February 22, 2019

The Return of Max Brenner

“At the southern edge of Union Square, a stylized illustration of a character ostensibly named Max Brenner keeps a watchful eye over Broadway and the movie theater across the street. Adorned on the outside with gilded paneling, the Brenner café serves dishes like “Chocolate Chunks Pizza” and “Max’s Famous Chocolate Mess Party for Two” to groups of tourists and parents celebrating their kids’ birthdays. The New York outpost is just one of the 55 restaurants and “chocolate bars” scattered around the globe that comprise the wildly successful Max Brenner chain.

However, the real Brenner is never inside. In fact, he’s only been there once in the last five years. Instead, he’s usually a block and a half downtown, running a completely different shop, which features no gold paint, no iconography of his baldness, and barely any mention of the word “chocolate.”

Oded Brenner founded the original Max Brenner in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1995. (The name is a mash-up of Brenner’s and that of his former partner, Max Fichtman, although, over time, Brenner adopted the name as his own and became the brand’s avatar — hence the slogan, “Chocolate by the bald man.”) He sold the brand to the Israeli conglomerate the Strauss Group in 2001, remaining a strategic partner through the chain’s meteoric growth. But when he opened an independent coffee shop, Strauss sued him for breach of a non-compete contract. The 2012 conclusion of the litigation resulted in a five-year exile from chocolate and a financial and emotional nadir.

“Basically they crushed me financially,” Brenner says. “They took my equity. Crazy things. Even if I opened a Mexican restaurant, I couldn’t say that I’m behind it, I couldn’t put any chocolate on the menu … It was like I didn’t own my own face.””

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