In the past, Michael has had offers to expand JoMart and to place his product in major department stores. But to the shock of one former customer/businessman, he declined. “If we were to expand the operation, it wouldn’t be the same,” he tells me.
As he talks, we begin making caramel.
Michael lights the portable agitator, which sits atop a huge copper pot. Most of the copper pots belonged to both his grandfather (a candymaker as well) and his late father, Martin (the “Mart” in JoMart; a cousin, Joe, was briefly involved but didn’t stick with the business), and today Michael still uses many of his father’s original recipes. When he speaks of his father, his reverence is apparent, as is the familial love for the business.
“At the end of the war, it was the first time people began to celebrate special occasions. My father saw chocolate as something to be eaten in happy times. He never liked when people ordered for funerals or shivas.”
The first JoMart was opened by Martin on April 15, 1946. The store was located on Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn, set among many competing shops that also sold chocolate and other sweets. Martin moved the store to its current location in 1960, and JoMart has stayed the distance as the other stores fell by the wayside. Even when Michael took over the reigns in 1984, Martin was a permanent fixture and problem-solver in the store until he died in July 2006 at the age of 82. Despite the fact that in recent years Michael has begun to adapt some of the recipes (for example, when one of his two daughters suggested adding seasonal spices into some of the chocolates for autumn, he was game), don’t expect him to hop on the latest trends.
“I may be wrong, but in 100 years, people won’t be eating bacon and chocolate,” he tells me. “But they will still be eating chocolate and nuts.” That’s not to say he hasn’t fulfilled the odd request or two — for example, that of a customer who wanted chili peppers, chocolate and hot sauce. “Adding peanut butter to it was my idea,” Michael explains. “It actually turned out pretty good!”
I stand by (just out of splatter distance) and watch as Michael stirs the cauldron of caramel. He is the only one who “cooks,” while the other employees are tasked with everything from dipping confections in chocolate to pouring molds and wrapping up packages.
“You want to wait until it looks like elephant skin,” he says, continuing to stir the caramel as it begins to bubble. “That was how my father taught me.” The next task will be to lift this heavy, 300-degree pot off the stove. Michael looks me up and down — all five feet of me — and I sigh with relief when he calls for Rose to come put on the pot holders.
Michael is a self-described “son of a son of a candymaker,” but don’t call him a chocolatier. In fact, even as he forms a perfect sheet of caramel topped with a layer of marshmallow that will be rolled and cut into perfect bite-size swirls, he doesn’t think of what he does as an art.
“I’m surprised when the younger generation of candymakers meet me and they know who I am,” he says. A mustachioed workingman in an orange T-shirt and blue jeans, what you see is what you get — a man with a passion for candy who works extremely hard, never takes a sick day and is known for unloading trucks and making hand deliveries in blizzards. One night, a call came into the shop. A woman said her father was about to die and that he wanted one last piece of JoMart fudge. “It was 9 o’clock and I was done for the day,” Michael recalls. “I turned the machines back on and stayed.”