Li-Lac Chocolates (www.li-lacchocolates.com) is New York’s City’s oldest and most traditional chocolate house. It’s also a very sweet story. A 21st-century fairy tale. In New York’s West Village, Li-Lac has delighted and served customers since Founder George Demetrious opened the original Christopher Street store in 1923. After more than 90 years, Li-Lac still offers the original French-inspired confections that Demetrious put in his display cases, but Li-Lac has changed radically. Outgrowing the original intimate shop, the West Village store is now on Eighth Avenue and there are three additional locations. A boutique in bustling Grand Central Station serves commuters and tourists. Across the East River in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Li-Lac carefully crafts its small-batch chocolate in a state-of-the- old-fashioned-art factory in Industry City, an exciting innovation center. And in October, a new flagship and concept store officially opened in the Greenwich Village.
Now for the fairy tale part of this story. In 1993, Anthony Cirone was introduced to Chris Taylor on a corner in the East Village, a neighborhood not yet hip and renowned for Michelin- starred restaurants. Handsome, smart, credentialed, and connected, the two were climbing corporate ladders. At Unilever, Cirone was the global brand director who had launched the wildly successful and award-winning Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Later at Bath & Body Works, he was associate vice president of brand development responsibile for three high-pro- file, fashion-forward skincare brands.
As a teen, Taylor and his family moved to Georgia from England, via Holland. At 16, he started college, earning two degrees in political science and finance at the University of Georgia before discovering Wall Street, where he found his niche. “Around 27, I got serious about my life and took myself to Wall Street, which I loved! I hated the stress, the long hours, the arrogance, but I loved the intellectual competition,” he said.
Classic DINKs (Dual Income No Kids), they were living in a gorgeous West Village apartment and weekending in the Fire Island Pines. Life was good, and maybe a little boring.
Blessed with mid-career restlessness, Cirone began to compare the sameness and safety of a corporate career with the rewards and risks of business ownership. “I wanted my own business with a great product, a unique brand, and I hoped it would include manufacturing and service,” he said.
Li-Lac Chocolates was always on his short list of possible purchases. As a self-confessed chocoholic, Cirone was a frequent customer. From early childhood, his sweet tooth was an issue. At one point, his mom attempted to convince him that carob was just as good as chocolate. “She told me it was the same thing. I revolted and opened my own chocolate company,” he says.
Cirone tried to purchase Li-Lac in 2008. He wrote a letter to Martha Bond, who in 1990 had inherited ownership from her brother Ed. Bond’s response to his proposal was, in Cirone’s words: “No response. Nothing at all. Later, Martha told me she tossed my letter in a drawer after opening it.”
Even as he kept looking, he was drawn back to Li-Lac. “I thought it would be a dream come true. It had everything! An acclaimed product, unique brand, solid and loyal customer base, impeccable reputation, and manufacturing facilities.”
In 2010, he wrote Bond again, but in the time between letters, she had sold the company to one of her employees. The new owner respond- ed and invited Cirone to a meeting. A year later, in October 2011, the deal was struck. The final purchase became even sweeter when Anwar Khoder, Li-Lac’s much-respected master chocolatier, joined the partnership team.
Khoder migrated to the US from Lebanon and joined Li-Lac in 1989. To that point in his life, he had never tasted chocolate. Starting as a cashier in the store, Khoder worked his way through a variety of positions until he was named master chocolatier in 1995. For 20 years, he has overseen production of Li-Lac’s old-world artisan hand-made small-batch chocolates from the original recipes that founder Demetrious introduced in 1923.
With pride, Taylor clarifies that Li-Lac’s distinct quality is directly related to a higher percentage of cocoa butter, “which is the key ingredient in our chocolate. More cocoa butter and less sugar produces a smoother flavor. Our fabulous chocolate is better than most American brands simply because we use less sugar and more cocoa butter, which is very expensive, but also a bit temperamental and messy.”
Clearly excited when discussing quality, Taylor added that “the best test for chocolate quality is to simply hold it between your fingers, and if it softens rapidly, that’s a good sign, because cocoa butter melts at body temperature.”
This instability demands critical attention to the production quality. “We have to be ridiculously careful to maintain quality control,” he said. “It would be so easy to change our formulation, which would enable bigger batches, and save a fortune in labor costs, but our identity is for traditional, hand-made chocolates, and we don’t want to lose that.”
Anyone who has experienced Li-Lac chocolates understands that the cocoa butter really does make a difference…a joyful, rich, smoooooth difference. “We’re committed to favorites that were in the original Li- Lac product line,” said Cirone, listing off names of candy like they are his children: butter crunch, hazelnut truffle squares, mint-cream patties, dark-chocolate almond bark, marzipan rolls, maple-walnut fudge, and caramel squares. “They’re all produced with the same techniques: marble-topped tables, copper kettles, made in small batches that George started using in 1923.”
George Demetrious, a native of Greece, studied chocolate making in France before opening the first Li-Lac on Christopher Street in New York City. He built the business, and when he died he entrusted his recipes and beloved company to Marguerite Walt, a devoted employee of 25 years. The third owner, Edward Bond, expanded the product line, adding Mr. Bond’s Special Pralines and Specialty Truffles. With his sister Martha, Bond developed a raspberry truffle that was named the Best in the Tri-State Area.