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Playful cafes hit the sweet spot for chocolatier Max Brenner

Max Brenner never really wanted to be a chef, cook or restaurateur.

In fact, cooking was a happy accident that quite literally turned into a sweet, lucrative business — one that made
the Israeli-born entrepreneur a

Brenner, founder and co-owner of Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man, the 20-unit casual-
dining chain specializing in decadent confections and desserts, said that while he is passionate about chocolate, his initial desire was to become a writer. He turned to making chocolates and pastries as a way to earn money while he pursued his writing career.

“I am not a chef in the ordinary way,” Brenner said. “Whenever I read an interview with a chef, they always have some connection to food. I love food and love to eat chocolate, but I never had any real passion to cook or bake. Much of this is almost a coincidence. There’s a famous saying: ‘Things happen to you when you’re planning other things,’ and that’s really what happened to me.”

As a teenager, Brenner decided to take advantage of some culinary courses offered at a professional school in Tel Aviv. He focused on chocolate and pastry making because, as he said, “They were the least complicated or dirty of all the classes being offered. For me this was an amazing way to make money. The Israeli government supported people who went to professional schools [supporting the hospitality] industry. I could go to school for six hours a day and then come home and write.”

Following his eight-month stint at the professional school, Brenner traveled to Europe to work as an apprentice with master chocolatiers and pastry chefs, and learn his craft. 

“I did that for five years, and it was a very romantic life, in a holistic sense,” he said. “I also gained a lot of knowledge.” 

Perhaps the biggest lesson he learned was that he didn’t favor the formal way in which fine chocolates were served. He thought it should be embraced by the masses, so he set out to open a store that would do just that.

“When I was working in one chocolate store, I would have conversations with the customers and discovered there was a contradiction between the way they talked about chocolate and the way they experienced it,” he said. “They talked about it like it was something out of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ — the most wonderful childhood memory or something romantic, super sensual. I decided to take this aspect of chocolate and write my life story with it.”

It seems that Brenner has hit a sweet spot. In 2000, he began opening Chocolate by the Bald Man shops in Israel, Australia, Singapore and, in 2006, the United States. Generating an average check of $17 per person and featuring menu items like Chocolate Crispy Eggrolls and Urban S’mores, the stores serve the breakfast, lunch and dinner dayparts.

And despite having sold a majority stake in the chain in 2001 to the Strauss Group, an Israeli foodservice company, the 41-year-old entrepreneur still presides over a business that today generates annual sales of $50 million and has plans to grow the brand with openings in Las Vegas in July and Boston in October. 

But it is his flagship store near Union Square in New York City that attracts the biggest crowds.

“More than 1,000 people a day come into this store,” he said. “They’re happy, smiling and
energetic. It’s overwhelming.”

Even the recession has not negatively impacted the company’s sales performance, Brenner said. In fact, sales are up.

“Even in a year of recession, we had 15-percent growth in sales, and it’s not so difficult to explain,” he said. “People still want to go out to a place that has an amazing design, service and quality, but they want to spend less to do it. Where they used to pay $25 to $30 to do that, they now are averaging about $16 to $17. Our check average is almost perfect for the time.”

The second thing, he continued, “is that chocolate may be the No. 1 comfort food, almost like medicine to people. It’s relaxing. When a person’s mood is not at its peak, chocolate is a good motivator to get some sweetness.”

With Chocolate by the Bald Man, Brenner appears to be rewriting the way in which people consume chocolate desserts. He is trying to make it more of an accessible treat than a luxury item.

“I don’t think I’ve changed things too much, but for the first time people have been enabled to enjoy chocolate the way they see it in their minds,” he said. n

Contact Elissa Elan at [email protected]

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