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Max Brenner: Australia’s real life Willy Wonka

Max Brenner: Australia’s real life Willy WonkaMax Brenner is a passionate storyteller who wants to change the way the world experiences chocolate. As his brand continues to be embraced by Australia, he spoke to editor Jen Bishop about business, belief, Paris and fatherhood.

Max Brenner is the consummate entrepreneur, bursting with ideas and passion and less than interested in business plans and profit and loss sheets. He believes it’s belief that drives success and advises any would-be business owners to stop overanalysing and just get on and do it.

This enthusiasm and drive has served the Israeli chocolate maker well. Max Brenner Chocolate Bars are now in Australia (where the world’s first opened in Paddington in 2000), Israel, The United States, Singapore and the Philippines. Two new Gold Coast cafes opened this year, bringing the Aussie total to 15. And while Brenner’s chocolate concept started in Israel as purely retail, it is here in Australia where the chocolate bar concept was realised and has really taken off.

Chocolate heaven

If you live in Sydney or Melbourne, it’s very likely you’ve heard of Max Brenner, but for the uninitiated, let me explain. Max Brenner is a chocoholic’s dream; a chain of cosy cafes where you can drink specially spiced hot chocolate drinks made from cocoa beans imported from around the globe. It’s a place where you’re encouraged to lick melted chocolate from your spoon and dip strawberries in it, or drizzle it over waffles. You get the idea.

To enhance the experience, a special ceremony for chocolate drinking was created. Max’s set of innovative and specially designed utensils—like the ‘hug mug’ with no handles which you cup with both hands—allow one to truly experience the depth of each chocolate drink.

Unusual beginnings

But how did it all start? It’s a cute story, and Brenner is the master storyteller. It begins back in 1996 in Israel, when he left the army. The young Brenner was set on writing a novel, but in the meantime decided to enrol on a government-funded pastry chef course, as you do.

“It was a total coincidence as I was never a chef, and I’m not now,” he says. “I didn’t cook when I was a kid or grow up dreaming of working in a kitchen. It was nothing like that. It reminds me of that famous John Lennon saying that life is what happens to you when you’re busy doing something else. I just needed some money.”

He did that for eight months then went to Europe, still dreaming of becoming a writer, and worked with various chefs. Then in Paris, in 1994, he met chocolatier Michel Chaudun and something changed. “He was an amazing chocolate maker, really traditional and one of the best,” says Brenner. “These foundations gave me an amazing start.”

The brand is born

He returned to Israel enthused by chocolate and opened his first tiny retail store in an alleyway. “The plan was still just to make and sell a few chocolates and write my book. But then I dived into the world of business and everything changed. When I started I really wasn’t much a of a businessman. I didn’t care for the business plan or the P&L.” What he did have was a very clear idea of what he wanted to create.

“I always felt there was a very big contradiction between the way people think and dream of chocolate and the reality of the way they can experience it in the retail market. People were still buying chocolate as they would jewellery, from chocolatiers like Godiva, which is great, but very limited.

Childish pleasures

I think most people think of chocolate like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as fun and happiness, childhood memories and romance. They can only experience all this in their dreams. Then I knew what I wanted to create: a 3D chocolate experience, to tell the chocolate story in a very broad way; a way that hadn’t ever been done before. I wanted to create a chocolate culture.”

So how did the first Max Brenner Chocolate Bar open here in Australia, you might ask? The answer is Tom Haikin. Back then, Max and Tom were both in their 20s. “I was very opportunistic,” says Brenner. “I felt that I had an amazing idea and I was very nervous that someone would do it before me. I just wanted to get on and do it. Tom was very courageous and brave. He was 24 and marrying an Aussie and moving to Australia. He said let’s do this in Australia and he invested the money.”

The first chocolate bar

When the first chocolate bar opened in Paddington in 2000, Haikin was working the coffee machine. Now he is the owner of the Australian Max Brenner franchise. “Every time we meet up we get really nostalgic about how it all started,” says Brenner. “We remember the early days when we were two young guys in our 20s. One guy had a dream in his head and another guy said: “Let’s do it”.

