MEET MARK & RACHEL
MEET MARK & RACHEL
“Founded in 1930, Aigner Chocolates is one of the oldest chocolate and confectionery shops in NYC. Owned by the same family for three generations, the Aigners have recently passed the recipes and traditions of chocolate making to the new owners, Mark Libertini and Rachel Kellner. Mark and Rachel plan on continuing the rich tradition of making Austrian style chocolate using the same antique equipment and techniques that has made Aigner a New York City institution. Mark and Rachel are honored to be a part of generations of tradition and hope to help create new traditions in the years to come.”
The 1st Generation
When my grandfather, John Aigner, immigrated to this country, he brought with him his wife Katherine, his son Peter (my dad) and his passion for making chocolates. My grandfather had studied the chocolate craft back home in Austria and in Germany. So he landed a job at Krause's Candy Kitchen, a German-owned chocolate shop in a German enclave of Queens, New York. The owner retired a few years later, and my grandparents bought the 30-year-old business and continued to make chocolates in the old style.
The 2nd Generation
I was about nine years old when my parents bought Krause's Candy Kitchen in Forest Hills. The confectionary shop was family run, and manufacturing was done entirely by hand. There was one big mixing machine and one employee, a chocolate hand-dipper named Josephine. Other than that, it was just my parents, grandparents and me. We lived above the shop, and I learned the confectionary trade by osmosis. Actually, my father said, "Get downstairs. There is no one who will teach you as thoroughly as your father."
Dad worked in the family business through college and in between jobs in the travel industry. One of those jobs was with an airline in Copenhagen, which is where he met his future wife, my mom.
On a trip back home to New York, I had an opportunity to buy my parents’ competitor, another well-known German candy business. I bought Martha’s Candy Kitchen and traveled back and forth between Ridgewood, Queens and Copenhagen to court my girlfriend Pia.
Dating Peter was amazing, but it was a transatlantic relationship so sometimes it could be very hard. Peter made those times a little sweeter by sending me boxes and boxes of chocolate covered coconuts.
My parents were married in Copenhagen then moved to New York, where they made chocolate in the old style in their very own store.
Pia didn't have any fear or apprehension of her new life in New York. She learned quickly, and with her interior decorating skills, she transformed a boring, plain storefront into a fantasy wonderland. We were the most elegant chocolatiers on Long Island!
My first day in the store went like this. My husband said, "Selling chocolates is a piece of cake!" And out the door he went. I was alone in the store, nothing was priced, and I knew nothing about the register or about chocolate! When Peter came back later that day, I swore this would never happen again, and we spent the next week pricing, labeling and organizing the entire store.
The 3rd Generation
We were very happy living and working in our rundown, three-story, brick building. It eventually housed our entire family and hosted the arrival of our three children.
It was Thanksgiving Day and the store was filled with customers. I was about to give birth to our eldest son, Peter Christian, and there I was with my big belly, decorating the storefront windows for Christmas. That’s when my water broke. Peter panicked, announced that I was about to have the baby and cleared out the store! For years, customers have reminded us about throwing them out that day.
My brother Peter Christian, our sister Stephanie and I grew up making chocolate. We lived above the candy store. Our grandparents lived above us. On Saturday mornings, I'd wake up, run downstairs for a chocolate pop, then run back up two flights of stairs to watch cartoons with my grandmother. Life was good.
Then Dad would come upstairs and say, â€œWhat are you doing? You feel like coming into the store?â€ So while our friends were outside playing on Saturday, we might be in the candy kitchen. But it usually turned out to be pretty fun.
It never seemed like work to us. Dad would have the oldies station playing. We all decorated and laughed and sang along like we were the von Trapp family or something.
Our kids were always involved in our business. Sometimes reluctantly, but all hands were needed in the busy seasons. They learned a lot of valuable lessons that we’d like to think have shaped them into the wonderful adults they are today.
Some kids play team sports growing up. We were part of a family team. We worked as a family, and we ate as a family every night of my childhood. The lessons my parents taught us in the candy kitchen and around that dinner table made me who I am today. (I want to be just like my mom when I grow up!)
The kids grew up, went to college and started their own careers. That left Pia and me to run the family business, which had grown to include three stores.
It was time for us to slow down the pace and enjoy life a bit more after a lifetime of making chocolate, so we sold our stores. When Peter’s father retired, Peter and I decided to turn our focus to Krause’s, the original family business.
Growing up in a family business is something that never leaves you. After working in finance for a few years, I was ready to get back to my roots, back to the business.
I’d talked about doing this since I was a kid. Somehow it’s come full circle, and I finally understand that making chocolates truly is an art.
Every time I see my dad pouring a jelly or scooping out something, I think,
The New Generation
After graduating culinary school I had a desire to open a chocolate shop. I wrote my first business plan back in the late 90s. I opened Little Cupcake Bakeshop in 2005 and had several businesses thereafter.
I met Mark several months after he opened a Spanish tapas restaurant in Bayridge, Brooklyn. At that time I was working as a social worker in an outpatient drug program and I had a desire to incorporate food and therapy.
Years later after Rachel and I moved to Queens I was driving down Metropolitan Avenue and saw a chocolate shop. I stopped by to pick up some chocolate for Rachel and found it closed with a for sale sign on the door. I met with the owners the same day and couldn't wait to share the prospect with Rachel.
I came home from work after a very challenging day and Mark mentioned that he saw a chocolate shop for sale earlier in the day. At that point Mark owned two businesses and I had just been promoted at my job. Let's just say I didn't share Mark's enthusiasm for buying another business.
After seeing Rachel's reaction I realized my timing could have been a little better. I decided I'd revisit the discussion in a few days.
Mark and I weighed out the pros and cons of owning a chocolate shop and ultimately decided to buy the shop. In four weeks we redecorated, produced and packaged in time to open 10 days before Halloween of 2015. I left my job as a social worker to help Mark run the business full-time. Owning and running a chocolate shop with your spouse has its unique challenges. It is an enormous undertaking and every day is an adventure. I love working with my husband and best friend who happens to be a great business partner.
Aigner Chocolates is much different then the original vision I had for a chocolate business. Continuing a NYC tradition is a great honor and has been a tremendous opportunity for Rachel and me. The Aigners have treated us like family and have been instrumental to our success. We feel fortunate we are able to build on the foundation of their three generations of work.