March 18, 2002, Updated April 2, 2014

Max Brenner, an Israeli confectioner, is out to change the way the world eats its chocolate.

When upstart Israeli chocolate company Max Brenner announced that it was going to change the world’s chocolate culture, many in Europe’s traditional meccas of cocoa raised an eyebrow. After all, what could Israelis teach the Swiss, Belgians and Germans about the grand old craft of chocolatiering?

But a glimpse inside the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar in London’s premier department store, Harrods – the British bastion of culinary tradition and good taste – shows that with a little ingenuity and chutzpah, the Israeli entrepreneur is doing just that: changing the way the world indulges its chocolate habit.

On its official Web site, Harrods offers this warning: “Chocoholics beware: Max Brenner knows what you like and will use it against you!”

Max Brenner is the brainchild of Oded Brenner, a 33-year-old native of Tel Aviv, who came to chocolate late in life. His original dream was to be a writer.

Following his army service, Brenner decided the best way to pursue that dream was to find a profession where he could remain at home close to his computer keyboard. Unemployed, he took a few confectionary courses offered by Israel’s Ministry of Labor and soon became enamored by the age-old art of chocolate making.

Brenner then honed his craft in France, Austria, and Germany under some of the world’s most accomplished chocolatiers. After returning to Israel, Brenner opened several small chocolate boutiques with his former partner Max (from whom the company name derives).

But Brenner’s sights were set much higher than the relatively inexperienced palates of his fellow countrymen. “I wanted to create an entirely new chocolate culture throughout the world,” he said. For Brenner, that didn’t mean just creating an innovative new line of chocolate products, it meant creating a whole new story.

“We don’t just drink wine, for example. We like to read what’s written on the bottle, to pour it in a carafe and let it breathe. The same is true of coffee – there’s something wonderful about drinking coffee from Guatemala or Colombia. That’s what I want to do with chocolate,” he said.

This included creating a series of designer chocolates with cocoa beans from such countries as Ecuador, Venezuela, Ghana and Indonesia. Brenner also fashioned a line of chocolate-related utensils such as mugs, pitchers and carafes for special hot chocolate ceremonies.

It also meant establishing his shrine to the art of making and eating the favorite treat at Harrods. The original idea was to design a setting along the lines of Starbucks, where the whole chocolate experience is catered to, from the special mood-setting music to the heated cups, to the special mixtures of lavender flowers, cardamom, orange peel oil, marzipan, liquorice, blueberry and cherry liqueur, helping to create a sweet-lover’s paradise.

Max Brenner’s Chocolate Bar in London is straight out of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Giant transparent vats of pure white and milk chocolate boil up the viscous delight. The thick brew is siphoned through sprawling pipes to waiting taps where a barman pours it into specially designed Max Brenner mugs. Happy shoppers sip out the sweet drops from their Italian hot chocolates, Ecuador orange chocolate drinks or a host of other chocolaty beverages.

“There’s plenty of fine chocolate stores in the world, but they all lack that total chocolate experience,” Brenner said. “Chocolate isn’t a gold wrapper with a ribbon, it’s Gucci, or Cartier or Armani. That’s the world that speaks to me.”

According to Ayelet Liphshitz, chief executive of Max Brenner, that vision is what drives the company’s corporate culture as well. “Max Brenner is about quality and distinction in everything it does, from product design to sales to customer relations. To achieve this, we’ve created an independent company with young managers who, in line with our new chocolate culture, have created a new organizational, managerial, and manufacturing culture.”

But Max Brenner’s dream of changing the world’s chocolate consumption has not come cheaply. Shortly after opening the 100-square-meter store in Harrods, the company ran into financial difficulties and had a hard time keeping up with the demands of taking their chocolate vision global.

Enter Elite, Israel’s leading chocolate and coffee manufacturer.

Elite purchased the Max Brenner label recently for just over a million dollars and gave the fledgling business the financial backing it needed. Elite, which has been making inroads in the chocolate markets in several European countries, had long been seeking a way to break into the gourmet industry, to compete with the likes of specialty chocolate powerhouses Godiva and Ghirardelli. Max Brenner offered the perfect opportunity.

“We understood that the worldwide chocolate market had not been exhausted. Max Brenner was definitely ahead of its time, but they needed financial backing. So we decided to put Elite’s power behind their creativity and vision,” said Elite chief executive Giora Bar-Dea.

The blend seems to be working. Aside from the bar in Harrods, Max Brenner chocolates are also sold in Europe, Australia, Israel and over the Internet. They are also featured in American gourmet food chain Dean & DeLuca, which describes them as “an exquisite statement of the confectioner’s art.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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