There’s no doubt that when La Cañadans get hungry, Foothill Boulevard is where they head. The main route in town is where businesses rule, where there is no shortage of dining options, corporate or homespun.
At 1044 Foothill, just west of Chevy Chase Drive, is Berge’s Sandwiches, a modest sandwich shop opened 42 years ago by Berge and Queeny Yeghiaian that has garnered some measure of local fame for its high-quality ingredients, family atmosphere and, of course, the sandwiches.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
In 1972, when the pair opened up a small Mediterranean/Middle Eastern grocery at 913 Foothill Blvd., business wasn’t great. People were shopping at big chains, not 400-square-foot mom and pop shops.
Their store featured a deli case but no sandwiches. It wasn’t until repeated requests for the American staple drove Berge to give it a go that Berge’s Sandwiches was born.
“When my husband said, ‘I’ll make sandwiches.’ I said, ‘You make sandwiches and I walk out the door. And I did,” Queeny recalled of Berge’s early efforts. “At the beginning, no, he wasn’t good at it, not at all.”
But in that way that good things have of evolving naturally over time, Berge got better. In a couple of years, business boomed, says son John Yeghiaian, who started working there at age 17 and now manages the outfit alongside his mother.
Today, 18 years after the death of its namesake, Berge’s Sandwiches is still a sought-out destination when lunchtime descends in La Cañada.
Queeny heads the store’s operation six days a week, overseeing longtime chef Julio Tobar and his assistant and brother-in-law, Noah Gomez. She sits at the family table, in the spot Berge used to occupy when he wasn’t sitting on the outside planter, smoking and watching cars go by.
Despite the fact that she gets tired more easily these days, Queeny feels she has to be there.
“If I’m not here, the customers would come and say, ‘Where is she?’ So, just so they know I’m alive, I’m here,” she says.
Keeping a fairly simple menu of sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts, Berge’s is known for using fresh Armenian bread, though other types are available upon request. A fluffy kind of flatbread encrusted with sesame seeds, it’s a perfect bed for pastrami, turkey and avocado, tuna or roast beef.
A lot has changed in the city in the past 40 decades, especially the clientele, which has gone through at least one generational shift since Berge first touched mayonnaise to bread. But even as new customers stream in, much of the business is supported by regulars, people for whom Berge’s is simply a taste of home.
From her vantage point at the family table, along the east wall next to the refrigerated beverage case, Queeny sees a lot of familiar faces, though sometimes, names escape her.
“I don’t know their names, but I know what they eat,” she says.
And what customers eat has pretty much remained unchanged over the years, with the exception of a few more vegetarian options for non-meat eaters. Overall, the restaurant has used the same manufacturers for four decades, buying things like albacore tuna direct from the supplier.
Some places rely on fancy decor and a never-ending rotation of menu offerings to keep patrons coming, but in this regard, Berge’s has managed to successfully buck the trend by sticking to what it does best.
“With places like this, it’s always about the people who own it,” John says. “And we really do have a high-quality product.”
Pat Anderson, president and chief executive of the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce and longtime customer, vouches for the quality. Her go-to is the cream cheese and avocado sandwich on rye with tomato bisque, but beyond the food, she says it’s Berge’s reputation as a local fixture she really appreciates.
“You have this legacy built up,” Anderson says. “In some cases, you have children coming there because their parents used to come there. It all ties back to our small-town atmosphere with big-town service.”
Queeny’s daughter, MaryAnn Kaufmann, who helped out with the family business in years past, pinpoints the secret to the restaurant’s long-standing success.
“The secret is the combination of the bread and my mother. Always has been,” Kaufmann says. “She’s everybody’s mother. She’ll scold you in a heartbeat and give you the shirt off her back the next.”
Tobar, who’s run the kitchen for 18 years, says he’s come to think of Queeny like a mix of a mother and a grandmother. In his time at the counter, he’s seen little kids who used to come in stop by while on break from college.
“The first day I started working for Berge, he asked me, ‘How long are you planning to stay here?’ I didn’t know, so I just joked, ‘Twenty years.’ And now, in two years, it’s going to be 20 years. It’s amazing.”
Tobar never thought he’d be at Berge’s so long but has no plans to leave. And in that, he and the ownership are in perfect agreement.
“The thing is, we’re here,” Queeny says. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Follow Sara Cardine on Twitter: @SaraCardine.
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