FOREST HILLS -- Aigner Chocolates in Queens has a secret ingredient that has sustained the legendary 90-year-old sweet shop: love.
"I think chocolate is really important," says co-owner and head chocolatier Mark Libertini, "because it brought us together."
His romance with Rachel Kellner wasn't born in a vat of tempering chocolate, but instead at a tapas restaurant in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighborhood that Mark used to own.
"Rachel was a regular at the restaurant. She actually brought a date to the restaurant one time," Libertini says, playfully scowling at his now wife. "She came in by herself one time 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 her idea.
"I'll never forget that text message coming through," Kellner says. "It was this big, crazy idea, and here's this person who I just met and he believed in me. That was the moment I fell in love with him even though I just met him."
The pair ultimately tabled the food-is-therapy idea, not knowing quite how to monetize it, and bonded over other things as they began dating and eventually moved to Queens.
Years later, Libertini was driving down Metropolitan Avenue and stopped at a chocolate shop to buy Kellner some sweets. When he tried to enter, he realized the business was closed. But there was a phone number on the front door.
"It was always 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 signed a property contract, built the shop of their dreams, cooked up a bunch of inventory and opened in time for Halloween 2015.
Embraced by their Queens community, where this chocolate shop has been a staple for almost 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," Kellner says, "and we created that vision statement seven years ago, not knowing what the last two years were going to bring."
Queens, and particularly Elmhurst Hospital Center, had been the nation's epicenter of pain and suffering during the initial wave of the pandemic, and Libertini and Kellner wanted to find a way to give back.
They cooked up an idea called the Rainbow Bunny Exchange, which involved giving a free chocolate-bunny pop to any kid who drew a picture of a rainbow with a message of hope for frontline workers.
"We had an initial goal of collecting 100 rainbows and we ended up collecting 315," Kellner says. "After we delivered them, they made a collage. There is a rainbow of rainbows in the lobby of Elmhurst hospital still. It really was our proudest moment."
"And it's on permanent display," Libertini adds.
The Rainbow Bunny Exchange led to a similar idea, Flower Power, which involved kids drawing pictures of flowers to spread hope. This time, they collected over 1,500 drawings.
In all, Aigner Chocolates has donated almost $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 tabled years before, finally making good on the idea that brought them together in the first place.
"That food-is-therapy idea," Mark says, "This business IS food is therapy. And we didn't even know we were executing that concept."
Since buying the shop, they have gotten married, had a kid (bringing their total to three), and have learned to be business partners in addition to life partners. Through the years, they've added more and more love to the recipe.
Ramping up for Valentine's Day, one of the shops busiest times of year, the irony of this particular sweet shop being covered in hearts from floor to ceiling isn't lost on Kellner.
"We need to stop and kind of remind ourselves that this chocolate shop is a love story," she says, "and our dreams have come true."