The sweet love story that saved a legendary New York chocolate factory

FOREST HILLS, NEW YORK — Aigner Chocolates in Queens has a secret ingredient that has sustained the legendary 90-year-old confectionery: love.

“I think chocolate is really important,” says co-owner and chef chocolatier Mark Libertini, “because it brought us together.”

His romance with Rachel Kellner was not born in a vat of tempered chocolate, but rather in a tapas restaurant in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood that Mark owned.

“Rachel was a regular at the restaurant. In fact, she brought a date to the restaurant once,” Libertini said, looking mischievously at his wife. “She came by herself once and we were talking and she had this idea of ​​’food is therapy’.”

Libertini made his play the next day. He texted Kellner, wanting to know more about his idea.

“I will never forget this text message that came to me,” Kellner says. “It was a crazy big idea, and here is this person I just met who believed in me. That’s when I fell in love with him even though I had just met him.”

The couple eventually dropped the idea of ​​food as therapy, unsure how to monetize it, and bonded over other things as they started dating and eventually moved to Queens.

Years later, Libertini was driving down Metropolitan Avenue and stopped at a chocolate shop to buy Kellner some candy. When he tried to enter, he realized that the business was closed. But there was a phone number on the front door.

“It’s always been his dream to open a chocolate shop,” Kellner says, recounting that day. “And if you know my husband, you know that not only did he call right away, he met them that day.”

In the span of four weeks, they’ve signed a property contract, built their dream store, packed a bunch of inventory, and opened in time for Halloween 2015.

Embraced by their community in Queens, where this chocolate shop has been a staple for nearly a century, the couple never looked back, even when the world around them changed irrevocably.

“Our vision is to share our love for the art of making chocolate to make the world a better place,” says Kellner, “and we created this vision statement seven years ago, not knowing what the last two years were going to be. to bring.”

Queens, and in particular Elmhurst Hospital Center, had been the epicenter of the nation’s pain and suffering during the first wave of the pandemic, and Libertini and Kellner wanted to find a way to give back.

They cooked up an idea called Rainbow Bunny Exchange, which involved giving away a free chocolate bunny to any child who drew a rainbow with a message of hope for frontline workers.

“We had an initial goal of collecting 100 rainbows and ended up collecting 315,” Kellner says. “After we delivered them, they did a collage. There’s still a rainbow of rainbows in the lobby of Elmhurst Hospital. It really was our most cherished moment. proud.”

“And it’s on permanent display,” adds Libertini.

The Rainbow Bunny Exchange led to a similar idea, Flower Power, which involved children drawing pictures of flowers to spread hope. This time they collected over 1,500 drawings.

In total, Aigner Chocolates donated nearly $20,000 worth of chocolate to hospitals and local causes during the pandemic. In the process, Kellner and Libertini unknowingly achieved a goal they had set years before, finally realizing the idea that had brought them together in the first place.

“This idea of ​​food is therapy,” says Mark, “This company IS food is therapy. And we didn’t even know we were executing that concept.”

Since buying the store, they’ve gotten married, had a child (bringing their total to three), and learned to be business partners in addition to life partners. Over the years they have added more and more love to the recipe.

Booming for Valentine’s Day, one of the busiest times of the year, the irony of this particular confectionery covered in hearts from floor to ceiling is not lost on Kellner.

“We have to stop and remember that this chocolate factory is a love story,” she says, “and our dreams have come true.”


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