Disinfecting the Kozanyan Meat and Liquor store in Glendale, California, with sprays

Armenian Businesses in Glendale Grapple With COVID-19

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GLENDALE, Calif. – The spread of COVID-19 has impacted businesses in Glendale in various ways. While most have been adverse, some companies have found ways to survive and even expand. Obviously only a small sampling is presented in this article.

The situation has been dire for small businesses that have not been included as “essential”

Abril Bookstore in Glendale, California

and therefore were forced to shut down. Abril Bookstore, a community cultural institution in Glendale, was closed since mid-March. Owner Arno Yeretzian said that all forthcoming events had to be cancelled. Yeretzian could only periodically come in to fill online orders. He said, “It is a huge hardship for us.” He had to lay off the sole employee, and even himself. With income cut off, paying rent will be a problem.

Other businesses are thriving. Enterprising Armenians are filling gaps in existing services and creating businesses while stuck at home. Marty Vardanian, 25-years-old, is buying exercise equipment online such as dumbbells or racks, and then selling it immediately. Apparently it is in almost as short supply as toilet paper, according to his mother Gayane Diana Vardanian. The items are only available briefly on websites so it is necessary to choose quickly, sometimes within an hour. Marty then resells locally without shipment through websites like OfferUp.

While restaurants have been closed except for delivery, grocery and other food stores are doing well. Some are trying to help their local community. On March 22, according to an employee, the Armenian-owned Paradise Pastry and Café in Glendale began offering any senior citizen one pack of four pieces of lavash (flat bread) between 7 and 8 a.m. The employee said that it was usually not necessary to check the age of people coming in for this, as it was obvious, and there has not been any abuse of the offer so far. Paradise Pastry and Cafe offers delivery and pick-up services.

An Inside Scoop on What Is Going on with Groceries

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Kozanyan Meat and Liquor in Glendale is another store doing well. Owner Gayane Diana Vardanian explained that many of the Armenian stores have their own supply chains which are different from those that the main supermarkets rely on. Consequently, they often had supplies that mainstream outlets lacked during the peak of the virus panic. This appears to be parallel to the situation of bodegas in New York City.

Vardanian exclaimed, “The first two weeks — I never saw anything like that, especially the day before the stay-in order.” Once she ran out of toilet paper and paper towels, she did not go looking for it anymore because it was being offered to her at unimaginably high prices. Canned products and water after the first two-week rush, however, are back in supply.

She confessed that Armenians are hoarders by nature, but in all fairness noted that they tend to have large families and also are big eaters.

Meat and deli section of Kozanyan Meat and Liquor store in Glendale protected by plastic

Vardanian said that certain specialty items like fish from Lake Sevan or aveluk which had to be shipped are no longer attainable, but most other things brought from Armenia, Georgia or Russia are still kept in warehouses and ports. She said that keeping good relations with the warehouses and paying on time allows her store to have regular supplies.

Shortages occurred mostly for major American brands, like Gold Medal Flour or C&H Sugar. Vardanian said, “We might not have all of the brand names, but we balance it out.” If Hunt’s or Springfield tomato paste ran out at any particular moment, Armenian brands like Great Masis, Noyan or Tamara would fill in the gap.

Eggs and milk have been difficult to keep in supply. Kozanyan relies on an American company, which services her store first but the general situation is hard. Her meat supply was maintained overall, though at times in March, especially March 14-18, there was a lot of fluctuation in prices. However, Kozanyan tried to keep the increase in retail prices moderate.

Meat products, she said, including barbecue meat, still are flying off the shelves and liquor is also selling well. Ice cream sales have been crazy. Vardanian said it never has been this much in the summer, and she ventured to guess that the reason is that children are staying home.

The demand for wheat, fish and deli products is increasing, Vardanian said, but the wholesale prices are also going up. On the other hand, Vardanian had expected more frozen foods to sell but this did not happen.

Kozanyan is constantly seeking new supplies. Vardanian said it is like a scavenger hunt at this point, and she does not negotiate prices down any longer with importers or suppliers because of the difficulty of insuring constant supplies. This does lead to an increase in her prices.

Physical distancing is insured through floor markings at Kozanyan Meat and Liquor store in Glendale

She also can expand now to increase the number of American products, she said, in part because the number of non-Armenian customers of all backgrounds, including Hispanic, has increased. They are being introduced to Armenian products as a result. Vardanian said, “They see our culture and like our food.”

Vardanian said that she has followed all health ordinances, and in fact took measures one week before the stay-at-home orders in Glendale. She covered her entire deli and meat section. She said it was quite sad initially: some fulltime employees quit work because they had cancer patients or other at-risk people in their homes and had other sources of income, while others stepped in to take their hours, risking their lives for their wages.

Cashiers separated by vinyl and plastic from customers at Kozanyan Meat and Liquor store in Glendale

All her employees were given masks and gloves, and the entire store has been checked. There are restrictions on the number of people in her store at any one time, and if there are too many, she makes newcomers wait outside. Markings were placed inside the store to maintain physical distancing. She said that all these measures not only make customers feel more comfortable but vendors as well.

