Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Sweet Celebration Filled with Memories for Aigner Chocolates’ 90th Anniversary

By Michael Perlman

It is proven that what is homemade and from the heart is a recipe for success. Aigner Chocolates at 103-02 Metropolitan Avenue has achieved a milestone, which tells a story of a mom and pop shop that is a rare survivor, thanks to the long hours of dedication under past and current owners, creativity, personalization, and a humanitarian spirit where patrons and the community become an extended family. To celebrate 90 years in Forest Hills, a socially distanced ceremony was held in front of the shop on September 13, with speeches from generations of owners and nearly ten elected officials; some of whom presented proclamations. Gift bags with a commemorative “90” chocolate pop were distributed, and harpist Erin Hill performed standards. 


Guest speakers were Community Board 6 District Manager Frank Gulluscio, Congresswoman Grace Meng, Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, Councilman Donovan Richards, NYS Senator Joseph Addabbo, NYS Senator John Liu, Assemblyman Ed Braunstein, and representatives of Queens BP Sharon Lee and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi. It even included a Certificate of Recognition from Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

Congresswoman Grace Meng, who presented a proclamation said, “Representing the Sixth Congressional District, I hold up Aigner Chocolates for great recognition and honor on the 90th anniversary of its founding, and declare today to be ‘Aigner Chocolates Day!’” President and CEO Thomas Grech of the Queens Chamber of Commerce said, “If you work to support your family, such as a meat guy, bagel guy, or the chocolatier, you are an essential worker. Aigner employs 8 people, which is 8 rents and 8 kids to put through school. At the end of the day, we should value every single job, since the person that has it, is essential to their family.” 

Owners Mark Libertini and Rachel Kellner acquired the business in October 2015 and added a new chapter to the Aigner story. Back in 1930, Germany native and confectioner Alfred Krause opened Krause’s Candy Kitchen in a predominantly German community. Since 1960, three generations of the Aigner family satisfied the sweet tooth of patrons. It consisted of John Aigner, who began working at Krause’s in the 1950s after training in Austria and Germany, his son Peter and wife Pia, and then their son Chris. In 2009, the business was renamed Aigner Chocolates. Then in 2015, master confectioner Peter Aigner trained Kellner and Libertini, who continue to produce chocolates on museum-quality equipment from the 1940s and 1950s. 

Kellner explained that it was love at first sight for the shop’s history and felt honored to preserve a tradition. She said, “What we didn’t realize at that time was that we were being adopted by a community, so caring and involved. The friendships we’ve developed with our fellow business owners, neighbors, and customers were completely unexpected, and now we can’t imagine our lives without all of these amazing people.” She then explained, “My husband loves making chocolate and I love running a chocolate shop, but the passion and love wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for all of you. This day is a celebration about community, because without this incredible community, we wouldn’t be here. To Mark, my partner in life and in business, you had a vision, and it allowed my vision of ‘food as therapy’ to become a realty in this beautiful business. You said our life would be an adventure. Babe, you were right!” Libertini said, “We are devoted to the art of creating beautiful and delicious chocolates using traditional family recipes and techniques. Our vision is to share our passion for the art of chocolate while making the world a better place.” 

Vintage photo of past owner Peter Aigner

Peter Aigner’s earliest memories date to his childhood. “We lived above the chocolate shop, when I was about 9 in 1960. When my parents were in bed, I would sneak downstairs into the store to help myself to half a dozen milk chocolate marshmallows and take it up to my room. As I grew up, my tastes mellowed to a little less sweet.” Chris Aigner continued, “I would sneak down early Saturday morning, before the store was open, and get a chocolate pop, and then go upstairs to my grandparents and watch cartoons with a glass of orange juice and chocolate pop.” Pia Aigner said, “I was so impressed how Americans loved chocolates, coming from a country where chocolate was so expensive, that people would buy one to two pieces. I came to America and they would buy it by the pound.” 

Pia Aigner, Chris Aigner, Mark Libertini, Rachel Kellner, Peter Aigner, Thomas Grech 

The Aigner family feels they made the perfect choice after interviewing Mark and Rachel. Peter said, “Very few businesses in New York manage to survive that long. Our customers were very loyal. We always maintained a high quality product, and Mark and Rachel are excellent heirs. They took it seriously and learned it from the ground up and continuing the tradition with the same recipes and manner that we ran it, but with a little more artistic flair, and we are very happy for them. Customers continue to have the high quality they’re accustomed to.” Chris continued, “Ninety years is three full generations of families that probably touched five generations of families that had chocolate in their homes on holidays and centered around it on their most intimate family moments. It is wonderful to be part of a business that touched so many lives.” Pia continued, “We are very happy that Mark and Rachel are continuing making chocolates at that location, and they’re doing it very well.” 

Peter, Mary, John & Grandpa Aigner

One must wonder if there are any life lessons from running a chocolate shop. Chris said, “Being in service, you’re in a very special position in the world. You can change people’s experiences. Being kind and treating them with respect and dignity regardless of how short your interaction is an important life lesson.” Peter agreed and said, “We have been taught by my parents and passed that on.” 

