By Caroline Benveniste
In the December 2016 issue of WestView News we ran an article entitled “The Best of Food Shopping in the West Village” in which we listed our favorite food stores. Somehow, we neglected to include a chocolate category and our readers quickly alerted us to this oversight. And, of course, the winner in that category was Li-Lac Chocolates. Last month, Li-Lac moved their flagship store from 40 Eighth Avenue (at Jane Street) to 75 Greenwich Avenue (between Bank and West 11th Streets) where the Roasting Plant used to be.
Li-Lac is the oldest chocolate house in Manhattan; they opened at 120 Christopher Street (near Bedford Street) in 1923. The business was the brainchild of George Demetrious, a Greek immigrant who learned his chocolate-making skills in France. When George passed away in 1972 he left the company to his long-standing employee Marguerite Watt, as he had no family. Marguerite ran it until 1978, when she sold it to a devoted customer, Edward Bond. Edward’s sister Martha also came on board, and they ran the business jointly. Among other initiatives, they started amassing the large collection of chocolate molds that are still used today. Martha continued to run the business after her brother’s death in 1990, and started Li-Lac’s expansion with a second store in Grand Central Station in 1999. In 2005 Martha was forced to move the first store to Eighth Avenue after the rent at its original Christopher Street location skyrocketed. (120 Christopher Street is a Croman building. In 2009 Pho Sure, a Vietnamese restaurant, opened there but closed a few years ago after issues with the landlord. Red Paper Clip, a trendy Asian-accented restaurant whose chefs had previously cooked at a number of prestigious spots, now occupies the space. Many of the other storefronts in the building remain empty.)
In 2011 Martha retired and sold Li-Lac to two of her customers and an employee. The two customers, Anthony Cirone and Christopher Taylor, were longtime Village residents and Li-Lac devotees. Anwar Khoder was an immigrant from Lebanon who started working at Li-Lac in 1989 and is now the master chocolatier. Anthony pointed out that Li-Lac has always been run by either former employees or enthusiastic customers or both.
Under its new ownership, Li-Lac continued to expand. Five years ago Li-Lac moved its factory to Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Industry City was built as a manufacturing, warehouse, and distribution center in the 1890s. It had fallen into decay until 2013 when a new group of owners, which included Jamestown Properties, took it over and began to redevelop it. (Jamestown Properties is the company that invested in Chelsea Market in 2003 and turned it into the huge tourist attraction it is today. In 2018 they sold it to Google.) Li-Lac was one of the first food tenants at Industry City, and now that move seems prescient, as many other food purveyors have set up shop there—including Sahadi’s (Middle Eastern market and restaurant), Hometown BBQ (perhaps the best BBQ in NYC), and Japan Village—making it a fun dining destination. In 2015 Li-Lac opened a store on Bleecker Street, and in 2016 they set up shop in Chelsea Market. This year they opened a store in Hudson Yards, and also moved their flagship store when they were unable to negotiate a new lease at the Eighth Avenue location (they had been there on a month-to-month basis for a while).
Anthony admitted that opening two stores this year has been a huge undertaking. However, they are very pleased with their new Greenwich Avenue location: it is larger, has more visibility, more foot traffic, and is in an attractive spot (overlooking the AIDS Memorial Park and Northwell Health Greenwich Village). The area is becoming more lively as, finally, the Seventh Avenue storefronts in Rudin’s Greenwich Lane development have tenants (Nordstrom Local is open, the veterinary clinic at the corner of 12th Street is under construction, and a fancy Starbuck’s will be coming to the corner of 13th Street.) The new store takes advantage of the additional space with a hot chocolate bar. The day I visited, the staff was being trained to make the perfect Café Mocha.
Even though Li-Lac has the Industry City factory, the chocolates are still made by hand, limiting the number that can be made. The mold collection continues to expand, and the themed chocolates are popular as gifts. My personal favorites are the chocolate covered orange peels, glacé ginger, butter crunch, and the hazelnut truffle squares which resemble the three-layer Italian Cremino but with an external chocolate shell.
On October 19th the store held a grand opening event with five of their signature chocolates selling at 1923 prices (23 cents per piece) and some boxes of chocolates available for $9.23. While the prices have returned to 2019 levels, Li-Lac’s new store is still definitely worth a visit. When we see so many beloved Village institutions closing it’s nice to know that Li-Lac has long-term leases on all its stores, assuring a supply of delicious chocolate well into the future.