Hummus is arguably Israel's best-known culinary export, but a sweeter rival has recently landed in Philadelphia.
Max Brenner Chocolate by the Bald Man — a haven for chocolate lovers — has come to Center City, making Philadelphia the most recent U.S. site in this chocolate empire's road to expansion. The company got its start outside Tel Aviv in 1996, but has branches in Australia, Singapore and the Philippines, with its flagship U.S. store in New York, and plans under way for additional restaurants in Boston and Las Vegas.
The Max Brenner shop and eatery — on 15th Street, just off Walnut — has all the cocoa and sugar you could possibly want. It serves staples like ice-cream, fondue and hot chocolate, albeit with interesting twists, as well as more daring inventions, like chocolate pizza, chocolate soup and a wicked chocolate crêpe.
Even the food — there is an extensive menu of nondessert options — includes items like French fries, dusted, of course, with cocoa powder.
"I want to create a new chocolate culture worldwide," says Oded Brenner, 41, founder of the company and the bald man himself. "It's a lot like archaeology — I am discovering more and more things that I think chocolate hides within itself."
For Brenner, chocolate is more than just a food; it's an inspiration. "For many people," he says, "chocolate is a trigger for romance or memories of childhood. It represents something that is fantastic.
"At Max Brenner, we focus on the emotions associated with chocolate. When you come to our restaurant, you come to feel romance, or feel like a child or see chocolate as a fantasy."
And indeed, in the Willy Wonka-like space that Brenner has created, chocolate is king — all imported from Israel — and dessert is hardly an afterthought. There are large chunks of chocolate — milk, dark, extra-dark — on display and an elaborate pipe system that simulates the flow of the chocolate-making system, with the uncanny odor of chocolate heaven wafting through. It's a complete experience. As Brenner likes to say, "Chocolate is not just about taste."
Brenner answers to Max, but technically, it's not his name. His first partner in the business was named Max Fichtman; they combined their two names to form the company, which they thought sounded sophisticated and "European," as he tells it.
But after Fichtman pulled out, the name stuck.
"When I left Israel, people called me Max because they saw my face on the silhouette," explains Brenner. "The brand and myself became one."
Besides, he added, it's easier for Americans "to say Max instead of Oded."
Writer Turned Confectioner
Brenner likes to think of himself as the perfect example of that famous quote: "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." As an aspiring — but poor — novelist, he ran out of money and took a government-subsidized pastry course in the hopes it could help him finance his writing.
He says his other option was car mechanics, but pastry-making seemed "easier."
After finishing the class, he decided to travel through Europe and find inspiration for his writing. Instead, he found himself supplementing his sojourns by working with chocolate masters in Paris.
Upon returning to Israel in 1996, he opened his first store outside Tel Aviv. "At that point," he explains, "all of my creativity was targeted to chocolate. I found that it was a very good way to express myself."
And, indeed, chocolate for Brenner is about storytelling.
Nothing in the restaurant really lets customers know that it is Israeli in origin, though there happens to be hummus on the menu. But aside from its Israeli beginnings, the company is also owned by one of Israel's largest food conglomerates: The Strauss Group acquired the brand in 2001, and in doing so, paved the way for the company's international growth.
Max Brenner's expansion has for the most part been focused on Australia and East Asia, but the company is now targeting North America. The Las Vegas restaurant is planned to open later this year at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace.
Philadelphia was a logical extension as the company moved into the U.S. market, says Brenner, since it's close to New York, and thus an easy commute.
He says he believes that the City of Brotherly Love is open to new culinary trends and traditions, and understands that the New York store isn't representative of the American market at large.
Brenner adds: "We wanted to see how the concept worked in other cities that had a more American-style culture."