Volume 79, Number 12 | Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Max Brenner, and his logo, recently vanished suddenly from Second Ave. and Ninth St.

Bald Man invasion got seriously hairy; At last, he’s gone

By Dottie Wilson

Ding, dong, the Bald Man’s dead! At least in the East Village he is. Max Brenner, the extremely popular chocolate-themed restaurant with locations throughout the world, has recently disappeared from the busy corner of Second Ave. and E. Ninth St. Poof!

Though I never once dined at the famous “Chocolate by the Bald Man” corporation, this place gave me indigestion, headaches even. While nearby mom-and-pop establishments struggled to stay afloat, Max Brenner was constantly packed, mostly with tourists. These people would come all the way to the East Village — just to eat at a chain restaurant. I didn’t get it.

And with childhood diabetes on the rise, as well as obesity, I thought “society” was supposed to be eating more sensibly. But not at this joint. Struggling with menus the size of a hefty coffee-table book, its carefree patrons were devotees of a restaurant defined by indulgence, i.e., dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner and drinks. In this land of “sugar on fat, on top of sugar on fat” (read “The End of Overeating” by David Al Kessler), this was an altogether obscene environment.

On the Internet, I was astonished at the humongous number of adoring fan sites this eatery had from all over the world. (There was also at least one “hate” site). Yet, as with the other big-box retailers, banks, hotels and dorms that threatened to overtake the essence and historic nature of a neighborhood, the big, brown head of the Max Brenner franchise stuck out like a sore thumb. Cyberspace and reality were clearly at odds.

The restaurant’s outdoor tables, usually loaded with out-of-towners, took up an unusually large portion of sidewalk, and this annoying protrusion provoked many a resident on his or her way to and from the Astor Place or Eighth St. subways. On Friday and Saturday nights, human gridlock was the norm.

To make matters worse, I was partially to blame for this mess! Shortly after M.B.C.B.B.M. opened in 2006, two people came knocking on my apartment door bearing chocolates, cookies and gifts, along with a petition to allow a nearby sidewalk cafe. I hungrily/greedily accepted the free goodies, and then (doh!) stupidly signed a document that gave no clue whatsoever as to how big a space they would gobble up. Greed was not good.

Consequently, I guess, a crazy person from a nearby apartment building started to get sick and tired of the music from the place’s outdoor speakers. He hated getting woken up every morning and night by the loud, clanking metal chains and padlocks that were used to prevent the theft of their ugly tables and chairs. Employees from the restaurant who took their breaks at the entrance of his building — smoking and laughing it up till all hours, and accidentally buzzing his apartment by leaning on the intercom buttons — drove him nuts. This guy was not a happy camper.

At first he tried to combat the problem by throwing water and garbage out the window, which offered immediate relief. But since the noise just kept coming back, he began to wage a war of revenge. While taking his big black dog out for its nightly walk, he would purposely bump into the outdoor cafe’s guard rails — alarming customers, knocking over drinks and causing disharmony. On a busy and crowded weekend, this could have been forgiven, since there’s so little room on the block to begin with, but not with this guy “or his little dog!” (Actually, it was a well-fed Labrador retriever whose big tail could wipe out a chocolate milkshake in one happy flash.) When this insane neighbor told me he had moved on to slashing the chocolate invader’s vinyl guard rails with a knife (think shower scene from “Psycho”), I really started to worry — and prayed that these hostile transgressions were committed when no one sitting there.

Earlier this year, the mutilated structures were replaced with metal versions, but now all that remains are rust-colored stains on the sidewalk, evidence of the scene of more than one crime. I suspect the above-mentioned scary person has either moved or been incarcerated or is in/on ecstasy — or some other drug.

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, however, is a man (I’ve never met) who I’m positive is totally distraught over the Bald Man’s abrupt departure. He’s what I call one of the many “recurring characters” in the neighborhood. A heavyset guy with long, brown hippie hair, he would sit there for hours, all by himself and always facing west, with a white, plastic takeout bag and beverage on the table; rarely did you ever see him actually eat. And day in, day out, this dude looked absolutely miserable — utterly defeated by life. His entire persona just screamed “sad sack.”

Other neighbors and I have had discussions about what must have caused such extreme depression, and why of all the places in the neighborhood he chose to frequent this one so often. Was this poor guy in mourning or shock, i.e. had his entire family been murdered at a different fast-food chain? Maybe his wife left him for another man, someone who had (“the horror”) no hair? Perhaps being around all those happy-go-lucky tourists was some form of radical therapy! The answers to these life mysteries will never be known. Like Max Brenner, this tragic head case simply disappeared overnight.

I contacted M.B.C.B.B.M.’s corporate office to find out what happened. Despite the economic recession, I thought surely a company as big and successful as theirs would survive. Then again, my observations were mostly of the exterior, sidewalk activity, not the large amount of square footage within. And it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if the owner of this heavily trafficked piece of real estate jacked up the already-astronomical rent. Maybe the corner itself was cursed; the previous tenant spent a fortune renovating and outfitting the space with top-of-the-line equipment and lighting, and then suddenly closed after just one month. They left practically everything behind, including their plants, which were left to freeze and die — except for a tall, heavy tree I rescued after agents on the premises allowed me take it.

As a fan of various historical and preservation organizations (see sidebar below) and the East Village Community Coalition, as well as a resident for almost three decades, I embrace a significant “shop local” philosophy. However, I do admit to once paying a brief visit to this awful operation. It was a hot and humid day — as usual, I was wearing all black — and even though I was just a short distance away from my sixth-floor walk-up, I urgently needed a dose of fresh, cold air conditioning. Entering Max Brenner through the front door on Second Ave., I experienced approximately 8 seconds of purposeful bliss, and then immediately exited via their emergency side door onto E. Ninth St., right around the corner. This shortcut was both delightful and spiteful, but sadly, no alarms went off. Yet they should have. This time I was the alien invader.

According to their spokesperson, it turns out that Max Brenner — which, by the way, is not a real person’s name — after having opened two restaurants in New York City in 2006, has decided to pull all resources from their East Village location and focus on their Union Square spot, while “expanding our chocolate culture throughout the United States.” Right. Gobbledygook meets mumbo jumbo, crass tourist attraction be gone.

Ding dong, says the wicked witch of the East, the sidewalk has been reclaimed. Veselka (est. 1955) is across the street, the quintessential East Village Meat Market but one door over. B&H Dairy, Stage, Cinderella and Toy Tokyo — and a precious handful of wonderful, local East Village and Lower East Side bakeries, restaurants and specialty shops — are still holding on. It’s a merry ol’ day!

Hopefully, the new tenant on the block won’t be as scary as the big, bad Bald Man — another business like this guy’s would feel like getting hit by a flying house — or some fatso named Duane Reade! Better get out those horizontal-striped Oz socks just in case.

Window onto small stores

“The Disappearing Face of Greenwich Village Storefronts”: Presentation and discussion with local store owners, Wed., Sept. 9, 6:30 p.m., at Judson Memorial Assembly Hall, 239 Thompson St. (near Washington Square Park). RSVP required. Call 212-228-2781 or e-mail  to info@neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org. Free admission.
Photographer-curators James and Karla Murray provide a window onto the rich cultural experience of New York City as seen through its neighborhood shops in their book “Storefront: The Disappearing Face of New York.” Through panoramic photographs, portraits of individual storefronts and interviews with shop owners, their book reveals how neighborhood stores help set the pulse, life and texture of their communities. Join the Murrays and local storefront owners for a visual walking tour of Greenwich Village and a discussion about the city’s loss of small mom-and-pop stores. Co-sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Neighborhood Preservation Center.




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