BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
Roubo and Miruzhan have been friends since before emigrating from Armenia over sixteen years ago. Now both their families have settled in Portland, after years in Los Angeles, where they run a successful bakery whose claim to fame is the nazouk (an Armenian cookie).
During a trip to the supermarket for supplies, I was surprised to see them. A close inspection of the label revealed that the company was based in Portland. I called their office, curious to see if they made any other Armenian baked goods.
“Please hold,” said the woman on the other end after I asked her the question. “I don’t know,” she said when she finally came back on the line.
“Where else in the area do you sell your product?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded. I began to wonder if she knew anything about the company where she worked.
“Is the owner Armenian?” I asked in a last ditch effort to find out even a small scrap information.
“Yes,” she said, finally giving an affirmative answer.
“What’s his name?”
“Is he in the office?”
“No.” After a moments pause she asked if I wanted his cell phone number.
I called Mike and introduced myself. He didn’t know what to make of the stranger speaking to him. I quickly told him the story of how I found him, all the while hoping he wouldn’t hand up on me. Instead he invited me over to his house.
Mike and Roubo were waiting in the drive when I arrived. The house sits back from a secluded road surrounded by open pastures where two horses were spending a lazy Saturday afternoon. Before the car came to a both men were at the side of the car introducing themselves and welcoming me to their home. They are both uncharacteristically tall and lean for Armenians. Roubo is quiet while Mike peppers his sentences with the words like “cool” and “duh” as commentary during a conversation.
“Call me Miruzhan. Mike is for the Americans,” he says with a smile.
They led us into the house where we met their respective wives, Anoush and Marina, Miruzhan’s daughter-in-law Milen and his grandchildren Ani and David (pronounced da-veed).
They were all bustling about in the kitchen and laying a feast on the dining room table.
“I only came to meet you and have a cup of coffee,” I protested.
“Of course we’re going to have coffee but first we have to eat and drink toasts,” Miruzhan said. Although prepared on such short notice, the table was overflowing with delicious edibles. They had cut short a family outing at nearby Mount Hood to be back in time and prepare for my arrival.
Just like the adage that “the shoemaker’s kids have no shoes” Miruzhan had none of his bakery’s products in the house.
“Roubo is a very good baker,” Miruzhan boasts of his friend’s baking ability. Ten years ago Miruzhan opened the bakery and recruited his good friend to join him in this northern city.
“The early days we did everything from baking to packaging to delivering to cleaning,” Miruzhan tells of the whole family’s contribution, “but thanks to God we have thirty employees now and there’s enough people to do it all,” Miruzhan said.
The bakery produces over eighty different products ranging from Armenian, Greek, Italian, French and Russian goods. But it was the humble nazouk that put their little bakery on the map. It is the number one selling product which they have protected with a trademark. Besides the nazouk, they have other Armenian delicacies like the gatta, the Tabriz style break and several other items. Then there are the experiments like the blueberry nazouk, a particular hit in this part of the Northwest.
Miruzhan started the bakery with twelve hundred dollars in a thousand square foot facility and now has revenues of over two million dollars. The current ten thousand square foot bakery has become too small. They sell their products mostly through a network of five hundred supermarkets and small, privately owned grocery stores in seven states in the West and Northwest and have recently expanded to six additional states. “Hard work pays off. Even though the economy is extremely slow, not only are we hanging in there but we’re working ‘fully loaded’ because of the beautiful nazouk.”
They are proud of their accomplishments. They had spent ten years in Southern California where they struggled to carve out a life: Roubo as a baker and Miruzhan as a taxi driver. “Drive to survive” is how he describes his previous life. Finally it was the children that convinced them to make the move out of the city.
“They were at an age where they could stray,” said Anoush. “My son went to Glendale High School and there would be police at the entrance and helicopters overhead,” she says referring to the spate of gang related violence that plagued the school at the time.
Now Roubo’s oldest son is a lawyer and Miruzhan’s daughter, a former Miss America Jr., is a cosmetics department manager at Nordstrom’s while his son Mher owns a business of his own.
The two families are a tight unit against the loneliness that can plague those who are trying to make a home in a new city without a significant Armenian community. They’ve left behind their extended family in their search for a place where they felt they belonged and could reclaim their self-respect. But here they have connected to the small but dynamic Armenian community who worked actively to establish a local church.
“Let’s drink a toast to our Armenians. Regardless of where they are, an Armenian always remains an Armenian, and let’s work to keep our historical traditions for our children and our grandchildren. After the grandchildren things will change a little bit but as long as we’re here our grandchildren will remain Armenian.”
“I feel really good that we have new friends and that we met because of an Armenian reason,” Miruzhan added.
“Because of nazouk,” corrected Roubo.