This man was kicked out of his own company, financially destroyed, and banned from making chocolate for five years. But he learned: “Hell has advantages”

15+ min read

This article has been translated from our English edition.

  • Brenner says those five years were the darkest of his life; moved his family, struggled financially, called friends to ask for help finding work. His whole self-image changed.
This man was kicked out of his own company, financially destroyed, and banned from making chocolate for five years. But he learned: “Hell has advantages”
This man was kicked out of his own company, financially destroyed, and banned from making chocolate for five years. But he learned: “Hell has advantages”

Like an ambitious young man who wants to shape the world Oded Brenner I never intended to make chocolate. He probably wasn’t going bald either, but when we spoke on the phone the founder of was Max Brenner: Chocolate from the bald man (Chocolate for the Bald Man), 52, suggested that the plans are usually a detour from the main event. He quoted John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you make other plans.”

Brenner grew up in Israel and wanted to be a writer. But he needed money to finance his writing, and it turned out he had a knack for baking cakes. So he went to Paris to study with the chocolatier Michel Chaudun. In 1996, when he was 25 years old, he returned to Israel to open a chocolate shop in the small town of Ra’anana.

“The things I did in my shop were very original and different from the classic European chocolate shops,” he says. “I felt like there was a huge gap between the way people talk and think about chocolate and the way they experience it in retail. Traditional chocolate shops treat chocolate almost like jewels. Don’t touch them in these beautiful boxes! But when I was talking to my clients, they were talking about Charlie and the chocolate factory, sexy gifts, romantic childhood memories, the emotional overtones of chocolate. So that was the beginning of Max Brenner. I said: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Let’s create chocolate pipes that are scattered all over the restaurant. Let’s create a “hug mug” so you can hug it and feel like you’re in a ski vacation chalet. They say, “I’m a chocolate addict, I want a dose of chocolate.” So I made a big syringe of chocolate for you to squirt into your mouth. And so. I really turned it into a chocolate amusement park. “

The news of chocolate fun spread, and Max Brenner (a pointy hat for Brenner and his original partner Max Fichtman) quickly became a household name in Israel. In 2001 the company was taken over by the Israeli food conglomerate Strauss Group. And as the brand continued to grow, moved its headquarters to New York and opened more than 50 international locations, Brenner felt the loss of control more and more clearly. With Strauss’ blessing, he opened a separate coffee house chain, Little Brown Chocolate Bakery Coffee, in 2011. When the new concept prevailed, Strauss sued him for violating her incompetence. Brenner struggled to the last penny, but still lost both Little Brown and his place in Max Brenner. And he was not allowed to have anything to do with chocolate or put his name or face on any brand for five years (the entrepreneur turned to Strauss for comment but received no response before publication).

Brenner says those five years were the darkest of his life; moved his family, struggled financially, called friends to ask for help finding work. His whole self-image changed. But when the exile ended, he returned with a new adventure. In 2018, the Blue Stripes: Urban Cacao Store opened just a block and a half from Max Brenner’s flagship in Union Square. On a trip to a Blue Plant coffee plantation in Jamaica, Brenner had discovered the innumerable uses for cocoa, a football-shaped fruit with somewhat eerie-looking white “pods” inside. I was horrified to learn that chocolatiers only use 30 percent of all “superfoods” and throw the rest away. “I was surprised to have worked with chocolate for 20 years and I wasn’t aware of its potential,” says Brenner. “I thought wow this is cocoa the way I want to talk about it. The purity and cultural origin of it ”.

Blue Stripes uses all parts (peel, fruit, and pods) of cocoa to make incredibly healthy products, from cocoa water and dried fruit to cookies, energy bars and protein balls, ketogenic dessert snacks, granola, hazelnut butter and pastry flour.

“I think Max Brenner was a phenomenal brand,” says Brenner. “But what I do with Blue Stripes today is much nicer in terms of creativity and meaningful message. When you see what is happening around the world (climate change, pollution, divide between rich countries and other countries) it seems that with my 25 years of experience I can finally do something here to make a change … And that was all attributed to those five years of hell. “

In an open conversation, Brenner spoke about what he had learned while walking through his personal hell. He spoke of his fateful initial decision to sell Max Brenner, to work as an entrepreneur in a corporate environment, the bitterness that came with losing control of his own creation, the prohibition on doing what he was best at, and how he came to look at them. five years in the emotional and financial desert as a unique opportunity. His perspective is valuable for entrepreneurs considering selling shares in their business, finding themselves in the middle of a nasty business partner breakup, or simply figuring out how to start over after an amazing loss.

Image: Oded Brenner

What were the factors that led you to sell Max Brenner?

Max Brenner was a great success from the start, but the success had nothing to do with making money. He had a lot of fame, he participated in a lot of television shows and everyone knew the brand. But maybe three years later, if he was making money, it sure wasn’t enough to keep going. So I had to bring a partner. Strauss was the largest food company in Israel and they basically took over the business. They gave me a very good salary, bonuses here and there, consulting fees, and a little royalty, but they left me on the mark with a very small percentage: 3.5% equity. I became a minority shareholder.

How did you think back then?

He was exhausted, he did not want this dream to die completely and he had no money to continue. So I didn’t have a choice. I wanted to believe that we would grow this together and I would still benefit from it. I convinced myself that it would end up being a billion dollar company, and my 3.5% could be $ 35 million. But to be honest, I was also so in love with my own creation that I wasn’t thinking rationally from a business perspective. He couldn’t bear to think about the shops closing. I couldn’t stop receiving my customers’ affection. I was addicted – in a good way – to food, love, applause. I didn’t want it to stop. And I didn’t really think about what it means that I only had 3.5% of the vote for anything. I thought three, four, five years later I would look back and say, “I saved the brand.”

