In the early 1960’s, the Aigner family bought the businesses, changing the name while maintaining the shop’s tradition of manufacturing and selling handcrafted chocolate and confections.
For three generations, the Aigner family solidified the establishment as a staple of Forest Hills before passing the torch to its current owners, husband-and-wife duo Rachel Kellner and Mark Libertini.
On Sunday afternoon, Kellner and Libertini celebrated 90 years of the chocolate shop’s legacy and old-world charm, surrounded by friends, family, elected officials and members of the community.
The celebration included endless thanks and remarks from neighborhood and borough-wide leaders, including Queens Chamber president Tom Grech, Community Board 6 district manager Frank Gulluscio, City Council members Donovan Richards and Karen Koslowitz, state senators Joe Addabbo and John Liu, and Congresswoman Grace Meng.
Many of the officials presented Kellner and Libertini with formal proclamations in honor of Aigner’s contributions to the community.
“To Mark and Rachel and the whole family, thank you so much for being such a gem and partner in our community here in Queens,” said Meng. “Thank you for being such a resilient resource for our community and always looking for ways to help our community members out.
“You may hear oftentimes about the partisanship and gridlock that goes on in Congress,” she added, “but we were able to come together and agree to ensure that today, on the 90th anniversary of its founding, we declare today to be Aigner Chocolates Day throughout our district.”
Also present for the festivities was a woman identified as the shop’s “oldest living customer,” as well as several members of the Aigner family.
“Congratulations Mark and Rachel, they took over our family business and they took it to the next level,” said Peter Aigner, former owner of the establishment. “We’re very proud of them. We’re very happy that they’re continuing our wonderful business, which my parents started.”
The occasion also marked the fifth anniversary of a decision that completely changed Kellner and Libertini’s lives. Back in 2015, Libertini was driving down Metropolitan Avenue when he spotted Aigner Chocolates.
He stopped to get some sweets to bring home to his wife, and noticed a “For Sale” sign in the window.
As Kellner tells it, Libertini, in “true Mark fashion,” spoke with the Aigners that same day about purchasing the business and came home with the relevant financial information to do so.
Although she initially wasn’t on board, Kellner, who was working in drug addiction social work at the time, eventually changed her mind.
She says it had been Libertini’s longtime dream to open a chocolate shop. A pastry chef by training, he learned the ins and outs of the industry through jobs at food service establishments.
Eventually, Libertini opened Little Cupcake Bake Shop in Bay Ridge, which still exists today.
From her own background, Kellner was intrigued by the idea of utilizing food as therapy, propelled by the sensory and grounding qualities that come along with cooking and dining. On that serendipitous day Libertini passed by Aigner, however, neither spouse was actively looking to make a move toward owning an eatery.
“When you fast forward to five years later, particularly in the present moment,” noted Kellner, “it is so evident that the vision that I had and the vision that he had beautifully collided in this business being for sale.”
Kellner and Libertini had always been planning to commemorate the business’ 90th anniversary, but both agree the occasion has taken on an even deeper meaning after surviving the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to Aigner’s dedicated staff, Libertini made sure to thank the customers who have shown kindness and generosity throughout chaotic times.
“The pandemic was difficult for a lot of businesses, but you guys supported us every step of the way,” he said. “I can’t thank you guys enough. You inspire us, and it’s what keeps Rachel and I motivated.”
Kellner’s notion of the healing powers of chocolate more definitively manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the business owners consistently found ways to engage with those in need, donating sweets to essential workers, homebound seniors and impacted communities, as well as the local nonprofit Forestdale.
When faced with an abundance of leftover Easter chocolates amid the height of the outbreak in Queens, Aigner created the Rainbow Bunny Exchange initiative, enlisting the help of neighborhood youth in contributing to the “Helping Healers Heal” program at Elmhurst Hospital.
They collected more than 300 rainbow drawings, coupled with messages of support, in exchange for chocolate bunny pops.
Moving toward the future as the Big Apple attempts to recover from an unprecedented crisis, Kellner and Libertini are eager to further grow their business alongside the community.
“We look forward to continuing to be inspired to find creative, exciting, fun and joyous ways to serve Forest Hills, Queens and New York City,” mused Kellner. “And the longer we are able to stay around, we can keep celebrating anniversaries.”