Chocolate on the Block

17 Nov

Chocolate on the BlockIt was the Easter bunny that got him hooked.

Former advertising executive Anthony Cirone started shopping at West Village mainstay Li-Lac Chocolates 20 years ago, when he bought his first molded bunny. The high-end chocolate had a simple appeal, he said: “It’s filled with delicious butter and cream.”

The chocolate was so good that last week, decades after his first bite, he bought the store, along with a location in Grand Central Market and a factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The sale marked another chapter in the long life of Li-Lac, founded in 1923 by Greek immigrant George Demetrious. The company, has been sold only three times, and twice it was to long-time patrons.

An anomaly in New York’s artisanal chocolate culture—which is dominated by homages to the Belgian tradition such as Jacques Torres Chocolates or high-art confectionaries such as MarieBelle—Li-Lac takes a stubbornly old-fashioned approach: dark almond bark instead of painted truffles; pecan chews instead of experimental ganaches.

And then there are the molds, over 1,000 of them, that Li-Lac’s candy makers fill with half-inch-thick chocolate sculptures. Eiffel Tower molds and brontosaurus molds, golf ball molds and Thanksgiving turkey molds, astronaut molds and ballet slipper molds—in some cases dating back to before World War II.

Mr. Cirone’s transition from ad-man to chocolatier began five years ago when he first started looking for a small business to take over. “I’d been working in the corporate world for 20 years and…working for big corporation for the next 20 wasn’t really what I imagined.”

In early 2009, he sent an offer to then-owner Martha Bond, who had inherited the business from her brother, the first customer-turned-proprietor who bought Li-Lac from its founders in 1978.

That inquiry went unanswered as Ms. Bond was in the process of selling the company to employee, Linda Merritt.

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Two years later, Mr. Cirone lost his job in marketing at Bath & Body Works amid the recession and began looking at businesses to acquire, mostly coffee houses. His mind kept turning back to Li-Lac. In July he sent Ms. Merritt a letter expressing his interest, expecting the same results, but she surprised him by accepting.

At least one tradition will continue: master chocolatier Anwar Khoder, who has been with the company 22 years, is staying on as a minority partner. He has kept the lineup of products unchanged, a necessary concession to Li-Lac’s hand-made-only credo.

“Ganache takes forever to finish by hand—other people have machinery, pumps and depositors, but we keep it on a small scale,” Mr. Khoder said. And that, he says, is how he likes it “I love the company, it’s everything for me it’s all my life.”

But Li-Lac’s antiquated marketing is in need of an update, Mr. Cirone said.

The company website, replete with lilac wallpaper, resembles chocolate boxes found in hospital gift shops, the ones with gilt writing and a ribbon across the front. Mr. Cirone is getting ready to shake that staid image up.

He has some experience with shock-branding, having launched Dove’s “real women” campaign for Unilever in the U.S., and has decided on a guerilla marketing campaign for Li-Lac. That covers a range of tactics, from a visit to a Jane Street Block Association meeting with free gift certificates, to an incipient website revamp to a new Facebook page.

“I want 1,000 Facebook followers by the end of the year,” Mr. Cirone said. “I have 50 right now, but that’s up from 16 last week.” He hopes online sales, now 10% of Li-Lac’s revenue, will surpass retail sales. Those sales held steady in recent years despite the weak economy because, he theorized, quality chocolates offer an “affordable luxury.”

Mr. Cirone says it’s no surprise that Li-Lac was bought again by a customer. “I think it speaks to the fact these types of businesses work well when you hand down to do somebody who loves it,” he said. “They survive because of the passion of the people who work in them.”

Article posted by Spencer Samaroo, Managing Director, Moo-Lolly-Bar
The best online chocolate, lolly and confectionery store on the web!

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Source: Online Wall Street Journal

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