We went to a talk given at the Writer’s Center at Biton Aharon, nearby Netanya, given by Oded Brenner, the owner of the “Max Brenner” chocolate franchise. He has written and published a book that is a combination of chocolate recipes and his own story. One reason we went was that samples of his chocolates were being provided as part of the show.
What he told us was that he never started out to be a businessman or to develop a chocolate business, he only wanted to be a writer. Growing up in Israel with a romantic view of life, he imagined this meant getting up at noon, reading and thinking until the evening while drinking wine, and then writing until late at night. In pursuit of this dream he had no real interest in making a living or having a profession, so after school he enlisted in a free course given by the Government. There were many such courses mostly on practical subjects, such as car mechanic or electrician, but the one that looked easiest to him was pastry chef, so he took that. His parents were very conservative, although left-wing, and they valued everything from Switzerland as being solid, while everything American was false and tacky. So he went to Switzerland to do an apprenticeship with a chef who promised to pay all his expenses. But, then he found that he was practically a slave, working from very early to very late and doing mostly cleaning, so he quit after 3 months and then wound up in Paris doing the same thing. The Master Chef was very secretive about his recipes, so Oded rescued them from the trash, that he was in charge of, and copied them from his book secretly. During this time he still intended to be a writer, although he never actually wrote. He quoted the saying attributed to John Lennon that “life is what happens to you while you are planning something else.”
When he returned to Israel he agreed to set up a joint business with his friend Max, and they decided to call it “Max Brenner.” They rented a very small space in the back of a business area next to a car park in Ra’anana, and they decided to make and sell chocolates. This decision was arrived at more by a process of elimination. They bought the necessary equipment and they had the recipes, but Oded had never actually made chocolate before, so he learnt on the job. He decided that the best thing was to have very little merchandise showing and to charge a lot for it. This seemed to work and they gradually increased their clientele, although he had a hard time actually selling anything himself, it seemed unnatural, when all he really wanted to do was write.
They decided to have a booth at the annual food fair in Tel Aviv, and they were inundated with orders. They were amazed, and they had no capability to fill these orders, even though they agreed to do so. One large order was from British Airways, and they worked very hard trying to fulfil this order. They bought cheap tin cans from China that went rusty and they were doing everything by hand late at night, and finally they had to give up. It seems he had to leave Israel, but he happened to meet an American who was selling gifts in New York, and so they bought out Max (who went on to make a fortune in British real estate) and he moved to New York. There he found he was in his element. He loved the competition and learning about the high-end chocolate market and how to run a business. But, finally after 5 years this business arrangement failed, so he returned to Israel and made a deal with a large Israeli chocolate firm and they together developed his franchises, the “Chocolate Bars” and the Max Brenner restaurants around the world, now in the US, Australia and Israel.
He said his goal was to develop a “dream”, not just a place to eat, but the fulfilment of a complex series of wishes. He has now started a new chain of chocolate-coffee shops, entitled “Little Brown,” although I doubt whether he knows the English ditty “Little Brown Jug.” I wanted to tell him about my idea of starting a franchise selling “Cold dogs” instead of “Hot dogs,” with a banana in a hot-dog bun covered in chocolate sauce. But, luckily I decided against it. I am too busy pursuing being a painter and a writer.
Oded Brenner came across as a very unassuming and amusing guy, very Israeli, but he never said anything about loving chocolate or having a passion for chocolate, it was all very matter-of-fact and happenstance. It seemed that in order to be successful in business (or in writing) one needs to be self-deluded. He still wants to be a writer.
Chag Pesach sameach to all my loyal Jewish readers. There will be a gap for a few days in my blog for the Passover.holiday.