When seeing Mark and Rachel operating the business in 2020, it reminds Peter and Pia of their younger selves. He said, “We had a lot of people who wanted to buy the business, but their heart wasn’t really in it. When we came across Mark and Rachel, there was this enthusiasm, which we felt was very important. Mark loves making chocolates, and Rachel has excellent people skills! Those are two important ingredients, and it’s similar to the talents that my wife and I had.”

Chris Aigner served as the broker in the sale. “The first year was the tricky year, since my parents and Mark and Rachel worked together nearly every day. They wanted to learn the recipes well and make sure that the transition was seamless. Then they re-branded slightly and added artistic value to the products. It has been a great experience to see them grow and take the business to the next level.” Peter continued, “When you sell a family business that has been with you for three generations, it’s a bittersweet experience. On one hand, sad, but yet it’s very happy.”

His father is one of his largest inspirations. “I would go in with my dad since I was 5 years old. I first learned how to lay out cups for nutcrackers. I would spend almost every Saturday making chocolate. Since I was a very young boy, I wanted to be a chocolatier.” Peter continued, “My dad was an Austrian confectioner who taught me the trade from a very early age. No one will teach you like your own father! My parents worked for another confectioner, since it wasn’t easy to get your own business in Europe.”

Chocolate production has evolved tremendously, according to Peter. “It helped the small manufacturers like us a lot. When I was a kid, basically all of the machinery was developed for big factories, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the years, machinery was developed, geared towards smaller manufacturers. When I was a kid, every single piece had to be rolled, cut, and dipped by hand. Over the years, we invested in machinery that automatically cut and formed chocolate.” 

Peter & John Aigner

Chris shared a story that his parents would tell him. “My great-grandfather would help out. They had professional dippers who dipped piece by piece, all day long, and set the pieces onto wax paper, fill up the tray, and put it on a rack. They would produce a whole rack in a day’s work, whereas today we can do it in a few hours. After a day’s work, he squeezed into the cooling room to get a piece of chocolate, but knocked over an entire rack. As the dipper started to scream ‘My work, my work,’ the first thing out of his mouth was ‘It wasn’t me!’ You can really picture what it was like back then.” 

The Aigner family and Kellner and Libertini are humanitarians. The tradition of raffling off an over 3-foot chocolate Easter bunny named Harvey originated in the 1980s. Most recently, it was donated to Elmhurst Hospital, the “epicenter of the epicenter” during the pandemic. Chris recalled, “My maternal grandma passed away from Alzheimer’s, and when she was sick, we started a raffle with Harvey The Bunny and gave all the proceeds to a research foundation.”

Many notables once entered Aigner’s showroom. Peter said, “I remember my father used to enjoy seeing celebrities such as Ralph Bunche, Dale Carnegie, Geraldine Ferraro, and Louis Armstrong, as well as his sister. He wouldn’t eat any other chocolates, so she would later buy it for him and send it out to Hollywood.”

The Aigner family has much to be grateful for. Since much revolves around chocolates, Chris explained, “We were able to experience the holidays in a very special way. We were surrounded by Christmas the whole month of December, and the same with Easter and Thanksgiving.” Pia added, “I will always be thankful to our customer’s loyalty.” 

Owners Rachel Kellner & Mark Libertini with the NYPD, Photo by Michael Perlman

Friday, September 4, 2020

Historic Forest Hills Banks Merit New Lease on Life & Not Demolition!

 By Michael Perlman

Banks were traditionally erected as freestanding buildings with solid construction comprised of high ceilings and classical architectural features, to instill a sense of financial stability, integrity, security, and commitment, and were regarded as community centerpieces. In Forest Hills, three bank buildings became available over the past year, echoing the neighborhood’s past, as they were designed in harmony with their surroundings. Now community residents and visitors are hopeful that their unique period details will be preserved, whether the buildings continue to operate as a bank or are adaptively reused, which has been accomplished countrywide. 

A “For Sale” sign was posted on the façade of Forest Hills National Bank of New York at 99-00/02 Metropolitan Avenue , which most recently operated as a branch of Chase. This Greek Revival meets Colonial building style building’s façade remains mostly intact, retaining its brick and stonework consisting of pilasters, a door surround, arched windows, and a pediment. It opened in December 1928 to primarily serve a growing community of south Forest Hills which was 22 years old at that time, whereas Rego Park was 5 years old. The Queens Chamber of Commerce’s “Queensborough” publication stated, “The capital stock of $200,000 is held for the most part by Queens Borough business men who believe in the future of the borough. The bank starts with a surplus of $50,000.” It also explained that the bank operated a Special Interest department and a Christmas Club.

