Oded Brenner: “ Food is eaten with the eyes first”

Design — food is eaten with the eyes first, so the design must convey a story. It needs to be proprietary, if not one face of a person in the world is similar to another, the same should hold true for your product design. That is how we designed our cacao water bottle — to convey the experience of […]

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Design — food is eaten with the eyes first, so the design must convey a story. It needs to be proprietary, if not one face of a person in the world is similar to another, the same should hold true for your product design. That is how we designed our cacao water bottle — to convey the experience of picking the fresh cacao fruit in the farm by creating a similar experience on the shelf with packaging resembling the shape of the fruit.

As a part o our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Oded Brenner, the Willy Wonka brain behind Max Brenner’s Chocolate phenomena has been creating chocolate revolutions for the past two decades. From an early age, Brenner possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, leaving Israel at 22 to pursue his passion for chocolate making. He apprenticed throughout Europe working with renowned pastry and chocolate experts before taking his culinary knowledge back to Israel where he opened his first chocolate shop. By 2006, Brenner opened his first US location of Max Brenner in Manhattan and grew the brand into a chain of 65 chocolate restaurants in Japan, Russia, US, Israel, Singapore and Australia.

After selling the Max Brenner chocolate restaurant chain in 2012, Brenner was on a trip to Jamaica where he discovered the ancient and traditional ways of using every part of the Whole Cacao. His newfound love for the Cacao stayed with him and in the summer of 2018, he opened Blue stripes Cacao Shop in Union Square, Manhattan. The following year, the Hershey Chocolate Company recognized the unmatched Whole Cacao innovation of Brenner’s new brand and invested in the company, enabling Oded to grow his company and launch a Whole Cacao CPG Line in September 2020.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

There is a famous quote by John Lennon — “LIFE HAPPENS TO YOU WHILE YOU’RE BUSY PLANNING OTHER THINGS” — that, in a nutshell, is my life story. Growing up, I was actually never really interested in baking or chocolate and more than anything wanted to be a writer. As a kid, most free hours were spent reading biographies and dreaming about publishing my first novel after the three-year obligatory military service in Israel. I was very romantic and I believe my passion for “storytelling” is what created my unique branding style that is never focused on the culinary techniques but rather on the story aspect of the product, the brand and the consumer’s experience.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

I’ve been working in the chocolate industry for 25 years and created a brand, Max Brenner Chocolate, which was equivalent to the retail experience of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I sold Max, I had five years of non-compete with Max Brenner. During that period, I was invited to the Blue Mountain in Jamaica to visit a coffee grower and see the beautiful farms in that region. Before leaving for the mountains in the early morning, his wife took a solid dark ball, started to grate it, boiled the powder in water, added endless spices and whisked it with a local traditional whisk. She then poured me a cup in a ceramic, handmade goblet and said, “This is important before going up to the mountains. Pure energy.”

This was what they call: “Cacao Tea” or “True Hot Chocolate.” With my first taste, I knew that I needed to bring cacao back to its origins- from the ceremonies of making it, to its pure, naked form that is wild, genuine and so different from what we call cocoa. In that same journey I saw fascinating local traditions made with the fruit (the “meat” of the cacao pod) and the shell’s flour and knew that cacao could not be the same anymore –not just for me, but for all other true cacao and chocolate lovers.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Not sure it’s so funny but making a designated hot chocolate cup without handles because I wanted people to drink hot chocolate while hugging their mug. Remember I mentioned earlier that I was very romantic. Well, I wanted to force my romantic vision on customers and have them nestled in my cozy NYC Cacao Shop, sipping hot chocolate like they are in a ski chalet. However, my vision did not go as planned; I still remember the faces, tricks and movements of my poor customers, wanting so badly to drink my hot chocolate, but not being able to hold the cup forcing them to wait until it was cool enough to hold.

What did I learn? That sometimes practicality is more important than the story and the romantic vision!

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Trying to tell the whole story, history, inspiration and passion on one little package. Less is definitely more in every aspect of a food line — from the flavor combinations to the information on the package. Choose what is really important, see if you can still cut more from it and clean both the palette experience as well as the purpose of the product and then you might have a much better chance to get the customer engaged with your creation.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Make sure that the product is viable to make later on when scaled. So many times I’ve seen people ignore complications at the beginning, believing that scale will solve all issues in manufacturing. In my opinion, it is better to have some kind of idea of what will happen in the future, to know if the current problems are actually solvable in larger scale and perhaps, most importantly, if there is a solid financial model for the product if and when it will have demand.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

Honestly — not to give up. That’s my ultimate advice. There are many hurdles for every entrepreneur, it is not easy for anyone. Each one gets stuck in different stages of the business and the development of the idea. Get advice, talk to people and listen- just not to the ones that discourage you. It is hard to bring an idea to life, to make a dream come true, but the ones that keep pushing eventually make it happen (and that’s from years of experience).

