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

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