Daniel J. Flynn, Vice President of Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate services company, explained that he and his colleague is currently under negotiations with a buyer. The façade’s few modifications include the uppermost arched section of the windows covered with aluminum siding, replaced windows, and the building’s original etched name also covered with aluminum. The interior has dropped ceilings, but can be eliminated to reveal distinctive details from 1928. While examining the façade, he said, “I love the look of the building. It captures a bygone era, in which materials and labor were disproportionately less expensive. At this point, the buyer fully plans to utilize the building and not modify the exterior.” Considering its ideal location, he continued, “This part of Queens serves a very important function in housing and commerce.” 

The longtime location of HSBC Bank at 107-15 Continental Avenue was home to The Williamsburgh Savings Bank in 1975 to benefit Forest Hills’ growing community. It is now available for lease and its use remains to be seen. In the 1970s, the bank appointed an architect to creatively design the façade in the Tudor style, a hallmark of Forest Hills architecture, which complements the harmonious ambiance along Austin Street, Continental Avenue, and Forest Hills Gardens. A few decades ago, the commercial district was still referred to as “The Village” by community residents. The façade remains mostly intact and includes signature half-timbering, ornamental brick and stone chimneys, a slate pitched roof, a finial, Roman numeral clock, and flagpoles. 

A leasing opportunity advertises an available 6,500 square feet with an additional mezzanine and basement. It also references heavy daytime traffic and the space’s excellent condition which remains fully built out as a bank.

As of March 1975, The Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which was incorporated in 1851, increased in resources to over $1.7 billion. An ad featuring a façade rendering read, “Get a free gift at our new Forest Hills office only for opening a new savings account of $5,000, $1,000, $500 or $200 or more during the opening celebration.” Weekly door prizes ranged from a G.E. cassette recorder or a Polaroid SX-70 camera to a Raleigh 10-speed bicycle or a Panasonic 16 in. solid state TV. Grand door prizes included a trip for two to Bermuda or Las Vegas, a choice of grandmother’s or grandfather’s clock, a G.E. washer & dryer, a Panasonic Quadruplex stereo, or a Sun Fish sailboat. Nineteen prizes for a new account of $5,000 or more included a Caravelle by Bulova, a Manning-Bowman stainless steel rotisserie broiler, and a Corelle 20-piece Livingware set by Corning. For over $1,000, 14 options included an ICP AM/FM portable radio, a Sankyo digital alarm clock, and a flight bag. 

In November 1921, the Corn Exchange Bank received permission from the State Banking Department to open a Forest Hills branch at 106-24 Continental Avenue. Now it is known as Boston Market and also consists of the recently shuttered Aldo, which is being advertised as a store for rent. Around 1922, patrons were welcomed to a prominent Tudor style brick and stone building at a major intersection. It features a pitched sweeping roof with terra-cotta tiles and a spire harmonious to the nearby Forest Hills Inn, as well as tall windows with motifs of crops and flowers. The bank’s name, etched in stone, reportedly exists underneath Boston Market’s signage. As renovations were underway in Aldo nearly ten years ago, the removal of a faux ceiling revealed a much higher curved ceiling with period details, but was only witnessed by the modern eye briefly.

In January 1928, readers of “Queensborough” learned that the firm, which began business on February 1, 1853, had eight of its more than 60 branches in Queens. It stated, “The bank has a capital of $11,000,000 and surplus and undivided profits of $16,527,000. The bank entered the Queens field on August 28, 1899, when it absorbed the Queens County Bank.” The Forest Hills branch manager was Edward L. DeForest.

“Part of the lure and rewards of exploring New York’s history is how every neighborhood has its own character,” said Riley Kellogg, an adjunct lecturer in history and a licensed NYC tour guide. My hometown’s rich history teaches us about all the people who have been drawn here for myriad reasons, and how all have contributed to building the New York City we know and love. One of the most visible, and we hope lasting marks of those characters, are a place’s architecture. The evidence of who Forest Hills has been, who it is now -- who we are now -- is there to be seen in the mix of Tudor and Classical, humble and grand, commercial and residential buildings. These former bank buildings each reveal one of the faces of this ever-growing, ever-evolving neighborhood. There are good reasons to keep our older buildings. We needn't obliterate our past in order to grow our future. In fact, the future will have stronger roots, and be sounder and more truly ours, if we build with the past, rather than demolishing and forgetting it.”

Helen Day, Richmond Hill Historical Society VP, is also concerned about Forest Hills’ historic buildings. She was surprised to see Chase closing its Metropolitan Avenue branch. “It is a lovely building that I would really like to see preserved with a new use. It is large enough for a restaurant or another bank.” She continued, “The Tudor style buildings on Continental Avenue also fit well with the neighborhood. They don’t need to go to the expense of tearing a building down or doing a complete renovation of the façade. Each one of these buildings contributes to the character and appeal of their location. It is unfortunate that the businesses are no longer there, but this is an opportunity for another business to make good use of them.”

She explained a case in point. “Many period features get covered up, but that doesn’t mean you cannot uncover them. I know of a hair salon in Ridgewood, where the owner pulled out all the modern stuff and found tin ceilings and great details that she incorporated into her décor. The interiors should have as much character as the exterior! Preserving something unique will give a special look to whatever they will open at those three Forest Hills locations.”