Social Responsibility: The Unexpected Product of a NYC Chocolate Shop

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One of the oldest chocolate shops in New York City, Aigner Chocolates has been serving chocolate treats and other sweets for 93 years. When Rachel Kellner and her husband Mark Libertini bought and took over the store in 2015, they had to navigate how to preserve the store’s identity while also keeping it exciting for future generations.

Mark is a pastry chef and restaurateur, but as a former social worker, Rachel had no experience in the food industry. Rather than seeing her untraditional background as a mismatch, she used it to bring a new perspective to the store.

“Business is really all about networking. It’s all about building relationships, and I love doing that,” Rachel said. “As a therapist, that’s your role. A therapist-client relationship is based on the trust and safety that you build with your client.”

While the ownership is different, much of Aigner Chocolates is the same. Mark and Rachel use all of the same recipes as the original owners so customers eat the same classic chocolates they have been for years.

In terms of evolving the store, Rachel changed the branding, updated the website, and built a stronger online presence. She’s also single-handedly grown media relationships and written press releases.

“I built those relationships, and now it’s to the point where I’ll literally text my media contacts and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on,’ and I’ll pitch them stories,” Rachel said. “There are so many terrible things happening in the world that the news couldn’t go on if they didn’t have some lighthearted pieces, so we’re always able to provide that.”

While Rachel continues to expand Aigner Chocolates’s presence online and capitalize on media coverage, she still thinks the store’s strength lies in the in-person experience for customers. She prioritizes training her staff and treats them like family, which comes across in their interactions with customers.

For Yelp Community Manager Samantha B., the in-person experience will always be preferable to ordering Aigner Chocolates online. She loves coming into the store due to the relationships the staff has built with her over the years.

“I’m a people person to begin with, so it’s always really nice to just walk into a brick and mortar and see a smiling face.” Samantha said. “We got so comfortable during the pandemic just sitting behind a screen, but I’m just not that person.”

In addition to treating all walk-ins as valued customers, Aigner Chocolates engages the community by frequently giving back to local charities and organizations, such as the Queens Center for Progress and a local hospital.

Rachel sees these efforts as a way to combine her social work background with her new experience in the food industry. During the pandemic, the shop donated chocolate totalling around $30,000 in value. Now, Rachel sets a donation budget and selects local organizations whose values align with her business.

“We’ve been gifted this incredible opportunity to run this business, to carry on a tradition, and it’s my husband and my social responsibility to spread joy,” Rachel said. “We’ve really taken that on in every way that we can, and we just try and find ways to do that.”

Other creative strategies to engage the community from Aigner Chocolates include:

  • Host community events. Aigner Chocolates frequently hosts fundraisers with local schools and organizations. Hosting these events is a great way to raise awareness for both your business and causes you care about.
  • Hire local community members. Rachel frequently hires students from local high schools and partners with local universities to give college students internship opportunities. By offering jobs and professional development opportunities, you can grow your small business’s ties to the community.
  • Treat customers like family. As a longstanding business, staff at Aigner Chocolates ensure that old and new customers alike feel welcomed. Prioritizing customer service helps every customer feel like a valued part of the community and creates loyal patrons.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Rachel and Samantha, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

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