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

I’m not a big believer in consultants. Most of them are not entrepreneurs and don’t really understand the path of the creator. Moreover, most of them cannot see the vision of the inventor. The creator can see things with the heart and that is the pair of eyes that they usually only use for their creation and passion. With these eyes one can see the future but consultants might be limited by the knowledge of the past and the obvious. The inventor can see so far but most of the time it will be hard for them to explain it in words because they themselves can’t fully explain it. That’s the power of the “gut feeling” and usually consultants will not use it for their advice. So yes, listen and talk to anyone (if not too expensive and out of your budget) but listen and count on your very own advice to lead your way.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I think it very much depends on the stage of the business. Venture capital is usually not for the initial founding stage of a business. You want freedom and you want to keep as much equity as possible. You want freedom of thought, innovation and very little obligation to report to anyone — it is time consuming and time is the most valuable asset in the beginning. Later on in the game when the business is established, the vision is clear and the path is paved, venture capital funding can obviously be necessary for accelerating the growth and might be the most aggressive source to grow fast and leverage on the success of the previous years.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

Sourcing for raw materials and for a manufacturer or distributor will mostly be based on recommendations and interviewing those with direct experience working with specific vendors. Nothing is equal to previous experience of others- especially for long term relationships. Additionally, it is important to find several options for each thing you’re looking to source. Alternatives are key to make a free and clean decision-you don’t want to be left convincing yourself that “everything will be ok” with an ingredient or manufacturer just because you couldn’t find others.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Bring something new to the market — the food market is so crowded and full of innovation that this is a must in order to increase your success, especially with limited financial resources, to grab consumers’ attention with an idea that they’ve never seen before. That is Blue Stripes’ Cacao story — a discovery of a fruit that is one of the most known commodities but one that most people have never seen or tasted before.
  2. Opposite to no.1 — not to be totally new — What I mean by that is educating a market for a new brand is a close to impossible mission. Therefore, it is better to have an innovation based on a product or consumers’ habit that already exists in the market. That is exactly what we did with cacao — consumers already know and love the endless functional benefits and unique taste of cacao but are unaware of the cacao fruit and its many other culinary and wellness aspects. Basing our line on a known product, yet bringing extreme innovation increases the opportunity for success.
  3. Design — food is eaten with the eyes first, so the design must convey a story. It needs to be proprietary, if not one face of a person in the world is similar to another, the same should hold true for your product design. That is how we designed our cacao water bottle — to convey the experience of picking the fresh cacao fruit in the farm by creating a similar experience on the shelf with packaging resembling the shape of the fruit.
  4. Winner taste combinations — there are well-known food combinations that have been tested for hundreds of years in the market and usually always win the heart and taste buds of your consumers. Don’t try to be ultra-innovative just for the sake of innovation. Usually the common taste combinations will win the mass. Try to bring innovation to the known flavors in quality and with a slight twist. When we made our new whole cacao line it was always the nut butters and cacao that won the heart of the first tasters, not the culinary surprises that people may clap their hands for.
  5. Make sure your products are easy and clear for the most basic consumer — If there are products you make that are not for immediate consumption or are a part of preparation, be sure the average consumer can understand. Otherwise the delicious creation that you’re expecting to have will remain only in your kitchen. I’ve learned this over many experiences where I thought everything was clear to the end consumer but when they received it, the most obvious assumptions weren’t that obvious. For example, the only thing needed to make our cacao espresso perfectly at home is a hand milk frother. Unfortunately, many of our consumers did not have access to a frother at home so they just mixed in the cacao espresso powder with a spoon. This resulted in a mediocre product that was a disappointment to the delicious cacao espresso that we made in our lab.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

Base it on something with history. A proven item that’s been tried, experienced and loved by many. It’s even better if the item has an emotional history with the consumers like a childhood memory or a cultural connotation. Then give it a twist that will bring a fresh wind of innovation. That is the recipe for a successful winner because it combines the best of the past with the desire to change and try new things.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

By introducing the Cacao to more people, I feel that I’ve made the world a better place. There is truly something magical about this plant and the benefits it gives to the human body. Blue Stripes’ products also help with the massive food waste problem facing the industry- typically over 70% of the fruit is thrown away in the process of harvesting the beans. We’ve figured out a way to use the entire fruit- beans, pulp, shell- to maximize its benefits and promote holistic wellness through an array of food & beverage products. By using the Whole Cacao Fruit we’re creating a sustainable financial structure where we can enjoy the superfood qualities of this fruit and the farmer makes way more money on every pod that he’s selling all while not discarding the majority of the fruit.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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