Did Strauss give you the impression that you would retain creative control?

Yes, I got the impression: “You are Max, you are the bald man! You are an amazing guy, you are the creator!” I’m less naive now than I was then, and I think experienced people do a lot of these things on purpose. I don’t mean it badly, but they see it as a pure and cruel matter. So yeah, they made me feel like there’s no brand without me when in reality they didn’t have the same vision as me.

What was it like to go from running your company to part of a company?

Many people have told me that an entrepreneur cannot work in a business environment. It’s almost like an impossible marriage. I don’t want to generalize, but in general an entrepreneur is a very impulsive and instinctive person. He’s got a crazy passion like a fire. He wants to do things, he wants them to happen now. The company process is very different. It says, “Let’s think analytically about who told you this was true. Why this packaging? Why these colors? Why is the brand’s language changing?” It’s endless If you say, “Let’s try to sell in Japan,” it is, “Why Japan? Who told you it was a market?” But the Japanese love dark chocolate! “How do you know? Show us the research. Why do you think this is the way? The entrepreneur doesn’t usually think he knows. He pushes and makes mistakes. But he just says,” Okay, that was a mistake. It doesn’t matter. “It’s almost in their nature to make things happen. And the company is mostly made up of people who run an existing business. It’s not good or bad, but they think and analyze and slowly. “Let’s get an advisor.” s and advisors, they’re like oil and water. I mean they can’t work together.

How has your relationship with Max Brenner’s corporate team deteriorated?

Bitterness and frustration increased for a long time. At some point I came to the meetings less and I think they were relieved that they didn’t want to see me there. I showed up here and there for PR, events, interviews, whatever, and sometimes I made new recipes. But overall I wanted to get less and less involved. And finally I decided on a new concept like a chocolate Starbucks: smaller shops, self-service, fast service. It was called Little Brown. I introduced it to Max Brenner and they weren’t interested, so I said, “I don’t think he’s competing with Max Brenner and I want to open a business like this with a different brand.” They said no problem. So I opened one in the Upper East Side, then I had a franchise in Russia and another in Dubai, and I rented another store in Chelsea … they never told me I was doing anything wrong. But one day the President of Max Brenner came up to me and said: “Look, I don’t think it will work between us, we should part.” I said there was no problem. But then he said, “You have to stop doing this and that and that at Little Brown.” I said, “I can’t, I already have franchises and you know you are putting my concept at risk”. Well, he didn’t say much, and then one day on a Friday afternoon someone knocked on the door and said, “You will be notified.”

How was the litigation?

He was very excited and said, “I’ll show you and fight.” You just don’t believe a $ 3 billion company is going to destroy you, but that’s exactly what happened. It was a very short and aggressive fight. Then we went to court and when we started the discussion the judge said, “You should come to an agreement.” I didn’t have a drop of energy to keep fighting, not a penny in my pocket. So I gave up on everything. The five year non-compete clause has always been part of the deal. But I just wanted it to end, I didn’t care. I’m lucky because at some point they even said 10 years and I was ready to sign.

You really had to change your lifestyle after losing the court battle. How was it?

I lived a very comfortable life in Manhattan and my family moved to a very small house in Jersey. We had a car, we didn’t go to restaurants. No vacation, nothing. I had to call friends and ask for help. It’s not pretty when you were the big shot at interviewing and now you have to do job interviews or ask your friends to hire you for consulting jobs. And counseling is a very unstable job. You never know when you will get the next one. Sometimes he had a little more money, sometimes not. And I was very surprised how many people don’t want me as a consultant. I thought: “I’m the bald man, Max Brenner, everyone needs my advice!” It wasn’t that easy. Nobody expected the bald man. But I’ve finally started filling out a résumé that I’ve never had before. For a self-made man who was the boss, becoming an employee is devastating. But I said this is another stage that I have to go through.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs who need to find partners for their business to survive?

Don’t give up control. Be extremely tough in negotiations. If people really want your brand, at some point they will give in. If not, you are not the right partner. They will bargain hard because they are more experienced than you. Sometimes you are mentally stronger because you are in a very difficult situation and you are tired and exhausted. But don’t give up on equity, because equity is the most important thing. And I’m not talking about a huge, mature brand here. Then you can give up control and it’s a different situation. However, when a brand is in the early stages of entrepreneurship, you need to be in control of your decisions. Even if you are a little watered down in the company’s financial capital because sometimes someone is investing a lot of money and the company isn’t in a great situation, I get it, but if you are out of control it won’t be your company.

What did you learn from the emotional journey?

At a certain point, you just want to collapse. You are angry with the world, angry with God, angry with everyone. This is hell. You ask yourself: how did this happen to me? Even if you know part of it is probably your fault. But hopefully, and I told myself, you won’t go through hell often. So this is a unique experience. I would say it louder: This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Hell has advantages. It has benefits for your ego and the ego is a very destructive element in our personality. Hell has advantages in the way you talk to other people and the way you think about business. Hell, above all, makes you think. You can change your personality. You are not there by chance, and that may seem a little too spiritual and mystical, but I would tell you to listen carefully. Give him the space and time he needs. I’m sorry, concentrate. But use this time to prepare for the next phase of your life, which can be incredible. If you are creative, if you are a real entrepreneur you can go back and do it all over and the next one will be better.

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