In 2001, the brand was bought by Israeli food company Strauss-Elite, keeping Brenner as consultant. The concept is also popular there, where there are six branches. It moved into the United States with a New York flagship in 2006, and opened its most recent bar there, in Philadelphia, last month.

“I do think belief is the most important thing in starting a business,” says Brenner. “Nine years ago, if I’d said to someone that I had this plan for chocolate bars in Australia where people will drink hot chocolate at 10am from cups called hug mugs, someone would have done market research and asked a focus group, who would probably have said it would never work.”

A new love

Max is now 41 and living in New York, where he conducts all his business meetings in the Manhattan store on Broadway. When he’s not found there, he’s either travelling or at home with the latest love of his life, daughter Nellie. His first child, she just turned one, and he gets misty-eyed when I ask about her.

“I’m an impatient person,” he says. “I’m always dreaming of what I haven’t got that I want, and when I get it, it’s always a disappointment. My friends told me they couldn’t explain what it was like to have a child and that when I had one, I would understand. Then it happened and it is so much bigger than anything I have ever had. It’s unbelievable. This is the first time in my life I’ve not been selfish. I just think about her all the time.”

Face of the brand

Back to business, I asked Max about the famous logo and ‘Chocolate by the bald man’ slogan. Does he see himself as the face of the brand? Day-to-day the answer is no, but he admits he is flattered when people recognise him and want their photo taken with him. He’s unapologetic about being motivated and driven by his ego. “This is a very emotional and quite sexy business to be in and, as the creator, I’m sometimes like a little rockstar. I love it!”

When the brand started life in Israel as retail only, it originally had the slogan ‘Handmade chocolate by Max Brenner’. “When I got back from Paris, I was really influenced by fashion designers and loved the idea of branding. I wanted a logo that looked like a signature, like a fashion designer. Four years ago, we changed the whole design and made it more colourful and fun. I wanted to change the use of ‘handmade’ because that wasn’t the message. I was making a chocolate revolution!

“When you read ‘Chocolate by the bald man’ you can’t help but laugh or smile. You must look at it. It’s so memorable. It says a lot about the company in a very concentrated way.”

Brenner lives near the Manhattan store and is in there most days. “I have all my meetings in there,” he says. “I’m not the sort of guy who goes into an office.”

Business is booming

General manager Yael Kaminski Weiler, says business is growing despite the recession. “We’re definitely in the growth period right now. We employ more than 300 people in Australia and we have an excellent staff retention rate. People love working here and they have fun. Most of our head office staff started off in the branches so they’ve grown with the company.”

Brenner has his own theories on why his brand is so popular here in Australia. “People here are very open to embracing new different foods and cultures and they love to try. This is a country of immigrants, just like America. And it might be far away by distance, but our success here is radiating out to everywhere else in the world.”

Cocoa competition

Numerous chocolate cafes have come to Australia in the last few years, Lindt, Guylian, Sanchuro and Koko Black among them, but Max Brenner was here first and it’s still the biggest. Brenner sees it as a good thing. “The more people are talking about chocolate the better, as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “Competition keeps us awake and changing things and coming up with new ideas. I’d be like that anyway but it all helps.”

Wise words from Max

The saying on Brenner’s ‘roo mug,’ which has a little pouch for chocolates to melt beside your coffee, seems to sum up his philosophy on chocolate and life. It reads: “Drink your coffee in a decent way (and forget you’re an adult) then lick the chocolate leftovers to keep the child in you forever”.

His top tips for the aspiring business owner are, not surprisingly, a little different to the norm: “Don’t go too much into analysing. Starting a business is about believing, not analysing. Just go for it!” He adds: “I don’t believe in vision either. What you want to achieve changes from day to day. You have to be flexible.” As for the book, it’s still a work in progress.

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Jen Bishop

Jen Bishop

Jen was the publisher at Loyalty Media and editor of Dynamic Business, Australia's largest circulating small business magazine, from 2008 until 2012. She is now a full-time blogger at The Interiors Addict.

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