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Li-Lac Chocolates celebrates 95 years of handmade tradition

The shop's original candies — almond bark, butter crunch and hazelnut truffle squares — are still made the same way they were when it opened in 1923.

We went behind the counter to see how the chocolatiers at Li-Lac make some of New York City's most delectable treats. (Credit: Corey Sipkin)

Behind the counter at Li-Lac Chocolates, it's a hive of activity — workers carry pots of melted chocolate, hand-pour fun figures in metal molds and carefully package small bites of joy — just as they have since 1923.

This month, the New York City-based chocolate house is celebrating 95 years in the business, making it older than Mickey Mouse, television and the chocolate chip cookie.

Even with five locations and a sixth on the way, Li-Lac still makes its chocolates by hand and has continued to reject mass production and honor tradition. That's what sets it apart from a lot of sweets companies, according to co-owner Anthony Cirone.

"People don't realize all the labor that goes into it until they actually see it," he told amNewYork inside the company's Industry City kitchen on a recent Thursday. "There is a more automatic way to make them, but this way, you really taste the freshness."

Passers-by can watch the mesmerizing process unfold through the kitchen's front window — a fountain of chocolate overflows onto pieces of candy as they move across a conveyor belt. It's a brilliant way to make mouths water, draw in business and give insight into what actually goes on in the kitchen.

Starting with ingredients like fruits and nuts from U.S. farms and a blend of chocolate from West Africa, which gives Li-Lac's chocolates an old-school robust but mellow flavor, each item is created the way it was when its founder George Demetrious started in 1923. 

The almond bark, butter crunch and hazelnut truffle squares that Demetrious created at the original Christopher Street kitchen are still made and created the same way, and a wide range of other treats (including nonpareils, Easter bunnies and marzipan rolls) are carefully formed, dipped and decorated, Cirone said.

Chocolate pieces that require color, including Li-Lac's witches, are painted by hand, one-by-one. Chocolate molds are created for almost every season and hobby/interest imaginable (lipsticks, turkeys, snowmen, pumpkins, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, animals, handbags, high heels and more).

Using two original marble slabs, original chocolate molds and a wooden shaper, a century-old scale and 1920s copper kettles and other tools (including an enrobing machine like the one in the famous "I Love Lucy" episode), the kitchen produces a mind-boggling 15,000 pieces of chocolate daily, according to master chocolatier Anwar Khoder, who has worked there since 1989.

While it's a lot of work, Khoder said it's worth it because the chocolates have a following.

"You have to have an interest in it because it takes skill — it's a very difficult job," he said. "When the new owners took over in 2011, my only condition was that we continue to do all of this by hand and not do mass production. I see a loyalty with the customers. It's what we're known for."

The company changed hands in 1972, when Demetrious died. His employee Marguerite Watt took over and eventually sold it to Edward Bond in 1978, who helmed the company until he died in 1990. His wife, Martha, was in charge until 2009, when she retired. Cirone, Khoder and Christopher Taylor bought the company in 2011.

Cirone, who started shopping at Li-Lac in 1990 at the shop's original space on Christopher Street, decided to throw his time and money into the company because of its dedication to keeping tradition in the kitchen.

"Chocolate makes people very happy, and this job is not a chore — it's a nice business to be in and it's emotionally satisfying," he said. 

Khoder also said he loves when he sees people come in excited about the kitchen's goodies.

"We have 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds who come in and have stories about how they used to visit the original store, and that makes me feel how important the company is to people," he said. "Once we change, we are done."

Li-Lac Chocolates locations

  • West Village at 40 Eighth Ave.;
  • Greenwich Village at 162 Bleecker St.;
  • Grand Central Market at 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue;
  • Chelsea Market at 75 Ninth Ave.;
  • Brooklyn factory/store at 68 35th St.

A sixth location is planned to open in spring 2019 at Hudson Yards.

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