NEW YORK — Oded Brenner has been producing and selling chocolate for over 20 years. But believe it or not, it’s a profession he slipped into accidentally while aspiring to become a full-time writer.
“Life happens while you’re planning other things, and that’s what happened to me,” says Brenner, who took a government-subsidized pastry course upon completion of his military service in Israel.
Following the one-year course, Brenner went on to work for another six years as an apprentice in Europe.
“I worked with very unique pastry chefs, sugar artists, and eventually a chocolate maker in Paris. My dream, however, was to become a writer,” Brenner says.
Today Brenner uses his culinary skill to tell stories. Through Blue Stripes, his new chocolate shop in New York, he shares the tale that forced him away from chocolate for the past five years, as well as his return.
Max Brenner — Brenner’s first chocolate shop, opened together with former business partner Max Fichtman — was a modern day “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It featured chocolate pizzas, liquid chocolate tubes, fondues, and banana splits. In contrast, Blue Stripes takes on a more simplistic approach, sticking to the basics and stripping decadent chocolate of its kitsch.
“I have lived and breathed the culinary world and see how the trend today is about simplicity,” Brenner tells The Times of Israel. “Street food has made an enormous comeback. No one has patience for food rituals, and no one wants unnecessary drama before their food is served.”
At almost 50, Brenner is determined to continue reinventing the experience of chocolate tasting. This time he creates a concept based on the cacao fruit using both its pulp and beans.
Discovering the cacao
“Chocolate has these different aspects to it. On one hand, it comes from a very wild fruit that grows in the jungle, but on the other hand, it is a decadent European classic served in porcelain,” says Brenner.
Though he’d been dealing with chocolate for decades, Brenner’s love story with the cacao fruit itself started on a 2017 trip to the Blue Mountains in Jamaica. He was introduced to Jamaican breakfast cacao, a beverage that was based on the raw rich flavors of the cacao bean.
His infatuation with this new gem expanded beyond just the fruit’s bean. He learned that cacao pulp is a key ingredient for a fresh Jamaican smoothie. This new delectable discovery inspired him to explore the fruit’s full culinary potential.
“I knew the cacao fruit was a very interesting fruit from visits to plantations in Mexico. However, after experiencing various forms of cacao in Jamaica I realized that this is an experience I have to share,” Brenner says.
This is when Brenner began exploring different aspects of the fruit that had, to a limited extent, made it to North America. He began testing out new cacao recipes, though he would be able to unveil them only later.
Stories of chocolate
At the newly opened Blue Stripes Cacao Shop, Brenner tells his personal story through short pieces of text written to his daughter Nellie. Nellie and her younger brother Norie are too young to remember the days of Max Brenner, which became a world famous chocolate chain, so Brenner shares memories of it through short stories scattered throughout the store and on beautifully decorated gift boxes.
In fact, the entire Blue Stripes brand is based on stories Brenner wrote for Nellie, who had never experienced her father’s chocolate heyday, but who had heard about it from so many people and seen her father’s face on the store’s sign each time they passed by the shop on Broadway.
“I wrote 40 short stories where I tell her about how I started, how I grew, and how I hit rock bottom,” Brenner says.
In 2001, Brenner sold his Max Brenner chain to Israeli food and beverage giant Strauss. Initially, the Strauss group had been business partners and on good terms with Brenner, but the relationship went sour after Brenner opened a separate coffee shop in New York City that Strauss claimed was a breach of contract.
The food and beverage giant sued Brenner, forcing further restrictions on his new business — called Little Brown — and ultimately forcing its collapse.
Eleven years later, after a long court battle, Brenner signed a non-compete agreement with the company, which precluded him from working on any chocolate-related endeavors. According to the legal agreement, he couldn’t even use the word “chocolate” in any of his professional pursuits.
Brenner was also barred from displaying his face or name in a way that promoted a new brand. He was essentially banned from chocolate, his life’s craft, for five years.
“It was a very big blow for me and my family both financially and emotionally,” says Brenner. “All my money and equity was in Max Brenner, and because of the settlement I lost everything and really had to change my life.”
From a lavish lifestyle in Manhattan, where he had moved in 2005 when Max Brenner moved its headquarters to the US, Brenner and his family were forced to move to a small suburban home. Brenner, who had built the Max Brenner empire, was back to square one.
“Either you crash, or you ask yourself why has this happened to me and what is the lesson? It was a humbling experience which I now see as a gift,” says Brenner.
Brenner says he rediscovered himself during these five years, and one of the epigrams displayed at the shop seems to reflect this: “To find yourself forever, you have to lose yourself first.” Blue Stripes is Brenner’s long awaited comeback.
Blue Stripes Cacao Shop
Walking into Blue Stripes one is immediately hit with a strong aroma of melting chocolate that can stir even the most dormant appetite for cacao. The space is both industrial and cozy with high ceilings, bare metal beams, brick walls, wooden benches and decorative plants.
At the back of the shop there is a large bookcase stacked with books at the customers’ disposal. The brick wall is replaced by a pastel colored mural that resemble layers of wallpaper topped with a children’s book illustration.
Short phrases are scattered along the wall, appearing as pieces of a larger puzzle that provide further clues to Brenner’s story.
At any given moment the staff can be seen grinding cacao beans or pouring thick “cloud-like” chocolate milk from a beer tap. The signature chocolate Clouds drink is inspired by nitro coffee, but has a creamier, lighter texture because it uses nitrous oxide (rather than nitrogen gas) and is whipped with air.
Brenner serves smoothies and breakfast bowls made from a cacao fruit pulp base, the very smoothie he fell in love with in Jamaica. He describes the cacao as a beautiful super food that feels like an “inner cleanse.”
The menu is divided into three sections: food, chocolate and beverages, and offers everything sweet, with items such as the 70% hot chocolate, homemade Nutella latte, and lemony doughnut fondue. Other attention grabbing cacao treats include the signature vegan chocolate tahini truffle bar, a spin on the Israeli Krembo treat of soft marshmallow topped with a thin layer of chocolate, and chocolate globes that look like giant Ferrero Rocher bonbons wrapped in golden foil.
Even after 20 years in the business, it is clear Brenner still finds cacao to be absolutely enchanting.
“It offers a very intense experience, similar to smelling a perfume,” he says. “It’s an experience both raw and primal — and just like with magic, it never gets old or tiring.”
Blue Stripes is located at 28 East 13th St. in Union Square.