch was associated with luxury condos and the Red Hook docks became gateways for Kashi cereal and couches.
While some factories continue to flourish in and around Williamsburg, the term Brooklyn industries tends to conjure images of overpriced hoodies rather than anything remotely connected to manufacturing. So the idea of utilizing onetime industrial space for actual industry seems, if not quite revolutionary, then peculiar.
For Rick and Michael Mast, the decision to open their Mast Brothers Chocolate factory in Williamsburg was as much a nod to the past as to the future. “We could have opened somewhere cheaper,” Rick says, “but that would be doing what everybody else has been doing. We want to be connecting to the community.”
Rick worked with Jacques Torres after culinary school, and the brothers first crafted chocolate bars in their Williamsburg apartment and then in a Greenpoint factory, finally debuting in stores like Marlow & Sons and Urban Rustic this past winter. And while the new plant will allow them to go from 300 to more than 1,000 bars a week, they remain finicky about where they’ll sell them. “We don’t necessarily want to be in every Whole Foods,” says Rick. In a similar vein, the factory—which they claim will become New York’s only bean-to-bar chocolate outfit when it opens in October—is somewhat delicately referred to as a “chocolaterie and laboratory” on its website. If this is the face of New York’s new food-manufacturing industry, then it’s a very pretty one.
Farther down the Brooklyn waterfront in Red Hook—where one of the last vestiges of the food industry, the long-defunct Revere Sugar Refinery, was sold to developers in 2005—Mark Snyder is also mixing history with contemporary appetites. In 2004 he founded the Red Hook–based Angel’s Share wine-distribution company, and this September Snyder and his partners will unveil their own label—made entirely from Long Island grapes. Unlike other urban vino joints that have popped up of late (such as Bridge Urban Winery and Michael Dorf’s City Winery), this facility will be purely functional—crushing, fermenting and aging the grapes on-site. “There won’t be a tasting room,” he says. “We don’t want to create a tourist atmosphere. We want to make the best possible wine we can.”
The decision to take this gamble in Red Hook came largely from local pride and a love of the neighborhood. “I could name two dozen winemakers in New York City who have been to Napa and Burgundy six times but have never been to the North Fork,” he says. “Long Island suffers from a lack of history and reputation. We want to give back to Brooklyn and Long Island.” And to evoke the romance of their surroundings, the yet-to-be-announced label’s name will reflect Red Hook’s waterfront heritage.
If the Snyder and Mast projects are to have the word industry attached to them, it should be preceded by boutique. Both are resolutely small-batch, handcrafted ventures, and the products, such as the Masts’ $7 dark-chocolate fleur de sel bar, sell for a premium. Even the way Rick Mast describes the factory’s café—which will have burlap bags full of cocoa beans alongside the truffles and cookies—sounds as painstakingly crafted as his chocolate. “It’ll be a completely different chocolate experience,” he says earnestly. “In my opinion, more soulful.”
Whatever they’re selling, the new artisanal producers are nothing like their predecessors. If anything, they’re the natural offspring of the socioeconomic factors that account for why places like Williamsburg and Red Hook have so few working factories left. Theirs are lifestyle-driven goods tailored to the values and aesthetics of people who reside in those converted factory spaces. It’s a stretch to say that the openings signal a return to a glorious industrial past, but it’s an absolute certainty that their owners are in tune with the present.