How L.A.’s Armenian food community has banded together to support its homeland
Early on the morning of Sept. 30, Armen Martirosyan’s mother came to him with some news. Cousins in Armenia were joining the fight against Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The territory, a mountainous area a little larger than Rhode Island, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The enclave, however, is self-governed and populated by ethnic Armenians, who fought off attacks by various empires over the last 2,000 years. They continued to control the area, despite being made part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic by Josef Stalin in the 1920s.
Since the end of September, more than 100 people have been killed in the region, referred to as Artsakh by ethnic Armenians. Both sides accuse the other of escalating the violence. Russia brokered a cease-fire Saturday, but each side has accused the other of violating the agreement.
“My family is so far from Armenia, so I had to think, what can we do from here?” said Martirosyan, 31, who along with his parents owns and operates Mini Kabob restaurant in Glendale. His immediate reaction? Donate a day’s proceeds to humanitarian efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Within minutes, he logged on to the restaurant’s Instagram account and posted a message to its 27,000 followers: “All of the proceeds today at Mini Kabob will be sent to Armenia…. We love you Armenia we are with you every step of the way.”
The rippling effects of a conflict raging more than 7,000 miles away are felt deeply by members of the Armenian diaspora in Southern California, many of whom are descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide, when nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915. Turkey has vowed to support its longtime ally Azerbaijan; the two countries have strong ethnic and cultural ties.
Martirosyan has more than 20 cousins living in Armenia; at least eight of them, he said, have already joined the fight. For him, what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh is personal. He was able to raise $3,000 to send to organizations that support Armenia and the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, including the Armenia Fund. The Glendale nonprofit works on various humanitarian projects that benefit Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
“We’re going to donate every day as much as I can,” he said. “I won’t drive my car or put gas in my car to know the Armenia people are getting that money.”
Mini Kabob is one of the many Armenian-owned food businesses in Los Angeles using its platform to raise funds for and awareness of the deadly conflict in the South Caucasus. For them, it’s an effective means to introduce many non-Armenian customers to the history of and current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Artur Kasabyan, who owns Bird Box fried chicken restaurant in North Hollywood, said he tries to strike up a conversation with customers when they walk in.
“I ask them if they have heard about the recent news with what’s been going on with Armenia,” Kasabyan said. “I explain to them that it’s a disputed land issue that’s been going on for years and that Armenia just wants peace.”
Rather than make a single, personal monetary contribution, he thought soliciting donations through his restaurant could also help spread awareness among non-Armenian customers. After announcing his donation campaign on Instagram, Kasabyan said he received about 62 more orders than the previous Saturday and was able to donate $3,500 to the Armenia Fund.
Armen Piskoulian, the chef-owner of Oui Melrose and Tony Khachapuri in Hollywood, is also using his position as a food business owner to encourage support for Armenia. His great-grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide. For him, the recent fighting echoes the killings of the genocide.
“I usually don’t mix politics with business, but this is so personal that I would feel like a fool if I didn’t contribute back to my people,” he said.
On Monday, Piskoulian used the #ArtsakhStrong hashtag and announced via Instagram that he was donating that day’s profits to the Armenia Fund. He says many customers, both Armenian and not, showed up to buy food. The hashtag has been used more than 93,000 times.
Carousel restaurant co-owner Rosalie Tcholakian recently announced a similar campaign. In addition to pledging 25% of the sales when a customer mentions Azerbaijan, she and her husband donated $5,000 to the Armenia Fund in the restaurant’s name.
“We’re using social media and all the hashtags and verbal communication with the servers to help bring awareness to the guests,” she said.
She tells her servers to let the customers know about the promotion and is brainstorming how else she can give diners a visual reminder.
Though she doesn’t advertise it, Tcholakian said she does not use any Turkish products in the restaurant, despite feeling that some of them are more “high quality” than options from elsewhere.
“When our vendors bring food from the Middle East, the salesperson will say this is red pepper from Turkey and this is one from Syria or Beirut, and you can see the difference,” she said. “But it’s a sacrifice that we will make.”
The refusal to use or sell Turkish products is another way Armenian-owned businesses are demonstrating support for Armenia, in a show of both economic and symbolic rebellion against all things Turkey. Jons Fresh Marketplace, a chain of Armenian-owned grocery stores with two dozen locations in Los Angeles, announced on Oct. 1 that it was pulling all Turkish products off its shelves.
“Although Jons Fresh Marketplace is a corporation with no political affiliation, we do make decisions with the benefit of the communities we serve in mind,” read a company-issued statement from market President Jack Berberian. “As a result, Jons Fresh Marketplace has decided to remove items labeled as ‘Product of Turkey’ from our shelves. Jons is sensitive to the conflict, and we feel this is the best decision for our communities and our employees.”
Piskoulian is making a similar effort. Though it’s something he’s done for years, he feels refusing to use Turkish products is especially important now. If he can’t find something such as a pepper paste, and the only alternative is Turkish, he’ll rework the recipe.
“I can’t knowingly go out and buy stuff and use it knowing that money is going to a government through taxation, that ultimately wants the demise of my people,” he said.
At Garni Meat Market in Pasadena, a sign out front proudly proclaims a Turkish-product-free zone. The market is on a stretch of Washington Boulevard heavily populated with Armenian-owned businesses and residents.
“We are doing our part to make our community Turkey Free Zone! We do not carry or use Turkish Products,” reads the sign. It prompts readers to interact with @TurkishProductFreeZone on Facebook or Instagram. The social media account has an active presence online, posting photos of markets that sell Turkish products.
Harout Khachoyan, whose father, Alex, owns the butcher shop, said people from the @TurkishProductFreeZone group recently visited the market and inquired about the use of Turkish products. When the Khachoyans said they hadn’t sold Turkish products for more than 20 years, the group members offered the market a sign to put out front.
Khachoyan recently announced via social media that the shop would donate 20% of profits for the remainder of the month to the Armenia Fund.
Papillon International Bakery owner Jack Torosian has vowed to donate $5,000 a week to the Armenia Fund, but he’s also taking a more hands-on approach with his efforts. Torosian was one of the first people to demonstrate in front of the CNN Los Angeles headquarters Oct. 3, demanding more media coverage of the fighting. Early that morning, he and some friends started texting everyone they knew, letting them know to gather in front of the Sunset Boulevard building.
“Everyone who came down brought something with them,” he said. “It’s just our culture. Blankets, food, there were grandmas making coffee in the corner.”
Around 10 p.m., Torosian organized a delivery of about 600 pastries. His bakery handed out ponchicks (a type of filled doughnut) and perashkis (a savory filled pastry) to feed the protesters throughout the night.
“You want to fight and yell and do anything, but what can you do?” he asked. “We are doing everything we can and providing food.”
Torosian was born in Yerevan and fled Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early ’90s. He’s making banners to give to any business, Armenian or not, that donates $5,000 or more to the Armenia Fund.
“Our [five] bakeries have more than 50% customers from other nationalities coming in,” he said. “It gives us access to them to educate them and for them to know us.”
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