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The holiday season is a time for family, treats, and lots of sweets, and what better way to immerse yourself in the holiday spirit than with one of Greenwich Village’s own chocolate houses. Li-Lac Chocolates, one of Manhattan’s oldest chocolate houses, has been a Greenwich Village staple for over 90 years. Founded in 1923, the first Li-Lac was started by a Greek immigrant named George Demetrious at 120 Christopher Street. Mr. Demetrious had previously learned the art of chocolate making in France, and used his expertise and innovation to develop a loyal following within the Village.
According to Li-Lac Chocolate website: “During the 1920s, Greenwich Village was a destination for artists, intellectuals and innovators. It was in this context that Mr. Demetrious applied his chocolate-making expertise, creating and perfecting his recipes for such items as Almond Bark, Butter Crunch, Hazelnut Truffle Squares, Legendary Fudge, and other favorites; steadily building a loyal customer following among his quirky and demanding neighbors.”
Mr. Demetrious ran the business until 1975 when he passed it over to his employee of 25 years Marguerite Walt. She held it until 1978 and sold it to a southern gentleman, Edward Bond, in 1978. Ed’s sister Martha joined him in this venture in 1981 and helped re-invigorate the business. Martha and Ed worked together to help create new recipes, and in 1996 Martha’s raspberry truffle was recognized as the best in the Tri-State Area.
Martha eventually opened a second location at Grand Central Market in 1990, and in 2005, when the rent at the Christopher Street location became too high, Li-Lac moved to a store on Jane Street, where it remains today. Martha retired in 2009, but Li-Lac remains in operation today, having been taken over in 2011 by long-time customers Anthony Cirone and Christopher Taylor, along with Anwar Khoder, who has worked at Li-Lac since 1989 and is their master chocolatier.
We were able to sit down with Mr. Cirone, who discussed what brought him into taking over Li-Lac, his experiences running the business, and plans they have for the future.
What made you decide to purchase and run Li-Lac?
My background was in marketing and brand development and I worked for Unilever and Bath and Body Works for many years. I decided at one point in my career I didn’t want to work at big, corporate firms until I retired, I wanted to do my own thing, have my own business. I was looking for a long time for the types of businesses that I would be interested in, but I knew Li-Lac and I always liked Li-Lac, and I was always a customer at Li-Lac for many, many years. I kept thinking to myself “I would love to have a business that was like Li-Lac,” and I was looking for businesses like Li-Lac and wasn’t finding anything, or anything I was interested in or excited by.
At one point I decided to pursue Li-Lac, see if there was an opportunity. It actually took three years from the time I made the initial contact until I was able to acquire the company, but it was worthwhile. What I like about the company is it’s an old company; it’s got a lot of history, both from the customer side, as well as the product side. I like the fact that the company was still making recipes that were the founder’s original recipes, still making them the same way with the same methods and the same ingredients as when he introduced them in the 1920’s. And I just thought the brand had a lot of potential and I had a lot of ideas on how we could expand it; take it to the next level.
What has been the biggest challenge you have found taking over such an old and iconic institution?
When you run a small business there are lots of challenges, because you don’t have the resources that big companies have so you’re always constantly trying to balance and juggle different priorities. I wouldn’t say there was any sort of one big challenge that stood out. We have tried to move the business forward in many areas, from adding new products, developing new products, new packaging, enhancing the line, which takes time and resources. We’ve also opened more stores, or at least we’ve opened one additional store but we’ve also moved our factory. We’ve had two big real estate projects and you can imagine how difficult real estate projects are in this environment in Manhattan. We also have a lot more people on our staff than we did four years ago when we took over our business. It’s just sort of balancing the day-to-day priorities, making sure that the chocolate is made and it’s where it needs to be at the right time, those are all sort of challenges that we face every day.
Are there any new and exciting things to expect in the coming year for Li-Lac?
There actually is another new store coming, we are opening another location in Chelsea Market and we’re planning to open in January. Sometime in the middle of January we hope to be open.
Is there anything new you’ve learned about the Village since taking over Li-Lac?
Even though I’ve lived in the Village for many years, having Li-Lac, having a business in the Village, brings us so much closer to the community. Li-Lac is very involved in many of the community happenings, right now we’re bringing chocolate to a lot of Christmas parties, street associations, Li-Lac was at the Charles Street Block [Association] holiday party and the Jane Street [Block Association] a while ago, the Franklin Alliance. We’ve gotten so involved in so many community block associations and groups and schools, it’s just really great, especially being in Greenwich Village where there’s such a sense of community and a sense of pride among all the people who live there. It’s definitely nice being a business like Li-Lac in Greenwich Village, that’s something definitely that brought us closer to the community than before we had a business there.
Do you foresee Li-Lac always remaining a presence within Greenwich Village?
Absolutely, the Village is our history; we have a brand new store on Bleecker Street between Thompson and Sullivan Streets that puts us in a different part of the Village, one that we weren’t in before, closer to NYU. We have a long lease there, so we expect to be there for a long time. In the West Village we expect to always have a presence in the West Village somewhere.
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