NEW YORK — Max Brenner is out to change Americans’ eating habits.
As if that weren’t challenging enough in the broadest sense, Brenner is taking on a beloved American treat: chocolate. The Israeli entrepreneur, who began his confectionary campaign a decade ago with a shop near Tel Aviv, envisions “a new chocolate culture” and opened his first American outpost off Union Square last week, with another Manhattan branch soon to follow.
The hard-to-miss spot — modestly called Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man — is both retail store and cozy cafe. And while a bonbon emporium is itself not a radical concept in a city full of places like Fauchon and La Maison du Chocolat, the European-trained pastry chef seeks to provide an alternative to the typical stuffy chocolate boutique. While Brenner doesn’t fault the quality of those establishments’ products, he notes a disconnect between the ambience and the nature of their merchandise. “The experience is very intimidating,” says Brenner. “The whole way it is positioned is almost the opposite to the way you think of chocolate.”
By contrast, Brenner’s confiserie is infused with his very particular brand of whimsy — the store has cartooned walls, industrial-sized vats of bubbling chocolate and ubiquitous signs that preach the gospel according to Brenner (“It is so simple, you just need to love chocolate,” says one).
The take-out section at the store’s front juxtaposes his newfangled inventions, like chocolate pizza and chocolate bagels, with more traditional treats like chocolate bars. The cafe takes it one step further, boasting menu items for which presentation is paramount to product. According to Brenner, the “chocolate drinking ceremony” is as important as the drink itself. To this end, Brenner offers a concentrated chocolate shot served in another of his inventions: the Suckao, an orb-shaped ceramic contraption equipped with a candle for do-it-yourself melting. There is also the Banana Split Latte served in the Alice Cup, a large container with a note that asks the customer to “Drink Me,” and the Cream Mountain Chocolate served in the Hugmug, a stein shaped to encourage one to wrap both hands around it.
But while the cafe is a veritable cocoa temple, those lacking a sweet tooth needn’t feel unwelcome. The menu also offers traditional lunch and brunch fare: omelets, sandwiches and salads, with a “light” section to accommodate the calorie-conscious.
This story first appeared in the July 31, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The brain behind the operation is, of course, the Bald Man himself. And as one would expect, the new Manhattanite is as zany as the confectionery that bears his name. With his shiny scalp and single earring, Brenner is a dead ringer for Mr. Clean. Among his many personality tics, the strict vegetarian shuns the subway, instead opting to ride his vintage bike around town. Next month, he plans to expand his empire with the opening of a second store on Second Avenue at Ninth Street.
When asked how he copes with his active imagination, Brenner doesn’t sugarcoat it: “I don’t sleep well,” he admits. Good thing his newest store will be open 24 hours.