Haute Dining: Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man

Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man, now tempts tourists and locals in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. Creating a chocolate mood in 9,400 square feet, the temptation includes a restaurant, chocolate shop and a full bar featuring Max’s Magnificent Mojito and Margarita Bar. Max’s saying, first food then chocolate, translates to menu items such as Max’s chocolate pizza, waffles, mugs filled with chocolate, ice cream bars with chocolate dipping sauces, chocolate crème and a chocolate syringe to squirt chocolate right into your mouth. There is real food on the menu, but this is all about the chocolate. The dishes are even designed for chocolate like the hug mug or the kangaroo mug. Coffee shop chains can never compete with Max Brenner.

Max Brenner was founded in 1996 in Israel by Oded Brenner and another partner, so there is no actual Max Brenner. Brenner took the name “Max” because it was easy to pronounce and it sounded American.  Brenner has chocolate restaurants and retail locations in his native Israel, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, New York, Philadelphia as well as Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas property, formerly Chinois and Poetry, is homage to chocolate. The flooring resembles chocolate squares, almost meant to be broken off and eaten like The Chocolate Factory. Brenner said he is like Willie Wonka, only bald.

Haute Living: Why do we love chocolate so much?

Max Brenner: Chocolate is not just about taste. It’s a symbol of different aspects in our lives of romance, of sensuality, of decadence. It is addictive, we cannot resist it.

HL: What is your concept?

MB: The idea behind it is very simple. I had a little chocolate store in Israel. I had my little workshop where I was making chocolate. The thing that captured my mind was when I was talking to my customers; they said my chocolate was not like any other chocolate they ate. They were talking about so many things in my chocolate; it was not just about taste. A lot of it was about childhood memories, especially the customer’s memories when they were children, like licking chocolate with their hands or that chocolate is romantic or a luxury like jewelry. I couldn’t believe that in the retail market of today, it is so theatrical. When people go out to shop, it is not just a function, it is the whole experience.

HL: Your concept is so unique. How did you develop it?

MB: Today is seems easy to describe it but when I first started, it was an intuitive thing, I didn’t really think about, why to do it, it’s more something I felt from the inside and I went with my intuition.

HL: How is your Las Vegas restaurant different from your other restaurants?

MB: It’s a Vegas-style restaurant. It is bigger, glamorous. It has all of the elements and the concept has been refined and is ready. I have to say that when I came here, I was very excited. Even though in each place you will find the same colors, each place has their own personality and character. When I started 14 years ago, as I was opening restaurants in Australia, Singapore, I was meeting people, including Americans, and they would ask when I was going to open a store in Las Vegas. They would tell me that I should be in Vegas. I have to say that this concept is taking chocolate experience to a whole different level; it was a natural match with this place (Las Vegas) that is so fantastic, so unreal. It is like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory coming to life. It was a perfect match.

HL: What challenges have you faced opening in Las Vegas?

MB: Operations, you need to be really ready. We deserve to be in Las Vegas and I hope we prove that. We are very good in every level of my concept.

HL: How is your concept different today than when you first started?

MB: When I go to a restaurant today, it is just not that I am going just to eat because I am hungry. I am going to see beautiful people, an amazing display, for an incredible experience. When I go to Tao (at the Venetian), I want to feel like I am in Asia. The chocolate experience in retail is not so different. The way people talk about chocolate — fun, licking, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, pie, romance, happiness and amusement. The chocolate stores I remember were very European with an old-fashioned way of selling chocolate — don’t touch, very intimidating. My idea now is with very little item here in the store, and we are very particular about detail, to bring all of these elements of chocolate together and see how far I can take it.

HL: Why are your stores so large for a chocolate shop?

MB: I travel a lot, all over the world, in the states, to open stores and I don’t think anyone has taken the concept of chocolate to my level, to this experience. Not to our scale. We have a 10,000-square-foot store (in Union Square) and have 2,000 people a day come into the store. It is all about the experience. We need to be big to offer our chocolate in all the ways it can be enjoyed.

HL: Is there an art to drinking chocolate?

MB: Why is drinking chocolate so boring? For example, drinking hot chocolate. Why isn’t there a story about how you drink it? What about the different types of chocolate you can drink? I created different chocolates with different textures and special utensils for them like the hug mug. When you drink chocolate, the first sensation is winter, under the blankets, snow — not in Vegas — but hugging a mug of hot chocolate. So I created the hug mug so when people come to Max Brenner, this is the way to drink hot chocolate. I offer a light version of hot chocolate, almost a cappuccino, made with a chocolate froth. I also make an Italian mint chocolate made with vanilla cream and is very smooth.

HL: You have a unique way of presenting your drinks. What is another one?

MB: I have a drink called Suckao. The name comes from suck and cacao, the cocoa bean. The idea is that you can make your own chocolate drink. My stores are very interactive. You play with your chocolate — you touch it, you smell it. In the evening, it is very nice with the candles and we dim the lights, so it is very romantic. You can make it as chocolaty as you want and the cup comes with a spoon and straw and it is all about really enjoy drinking hot chocolate.

HL: You seem to balance on a line of bringing out the child in everyone while being sophisticated.

MB: Everything gets the Max twist. We serve cappuccino the Max Brenner way and I created a kangaroo cup with a pouch. The idea is that when you drink the cappuccino, take the chocolate wafer and put it in your mouth and let the cappuccino melt it. When you are finished, you get this spoon with two sides, to mix and to lick. So when you finish drinking, you lick your pouch. It says on the cup, “Drink your coffee in a decent way, don’t forget you are an adult. Then lick the chocolate left over to keep the child in you forever.” Even our cappuccino is a different cappuccino.