Who: Max Harmon @maxwelharmon
Where: 638 Wealthy St. SE / Grand Rapids, MI
The owner of the thriving local artisan chocolate shop and a brilliant human, we took it upon ourselves to feature Max in our Artist Series to talk about his inspiration and learn more of his story. We had the pleasure of meeting Max through our brilliant photographer (also his partner!), Leigh Ann Cobb. He was a big part of helping with the release of our EveryBODY Collection earlier this year, and we couldn’t help but think how you all needed to meet him too. He can be found going on walks along Lake Michigan, strumming his Gibson guitar, or at the local shop concocting new chocolate wonders.
Below are his answers… we invite you to read along, too.
Tell us about Mokaya - how did the business come to be?
The story of Mokaya starts with my father, Smitty. He has been a chef for most of his adult life and about 25 years ago he fell in love with chocolate. At that time, he ran a catering company in GR, where he built a small chocolate room in the basement. Throughout the years his chocolate room & ambitions grew, eventually deciding to “retire” and start a small retail shop for his confections. My first job was working for my dad washing dishes. Eventually I was helping him in the kitchen prepping meals and then eventually while he was honing his skills in chocolate, so was I. When the decision to open a shop came along I jumped on the opportunity to be a part of it.
How does one become a chocolatier?
The title of chocolatier gets thrown around today a lot (just like chef). To me, you earn that through years of work and education - I don’t even consider myself one at this point - but typically to start the path to becoming a chocolatier, you would want to find a school that has a chocolate program. There is a really great one south of Grand Rapids that is run by my dad’s best friend and one of the top chocolatiers in the world, Luis Amado. The next step would be to find a chef/establishment that you love and apply. My dad's passion to learn mixed with his unique talents to get him where he is today. Additionally, he has some really great friends and colleagues in the industry to discuss, critique, and bounce ideas off of.
What do your days look like at the shop?
I typically look like a madman running around the shop all day. The pandemic has brought some new challenges in addition to my normal routine of assisting customers, prepping, and packaging product. During the holiday season I tend to spend more time on the production side to keep up with demand. It gets a little nuts during this time, but in a good way; running out of product is always a great problem to have.
Is it fun to concoct new flavors & bring ideas to life? How do you go about that process?
Coming up with new products and experimenting with new flavor combinations is easily one of my favorite parts of the job. There isn't a guide book to coming up with new stuff; creativity can strike at any moment of the day from any member of the family. Each item, especially the truffles and bonbons, have their own origin story. Some were a result of modernizing a traditional recipe, others from a simple conversation about flavors or cravings.
Tell us how you have tackled the hurdles of owning a business during this season with a pandemic.
It was all about adapting. The pandemic has presented us with the opportunity to adapt quickly, and on a large scale. When it came to the business we immediately set up an online ordering system for curb-side pickup and delivery. We built an outdoor booth at our main entrance to minimize the risk of virus transmission. Shipping was something we always wanted to do, but never had the time to tackle. However, the pandemic pushed us to adapt and so here we are - a local chocolate shop offering pick up, local delivery, and now shipping in the continental US!
We love what you do for work, but tell us more about what you love to do or create outside of Mokaya.
When I'm not at Mokaya or cooking food at home (which is something I love), you’ll find me with a guitar in hand or learning new songs on the piano. One of my favorite possessions is my 1918 Gibson guitar.
Have you always lived in Michigan? What is your favorite thing about living in the Mitten?
I've spent nearly my entire life in Michigan. There was a short period of time after I graduated college that I bounced around anthropological digs out in the deserts of Wyoming, and I also had a brief stint in NYC trying my hand at being an artist. But my favorite part about living in the mitten is being so close to my family and lifelong friends, and of course the proximity to Lake Michigan shouldnt be discounted. I also have to note the incredible community of makers here. I know it's not unique to live in a state surrounded by creatives and creators, but there really is something special about the people here, especially in Grand Rapids. Detroit too, is another favorite place of mine.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Inspiration is something that I don’t actively think about. I think the most important element in finding inspiration is allowing it to come from anywhere. For me personally, I find it harder to create when the possibilities are endless. I think the most beautiful ideas/solutions come in finding elegant work-arounds for your limitations.
Current favorite song, food, and walking trails_
All time favorite song_ ‘Sam Stone’ by John Prine. Favorite song of the moment_ ‘Cheer Up, My Brother’ by HNNY. Right now my favorite food is Quarentinos Detroit style pizza, and I always order the MC5. Currently I've really been enjoying the trails at Aman Park, but my all time favorite place to hike is Rosy Mound along Lake Michigan.
Which Conscious Clothing Garments are your faves?
This might be the hardest question of all, but I think I'd have to say the Palette Pants. They fit so well and are extremely comfortable. However I've had my eye on the Cypress Skirt and that might take the cake once it's mine.
Photos by Leigh Ann Cobb.