Pulling Together

Times Staff Writer

Ask the Sarkissians how they manage to work together despite the divorce, the stalled careers, the health problems. How they still put in 10 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, mixing smoothies and folding burritos at their restaurant. The answer is always the same:

It's family.

"Certain things in life you have to do--that's not a sacrifice," explains Annie Sarkissian, the family's willowy 25-year-old daughter, who this summer passed her chiropractic boards. "If I left now to pursue what I have trained five years for, I would feel incomplete. It's not easy, but it's something we have to do."

This family has always survived.

In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Sarkissians' South-Central-based food supply and catering business went bankrupt. The bank foreclosed on their Glendale home. As the financial crises mounted, patriarch Sako Sarkissian suffered a massive heart attack and, finally, he and his wife of more than 20 years separated.

In October, the splintered family came together to begin again.

Beneath the cool green canopy of the Sarkissians' new restaurant, Taco Deli in La Canada Flintridge, Sako paused last week to marvel at what his children and former wife, Idalia, have done for him.

"I am scared without them," says Sako, clutching his chest. "I need them to live. For me, if there is not family, then there is nothing."

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In Armenia, the rugged plateau that separates Turkey and Iran from Georgia and Russia, Sarkissian is as common a name as Smith is in America, and stories of survival are many and revered.

Sako Sarkissian, now 54, was born in Beirut, where his parents fled when the Armenian genocide--in which more than a million Armenians died of starvation or were killed by Ottoman soldiers between 1915 and 1924--swept through their homeland.

"My father--only 7 years old at the time--was the only survivor in a family of 11," Sako says. "Even when he was old, he seldom talked about it, and I will tell you why. It was so sad, too sad even to tell. My father's mother pushed him into the hands of a Turkish woman and said, 'For God's sake, take care of my son because you know where we are going. And you know we will not be coming back.'

"That was the last time my father and his mother saw each other, and for years, as a boy, he was kept hidden away in the mountains as a goatherd.

"So you see," says Sako, his baritone voice thick with emotion, "life gets tough sometimes. Everybody sometime needs help."

When he was 21, Sako immigrated to the United States, coming through the bustling Port of New York, nervous but emboldened by his older sister's invitation to live with her in Michigan.

"It was my dream to come here, but Detroit was too cold, even for my dream, so I came here to California," Sako says.

And here, one sunny Sunday at an Eastern Orthodox church bazaar, Sako met a soft-spoken, exotic-looking young woman who had recently arrived in California from El Salvador with her own dreams. Her name was Idalia Julia, and she was as ambitious as Sako, already enrolled in college and supporting herself as a personal aide to a disabled woman.

"This was before so many people from Latin countries were here, and in the San Gabriel Valley, where I was living, it was mostly German people, so he looked a little bit different to me," recalls Idalia, 49. "Sako was young and handsome, but Armenian? I knew nothing of this country and its traditions. I fell in love, and I found out Armenians have a good heart. We both came from a very family-oriented culture, and in a way, that was enough."

In 1973, they married. Daughter Annie was born in 1974, son Mike in 1978.

Although Idalia worked as a florist, an interior designer and a travel agent, her priority was always her children. Not until they were both in college did she pursue what she believed was her true calling as a bilingual paralegal.

It was then that disaster, in the form of the South-Central riots, wrenched their dreams away.

"This was our neighborhood too and it was very sad to see the looting and the destruction, but it was the loss of our customers that finally doomed us.

"It was devastating. The government said they could not help us," Idalia recalls. "And my husband, he was pulling money from everywhere to stay in business. He borrowed from our house, although our mortgage was nearly paid off. We ended up owing $800,000. You can imagine the payments. It was impossible."

The Sarkissians moved to Arizona, hoping to make a new start, but their credit was ruined. Separately, they returned to California in 1996.

By then, Mike was preparing to study pre-law at UC Irvine, and Annie was at Palmer University near Palo Alto preparing for a career as a chiropractor.

Back home, the bank had foreclosed on the family home in the posh Glen Knolls section of Glendale, Idalia and Sako were headed for divorce, and Sako had survived, though barely, a heart attack and emergency bypass surgery.

Idalia faced a different health issue. "For a while, I was turning to alcohol, which was never, ever a problem in our family. But somewhere along the line, just when I thought I was truly lost, I found peace, I found it through religion, through the Pentecostal Church. And I realized that keeping a grudge or keeping things inside wasn't going to help any of us."

And there was something else, she realized. She could help the family by using her favorite low-calorie, high-energy recipes at what would be their ultimate venture--a restaurant improbably but appropriately named Taco Deli.

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The idea came to Sako in a dream: Open a fresh fast-food restaurant and use some of the money they took in to give other families the help his family never received from the government disaster agencies.

When she first heard about it, Idalia says she thought, "Oh no! One of his ideas again." But "by then I had learned to be quiet. Objecting hadn't worked before, and it would only hurt the family now."

The plan is ambitious, but once the family incorporates and registers it as a charity with the state, Taco Deli will contribute 3% of all restaurant sales to support it and will seek matching funds from neighboring businesses in exchange for free advertising in the restaurant.

The Sarkissians will enlist a multi-ethnic committee of community leaders to select recipients.

When the riots closed many South-Central restaurants, idling the food supply trucks that the Sarkissians stocked from their United Foods Supply warehouse at 1644 W. Washington Blvd., the Sarkissians applied for a loan through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to keep the company afloat until South-Central recovered.

But after months of delays and misplaced paperwork, says Sako, the request was denied. The Sarkissians took the rejection personally.

Spokeswomen for FEMA and the Small Business Administration, which administers disaster loans, said they could not comment on specific cases but agree that applicants for federal money must meet clear deadlines and certain financial criteria.

"They sent me a letter that said the government--my government--could not loan me any money because they did not think I had enough income to pay them back. Of course, that is the purpose of an emergency loan, no?" Sako asks.

But like soldiers who have been through a senseless war, the Sarkissians have grown closer through facing the challenges of survival.

"This is a remarkable family," says former La Canada Flintridge Mayor Jim Edwards. "I applaud them for what they have survived and for what they are trying to do now to help our community."

The Foothill Boulevard restaurant, which at least one Sarkissian opens at 6 a.m. and another closes at 9 p.m. seven days a week, has become an instant hit with customers lining up for takeout or a seat at one of the handful of green tables. One of the most frequent visitors is Chuck Ingolia, who operates the Ambiance hair salon next door and, despite his strict diet, often succumbs to a taco stuffed with charbroiled steak.

Few customers are aware of the coolness between Idalia and Sako, who on some days might go without speaking to one another without the patient intervention of one or both of their children.

Mike Sarkissian has dropped out of college for two semesters to work at the restaurant as many as 20 hours a day, often without pay. And until the restaurant's success is assured, Annie will delay setting up her chiropractor practice. For now, she is living nearby with her mother and aunt and a Pomeranian puppy named Blossom.

"Her full name is Blossom Sarkissian," Idalia says. "Don't forget Sarkissian. It is still a proud name."

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