Brooklyn’s Own Willy Wonka

In his three decades at the helm of JoMart Candies Corporation, the confectionary his grandfather  established on Franklin Avenue’s candymaking alley in 1935, Michael Rogak has fashioned a chocolate watch for Cartier, shaped chocolate handcuffs as a gift for local cops, crafted cocoa ballet slippers for a neighbor’s prima ballerina and delivered special orders to Swiss bankers staying at Park Avenue hotels. He once built chocolate versions of The Panama Canal, Great Wall of China, Hanging Gardens of Babylon and other wonders of the world for an event in Panama, and his marshmallows have shown up in Paula Deen recipes and in the Blue Man Group’s awe-inspiring, impossible closing scene of oral acrobatics.

A chocolate handgun received howls of protest from regular walk-in customers, while a set of six giant chocolate phalluses he made for one East Village client inspired a woman to order one for her father’s birthday. (Rogak’s father abstained from the erotic, partly because he thought it was counterproductive to make something he couldn’t display.) At closing time one night, he whipped up a batch of fudge at the request of a distraught woman who said it was her dying father’s last wish.

Rogak rode the truffle boom of the ‘80s, watched the rise and fall of low-carb and sugar-free crazes, and spent sales slumps teaching customers about cocoa content. (“Dark chocolate isn’t a health food,” he says. “Except if you like it. If it makes you happy, it lowers your stress. That’s good for your health.”)

From his southern Brooklyn vantage, the 56-year-old mustached, Gallagher-esque son of a son of a candymaker concludes, “It’s a great time to be in the chocolate business.” He welcomes new candy colleagues like Mast Brothers Chocolates, the growing recognition that excellent chocolate can be crafted in America, and the willingness of New Yorkers to pay more for cocoa-stuffs.

“The psychology of chocolate eating has changed,” says Rogak of a shift he considers bittersweet. In his estimation, chocolate has become a status symbol. He even sees potential customers balk at his comparatively low prices. If they’re used to paying $40–60 per pound, they seem dubious that his can measure up at $24.50 per pound. “Too many people believe price and quality are always linked.”

“I’m very impressed with them,” says food critic and author Arthur Schwartz, who recently discovered no fewer than 20 Russian-made chocolate bars on a chocolate reconnaissance mission amidst the delis of Avenue M. Schwartz grew up near JoMart—“my mother got hooked on the pretzels”—and notes the confectioner’s ability to evolve, offering more fashionable and pricey items alongside the tried-and-true peanut clusters, caramel swirls and halvah steak that have sated sweet tooths for decades.

“Foods come and go,” shrugs Rogak as he spreads a fluffy white mixture into marshmallow forms, a ritual he’s followed thousands of times since childhood (he joined the family business full time when a career as a special ed teacher was cut short by 1970’s city budget cuts). “If you just capitalize on a trend, you get bit in the ass. I can’t change at the expense of people who have patronized us for three generations.”

So he adheres to his grandfather’s jelly and marshmallow recipes and his father’s instructions for making buttercrunch and marzipan, all while retooling the company into a nimble custom chocolatier that churns out a dizzying array of candies and welcomes any requests, no matter how obscure. And it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “You can draw a straight line between something as pedestrian as the chocolate-covered pretzels my father made in the ‘60s and the modern artisanal, luxury bar with sea salt,” says Rogak. Witnessing such cyclical trends doesn’t mean he can explain them. “What’s the appeal? Is it the juvenile aspect of pretzels? The salty-sweet contrast?” Who knows, but while his father’s pretzels were a novelty, JoMart now devotes six feet of window space to various versions. Rogak kept the copper kettles from his grandfather—who immigrated from Russia to Brownsville as a child, and, as a young man, sold spices, teas and coffee from a pushcart in the Louis Sherry building. But Rogak also acquired small-batch smokers and tempering machines, including an 80-year-old melter bought used from a toothpaste factory. Instead of flimsy plastic forms for Valentine’s Day cupids and Christmas reindeer, he invested in pricier equipment—a Santa mold might cost several hundred dollars—that turn out picture-perfect figurines.

And while Rogak appreciates the purism of single-origin, bean-to-bar chocolatiers, he prefers to buy his chocolate in block form from Belgium, leaving the roasting, winnowing, conching (and, of course, growing) to others. His father used to say, “You can only wear one pair of shoes at a time.” But Rogak has a different explanation: “Not all origins are good on their own,” he says. “They blend different types of cocoa for a reason.”

Which doesn’t mean JoMart is immune to trends. Rogak has capitalized on the marshmallow’s resurgence, just introduced ginger caramels and recently crafted precious bonbons using uncooked cocoa for a raw foods label. (“Organic is here to stay,” he proclaims.)

But like craft beer, micro-roasted coffee and small-batch pickles, the human touch that keeps JoMart flexible brings another advantage. “Most Americans haven’t experienced freshly made candy,” says Rogak as he peels a 2-foot by 3-foot mass of marshmallow away from the form and begins cutting it into cubes with the same knives his grandfather wielded. Unlike too-sweet, store-bought marshmallows, these spongy pillows have a caramely flavor.

The something-old-something-new approach worked. Retail business has expanded—with both longtime neighborhood regulars and converts citywide in tow. A trip to the cramped store is a candyland dream offering the temptation of sugar coma. A side room is densely stocked with molds, trays, sprinkles and assorted candymaking and cake decorating supplies for cooks, caterers and the DIY crowd. For those unwilling to ride the Q past 7th Avenue, everything’s available online.

Candy trade is seasonal, with big business at Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, when Rogak’s daughters and mother join the ranks of the shop’s 12 employees to ring up respective bunnies, candy corns, turkey centerpieces or end-of-the year corporate gifts. But nothing compares with V-Day. “If there’s no blizzard the couple of days before February 14, you can sell as much or more as the rest of the year,” he says. Traditionally, that means heart-shaped boxes (constructed from chocolate) with still more chocolate inside, and JoMart has no fewer than 60 options on offer. “But if you want that box airbrushed a certain color packed with milk caramels and dark chocolate cherries, we’ll do it.”

Still, satisfying customers on Valentine’s Day may depend less on candy artistry than understanding human psychology. “You know the difference between women and men,” in the realm of Valentine’s Day shopping at least. “When men come in, they say ‘If I don’t buy what she likes, she’ll kill me.’ Women say ‘Who cares if he doesn’t like it. I’ll eat it.’

Rogak offers 2-hour private classes for couples, including one on tasting, tempering, and truffle making for $350. 

Confection perfection: Michael Rogak is the son of a son of a candyman. Marshmallows, still handmade according to Rogak’s grandfather’s recipe.