FOREST HILLS – Mark Libertini was on his way to pick up chocolates for his fiancée, Rachel Kellner, when when he saw the “For Sale” sign on Aigner Chocolates, an 85-year-old Austrian chocolate shop on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and 71st Road in Forest Hills. The pastry chef by trade saw the sign as his opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning his own chocolate shop.
“He came home that night and said, ‘Honey, I want to buy this chocolate shop,’ and I said, ‘No’,” Kellner remembers with a laugh. At the time, Kellner had just been promoted and Libertini was running two other businesses, so the timing felt off. However, after one of Libertini’s businesses was sold, the couple bought the chocolate shop in mid-September. They spent four weeks hiring new staff, completely redecorating and producing and packaging chocolates, and reopened in mid-October.
With the new owners, the candy shop that had been on the corner since 1930, got a chance at a second life. A store that was about to close forever is now a thriving hive of busy chocolate makers and customers.
Aside from some remodeling, an expanded coffee bar and extended hours, much of the store is the way the previous owners, the Aigners, left it. Libertini uses most of the traditional chocolate making equipment the Aigners left behind such as a cream beater, a melter and an enrober–decades old equipment. The recipes, ingredients and inventory have also remained the same, including such classics as traditional cream marzipan fillings, cat tongues and Venetian truffles. And, perhaps most importantly, the new owners kept the name.
“A big reason Mark and I decided to buy the business was because we were buying a customer base and the Aigners have such a rich history,” Kellner said. “The space has such a rich history and that’s really what we were buying. There was no reason to change the name because there was such a loyal fan base.”
The store’s history dates back to when John Aigner and his wife immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. As someone who had studied the craft of chocolate in his native Austria, John landed a job at Krause’s Candy Kitchen, a German chocolate shop in New Jersey. He later came to buy and own the company’s Forest Hills store, which then had a different name, and later passed it down to two generations of Aigners. In 2009, the family changed the shop’s name to Aigner Chocolates. Six years later, they decided to step down from the business.
“We had a second business, a real estate business, and the chocolate business is a physically demanding business: standing on your feet all day, making 100 pounds of chocolate at a time, and our parents were getting tired,” said Christopher Aigner, grandson of the original owner. With the grandchildren being busy in various fields aside from the chocolate business, “you have to have the wisdom and rationale when it’s time for your sake and the business’ sake to move on,” he added.
According to Christopher, Libertini and Kellner seemed like the perfect fit for the shop. “They were in it together; they came in a team. So they were similar to my parents. And at first we were in there everyday to make sure the chocolate stayed the same quality. They caught on quickly and it has a thousand percent stayed the same.”
The Aigners are grateful and in turn are always happy to help. They’re on call for troubleshooting recipes or equipment issues.
Customers are happy too—a great number of them have been coming to the shop for years. Two of those customers are Herb and Lauren Kaufer from Glendale, who stopped by Aigner Chocolates on Thursday night to pick up some treats. For the husband and wife, buying from Aigner is a family tradition that started in the 70’s with Herb’s mother, who used to shop there when it was still named Krause’s.
“If she doesn’t come up [to see us], she sends chocolates and it’s always from here,” said Lauren. “It’s definitely a family excursion coming here. [Herb’s] brother lives here and we said, ‘We’re going to Aigner’s; do you want anything?’ And he said, ‘No, I already got my chocolates from them.’”
For the most part, Libertini is downstairs producing the chocolate while Kellner is upstairs, packaging and displaying the chocolate in the showroom. It’s been full-steam ahead for the engaged couple. Christmas came on the heels of their grand opening, followed by Valentine’s Day and now Easter, with no rest in between. Kellner says that this past Wednesday, she and Libertini worked until midnight; dinner for them is typically after 10 p.m.
Chocolate bunnies, foiled eggs, chocolate-covered peeps, jelly beans and even a chocolate bar printed with the Last Supper currently filled the tables and shelves of Aigner the week before Easter. As of Thursday, Kellner estimated that 40 to 50 baskets had been filled that week alone, but that will be nothing compared to the mad final rush of Easter weekend.
Kellner, who recently resigned from her job, is coming on board full-time with Libertini. Although the couple is looking forward to new ways to expand the business, including a possible outdoor cafe for spring and summer and giving chocolate tours, the biggest thing they are looking forward to, as of now, is a vacation.
“The way the Aigners did it, which was very smart, is they took time off after every holiday,” Kellner said. “Mark and I couldn’t afford to take that time because we were still learning the business, but it’s really important to take the time off because the holidays are so grueling.”
According to Libertini though, the expression on his customers’ faces when they get the chocolate is what makes it all worth it. “The thing about the chocolate business is that for the most part, people are smiling,” he said, with his own face breaking into a smile. “They have their sugar, they have their chocolate. It’s just such a great feeling.”