But America provided a challenge. Americans like things big and different, Brenner thought, so he wanted to supersize his chocolate menu for New York.
Goodbye, little candy shop. Hello Chocolate Bar and Restaurant - think Willy Wonka in Paris.
With two Manhattan locations now up and running, this pied piper of cocoa wanted to expand again and picked a spot on 15th street between Walnut and Locust, closely surrounded by a mix of bars and a diverse group eateries: Butcher & Singer (steakhouse), Miga (Korean), Shiroi Hana (sushi), the Kibitz Room (Jewish deli) and the soon-to-open Shank & Evelyn's (South Philly sandwiches).
It's a perfect fit for the eclectic chocolatier, who's more Moby than Yul Brynner in his low-key look and aesthetic. As for how he stays so thin being around chocolate all day, it's exercise. A lot of it.
Brenner chose Philadelphia because it's close to his New York base - he's very hands-on - and "I fell in love with what's happening here, with the new foodie culture" he said while touring his new restaurant last week. "People here are much more open to new concepts. They love change. To try things."
Equally important to Brenner's location being part of the city's food scene is its proximity to the Kimmel Center and the Academy of Music, because he describes dining at his restaurant as "theater."
"There was a very big contradiction between the way people thought of the chocolate experience and the way they could experience that experience in the retail market," Brenner said.
So he tried to take elements of all the ways people daydreamed and wondered about his beloved sweet and "put every fantasy about chocolate into one place."
"Chocolate to me is European," Brenner said, "so the restaurant is part Parisian cafe. Then I added some 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' [with big vats of spinning chocolate cream, also available to go on tap].
"I added spices from all over the world that we use to create our chocolates. And then part of it is like a lab - like a drugstore."
Brenner also added a drinking ceremony - hot chocolate as high art. You may never again add boiling water to a powdery mix.
With as much attention paid to the cups as the cocoa, there's the handle-free Hug Mug, Brenner's signature item, which you cradle in your hands, and the Suckao, in which you concoct your own warmth by mixing milk and chocolate over a burning candle.
For other types of chocolate drinks, Brenner has a Kangaroo Cup, in which chocolate pieces warm in a ceramic pouch next to steamy coffee drinks, and an Alice Cup with a metal straw poking out from a frozen chocolate frappe.
Want something a little stronger? There's a line of chocolate martinis and cocktails, including the frozen Chocolate Disco Cocktail ($10), with white chocolate cream, banana, strawberries and rum.
As for the dining, you can get dishes without chocolate, but you can get those anywhere. Wouldn't you rather indulge in a brunch with Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Pancakes ($14.95) or a Black & White Chocolate Blintz ($10.95)?
Bagel, lox and cream cheese is so last century. Brenner's bagel comes with melted milk chocolate and either peanut butter or hazelnut cream ($6).
There's no chocolate aioli (yet) for dinner's Black Sesame Salmon ($17.95), but lunch and dinner side dishes include Waffle Fries Dusted with Chili and Cocoa Powder ($5.95) and Vidalia Onion Rings with a Dark Chocolate Ranch Dipping Sauce ($6.95).
But make sure you leave room for dessert. Or simply start with dessert. The Chocolate Pizza (half, $8.25; whole, $14.75) is a thin pastry crust covered with melted chocolate chunks, melted marshmallows and candied hazelnuts.
Hate it when you buy an ice cream pop and all the chocolate coating flakes off? The Popsicle Fondue ($7.95) gives you classic ice cream on a stick and dishes of melted chocolate, chocolate crunches and hazelnut pieces for repeat dipping.
"No one's doing chocolate like we do," Brenner said. "We're developing a chocolate culture."
And the culture is thriving, even in a down economy. "I'm not nervous, but encouraged," Brenner said. "This is a very high-end experience of food, design and ambience."
Brenner said even the health-conscious need a little cocoa with their crunches. "My grandfather lived to 98," he said "and every day he downed a shot of whiskey and ate chocolate.
"Happiness and fun are the key for health, and chocolate makes it happy." *