Small Business Survivors: NYC’s Li-Lac Chocolates won’t melt under the strain

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Karine Khoder of Li-Lac Chocolate shows off some of her wares. With six locations in New York, it is among the businesses struggling to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced so many business to close and slowed business to a crawl. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Of the six stores that the 97-year-old Li-Lac Chocolates has in New York City, only four are operational. Business has been far from sweet, as revenues are down now 75%, and at its worst in April, was down 93 percent.

But Anthony Cirone, owner of Li-Lac for the past nine years, refuses to melt under the financial heat and is finding every way to pivot and bring in enough cash until the busier fall season kicks in and hopefully, and function closer to normal during the all-important Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

As of now, two stores in the West Village are open as is their Grand Central Station and Industry City Sunset Park locations where they have their main production facility. The stores offer a variety of chocolates, some molded into objects such as footballs, the Empire State Building and even a hospital building for front-line medical professionals who battled COVID-19 at its height.

A featured Empire State Building chocolate. (Photo by Todd Maisel)
Li-Lac Chocolate has a chocolate hospital, fire trucks, and get-well cards.(Photo by Todd Maisel)

But business is still at a trickle, as local traffic is no more than a nibble compared with the normal number of customers.

“Our business is dependent on tourists and business people and none of them now exist,” Cirone grumbled. “We sell a lot of gifts, and none of it is happening. There are no dinner parties, conferences, the things that normally drives business. Until we return to some sense normalcy, it’s hard to get back up to levels when the majority is gone.”

In the meantime, Li-Lac is pivoting using more web-based sales, delivery through apps such as Doordash. Cirone has also reduced staff and is in “survival mode – trying to get through a period when the business is depressed.” He has been minimizing expenses, looking for different avenues for sales. There is also wholesale, but it has made only a tiny contribution to his business as retail outlets were mostly closed too.

Cirone said they also received Payroll Protection Program (PPP), funds, and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), which has helped keep them afloat. He is also dealing with six different landlords, some more amenable to compromise than others. He admits he is still negotiating to remain afloat at all sites.

“I’m thankful some landlords have been really good, some have been tougher, some offered abatement or reduce rent for a period of time; some are holding ground – I don’t know how that’s going to work out. I hope to find something that works,” Cirone said.

The growth in online sales has been a bright spot, but “not enough to offset the loss in volume from stores, but it does help a bit.” They are pushing through those distribution channels, urging customers to send chocolates to friends and loved ones. “We are focusing on trying to get chocolates to those who can’t make it to stores.”

Cirone is counting on the fall to be an improvement as workers start returning to offices, and schools reopen – though “it’s really uncertain and the real question is when will things get back to normalcy – that’s really scary because this can go on for a while.”

At this time, the chocolate factory is idle until demand rises. Cirone expects to remain idle until the end of August – normally a slower time than the rest of the year.

The chocolate factory is idle for now. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

“I’m reading that some offices are not bringing back workers till January or later – that’s a long time and the fall season is big for sales,” Cirone said. “We will be then heading into holidays, – and we cannot be without customers during Christmas or Thanksgiving – we need New York City to be open.”

He continued, “it’s not so surprising August into September are slow – nobody is going to work in the summer – so we are hoping that people will get back to routine and schools will make big difference – it will be like a springboard to get people back into the routine. If not open, if people stay at home – this can drag on for quite a while. We are hopeful things will look more normal after labor day, hopefully so.”

Li-Lac Chocolate, with six locations in New York is among the businesses struggling to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced so many business to close and slowed business to a crawl. (Photo by Todd Maisel)
All kinds of sports chocolates on display, some of those sports are also hobbled by COVID-19. (Photo by Todd Maisel)
Lilac Chocolate features irresistible confections. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

This story is part of amNewYork Metro’s “Small Business Survivors” series, an ongoing look at how New York City small businesses are working to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re a small business owner surviving the pandemic, send us your story by emailing robb@amny.com.