Initially, Vardanian said, many customers were disgruntled when they saw the spraying and cleaning. They asked why her employees were wearing masks and picked on them. They thought it was all propaganda and did not believe the government. Recent immigrants would tell her that they lived through Armenia in the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, and that this was nothing. They told her to be “doukhov” (courageous), so, she said, she would have to crack jokes to get through the awkwardness. However, during the week of April 6 when they began to see people they knew get sick, she said, they started taking it seriously.

In any case, the city of Glendale on April 7 also issued an order that masks must be worn by customers, as well as staff, in the essential businesses that continue to operate. Vardanian said she will try to obtain or fashion homemade masks to sell at a reasonable price to customers who do not come prepared.

Vardanian keeps a separate line for the elderly, though not at specific hours. She said that this line has diminished slowly but steadily, as it is the children or grandchildren now who are buying household supplies and only a few elderly show up in person. While the store generally does not deliver, if a customer is over 65 years old, it will do so as a courtesy.

Vardanian sees the positive sides of the current crisis. She said, “I believe the stay-at-home order has made families stronger. They eat at the same time; they are together. A dynamic like that of the Cleavers [the iconic family of the television show “Leave It to Beaver” in the late 1950s and early 1960s] has set back in. They have normal traditional dinners. I personally love it.” Her own family now eats together at 7 p.m. The children, even those in their twenties like her own sons can no longer eat fast food or eat with friends, and sometimes they even cook for the family. Family members are calling up people whom they have not seen for years.

At work, she said, I see the sons are dropping off or picking up their mothers who are my employees. No one walks home, left unattended. She wondered, “Could that be our Armenian values? We are loving.”

GG Delivery Service

Khachatur Grigorian, cofounder of the premiere app-based car service GG Taxi in Yerevan in 2014, and Taron Lizagub, chief operating officer in the US (see https://mirrorspectator.com/2019/08/01/co-founder-of-armenian-taxi-company-talks-entrepreneurship-with-agbu-summer-interns/), were forced to take their business in Southern California, which they began in April 2019, in a new direction due to the coronavirus crisis.

GG cofounders Khachatur Grigorian, left, and Taron Lizagub

GG initiated a shuttle service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas as a niche from which to expand in the US. A further goal was to use such a fairly simple fixed route to eventually deploy its own autonomous driving technology. However, Lizagub said that Las Vegas has been an empty city practically for two months now. It was clear the shuttle service would not be able to continue and ridesharing was no longer acceptable in Los Angeles.

GG Delivery van

Lizagub said, “We saw the situation was becoming serious. Our friends with children did not want to go to stores. They asked us to organize something and that is where it began.” They started to provide shopping and delivery services for groceries and other goods. Grigorian pointed out that the demand was great in the Los Angeles area and no existing online platform could satisfy it. He said, “We had thought about this but had no time to try it prior to the crisis, but now we both have the time and no choice.”

Unlike services which serve only one store, GG will go to a variety of stores and allow the customer to have control over the choice of items. Lizagub explained that perhaps if you ordered delivery only from a high-end store like Whole Foods, the selection process would not lead to problems, but at other types of stores you might not get the best quality items, whereas GG will employ greater quality control.

Usually it is families putting in the order, and the majority of customers are middle-aged women. On April 3, the founders said that this service began about ten days prior and already 100 families had been helped. The number of orders were 10-15 daily at the time, but were on the rise. Around 70 percent of the customers were Armenians. After the situation normalizes, GG expects that it will continue as personal shoppers to many who have become comfortable with using their service.

Grigorian said, “It is during these sorts of crises – the closest to which after World War II perhaps is the collapse of the Soviet Union, which did not directly affect the whole world – that great opportunities are offered to those businessmen who can adapt and think of appropriate products. In our case, it is deliveries. Those businesses which can adapt will grow stronger. This is, true, very difficult.” He said that with over 3,000 employees in four countries, they had to find solutions, and in Los Angeles and Armenia for now this is it.

Lizagub added that the company gives as much protective gear as possible to its employees and soon, roles of workers would be further specialized to insure greater protection. Negotiations were underway with big stores and chains to permit deep integration of services for greater efficiency and security, and this would reduce exposure. Perhaps pickups could be done directly from warehouses, for example, to isolate contacts.

While GG’s shuttle drivers were covered by an umbrella insurance policy, a new one was necessary for the delivery business, and GG is in the process of finding one so its employees will be covered again.

The city of Glendale has recognized GG’s delivery service as one of the new businesses in the area working to serve clientele in a safe, healthy and creative way. The city’s list, incidentally, includes another Armenian business, Serj Manukyan’s Dream Cars Sales and Leasing, which offers a completely online way to obtain a car.

Grigorian said that GG intended to expand its services in the United States. He declared, “We are seeking employees now in Boston for our business, just as we are doing in Los Angeles. We can begin to help Armenians in the community there in deliveries.” GG also seeks new investors because this crisis is an opportunity for it to grow. Though the online grocery business has many competitors, Grigorian said sees good opportunities for technology startups like GG.

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