Proprietor Hasmik Movsesyan chopping carrots in the Farm Grill’s kitchen area

Hasmik Movsesyan’s Farm Grill Offers Armenian Hospitality to Metro Detroit

1403
0

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — In a nondescript strip mall, hidden from view alongside a huge parking lot that serves three other strips of stores in the inner-ring Detroit suburb of Southfield, an equally nondescript storefront awaits the customer in search of great Mediterranean food. The large sign proclaiming this to be the Farm Grill, with its style and design, along with pictures of kebab, announce to the passerby that the trusted Lebanese-American cuisine popular throughout all parts of Metro Detroit can be found here. Neighborhood residents, clerks at the nearby outlet stores, and especially gym-goers at the Planet Fitness across the parking lot wander over in search of something healthy to eat — a plate of hummus, or perhaps chicken shawarma, skipping the fried-chicken-and-fish place that’s right next door. But Farm Grill is not a typical Lebanese or “Mediterranean” restaurant.

The interior of the Farm Grill is dark and simplistic. But as soon as one enters, the smiling face of proprietor Hasmik Movsesyan, with her friendly welcome, lights up the room. As customers discover the healthy and delicious homemade cooking, and family-like Armenian hospitality, they forget the exterior and even the interior of this true diamond in the rough. The Farm Grill transforms into home, especially for the many Armenian customers. Movsesyan’s fellow natives of Armenia often call it horants doon (father’s house or family home, in Armenian). Others simply call it “Hasmik’s place.”

This small restaurant has become a highlight of the Detroit Armenian community and a gathering place for Armenians from all walks of life, from the American-born generations to Movsesyan’s fellow arrivals from Armenia, to those who immigrated from the Middle East and Turkey some 50 years ago. This is the story of how an immigrant family’s successful business brought the Armenian community together and provided a taste of homeland hospitality not only to the Diaspora but to all residents of Metro Detroit.

Detroit’s Ethnic Restaurant Scene

Two decades ago, there was little to speak of in terms of Armenian cuisine in the area, particularly restaurants.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Early immigrants dating back to the 1920s had attempted to open restaurants, but aside from the old-world “surjarans” (coffeehouses) which died out with the generation of early immigrant men that patronized them, an Armenian was more likely to have better luck running a general “American” restaurant than one specifically featuring ethnic cooking. In the early days of Detroit, Greektown on Monroe Street downtown reigned supreme for Mediterranean cuisine as well as entertainment; in later years, as the Arab-American population of Dearborn boomed, Lebanese restaurants proliferated throughout the suburbs under the trade term “Mediterranean.” These two ethnicities with their popular cuisines cornered the market on the homeland region’s food, with the Greek community expanding into more American-style diners, known colloquially in Detroit as “coney islands” (a story for another time.) Armenians for the most part didn’t enjoy the difficult restaurant business.

There was always call for Armenian catering services, like Gary Reizian’s long-running “Uptown Catering,” which also produced labor-intensive but in demand items like cheese beoreg and lahmajoun en masse. Some of the Armenian caterers throughout the years tried to open full-service restaurants at times, but none lasted. Most Detroit Armenians abided by the mantra of “why go out to eat ‘our’ food when we can make it better at home?” The annual church picnics and bazaars were one’s best bet for getting a taste of Armenia.

At the time that the Farm Grill opened, the only Armenian restaurant in the area was Allegro, a supper club and event space that catered to post-Soviet immigrants and which was owned by a Russian-speaking Armenian family from Baku. Piles of khorovadz washed down with vodka awaited the patrons who ranged from Armenian grandmothers to Ukrainian teens, as the audience was entertained by the floor show featuring Bakutsi Armenian performers that sang in Russian. Local chapters of the AYF or ACYOA would occasionally rent the space for dances; Armenian grandparents held their anniversary parties there. The Movsesyan family themselves along with their relatives and friends were frequent patrons.

With Allegro now closed, Farm Grill has become the only full-service Armenian restaurant. But the tale of Farm Grill is the story of one woman’s dogged determination to forge her own path as an independent business owner while serving others, thanks to a lot of hard work, determination, and the value of education.

Farm Grill’s Manti

Armenian Tradition of Work Ethic and Education

When Movsesyan arrived in the US with her family in 2000, she had no plans to go into the restaurant business. She had trained as a nurse in Armenia and her ultimate goal was to become licensed in the same profession here. Coming from a family where education was a major priority, Movsesyan said that her father worked as a welder and her mother as an accountant in a large supermarket.

In fact, while Movsesyan started working hard, cleaning hotel rooms upon her arrival in the US, and then moved on to a local Mediterranean restaurant, the Pita Café, where she worked as a dishwasher, waitress and finally cashier, she simultaneously went back to school herself and earned a bachelor’s degree in social science. Why? “I just have to be educated,” says Movsesyan, a value she has passed on to her children, Artak and Anahit. Artak has a business degree and helps his mother in the restaurant as well as in her developing real estate business, while Anahit is a physician assistant. Movsesyan stated, “when I came to this country, the first thing I told Anahit and Artak, I don’t care what you’re going to be, you have to be educated, no matter what. Thank God my children were smart enough, I helped them to find the path, I don’t put them in there. I didn’t insist Anahit to become a PA, I helped her to choose that.”

“In my family the education is the first,” continued Movsesyan. “Here’s what I say to whoever comes to the United States: I don’t care what you’re going to do. I don’t care what business… sometimes they say ‘if you are going to open a business you don’t need to be educated.’ Oh, you do have to. You have to be intelligent. You have to be able to write. Yes, you have to! It’s an education. You have to be able to communicate with people.”

Movsesyan’s Social Science degree interestingly helped her run a service industry business catering to the diverse Metro Detroit population and better interact with her many customers from all sorts of backgrounds. “Social science is one of those degrees where you can learn about everything,” she stated. “And actually, social science is also very helpful to learn about different nations and their traditions. So many things. When I was taking the class, they’re teaching you how to communicate with the nations [or religious groups] who believe that touching is not allowed. So much to learn. And why not?”

Embracing the Restaurant Industry

As a hardworking waitress and then cashier at the Pita Café, her work ethic was noticed by one of the cooks, who had the ambition to open his own restaurant. According to Movsesyan, “Armenian ladies — we do everything!” The cook and his business partner asked Movsesyan to join them as an employee at their new restaurant, but she refused to jump ship unless they offered her a share of the business. They claimed that they couldn’t do so, because it was a family business. Meanwhile, Movsesyan didn’t think it was worth it otherwise, since her goal was to return to nursing. Finally the men called her back and offered her 20 percent of the new business. The original Farm Grill restaurant in Novi, Mich., was born in 2007.

The restaurant followed a menu typical of most Mediterranean eateries in the Metro Detroit area, that is to say, Lebanese-American cuisine. “It had nothing to do with Armenian food,” Movsesyan said, though also noting that many of the menu items are also part of Armenian cuisine as well. The familiar offerings like shawarma, shish kebab, rice pilaf, grape leaves, hommos, tabbouleh, and so on, were drawn directly from the Lebanese recipes of the two men that started the restaurant, without any real Armenian influence.

“Any items on our menu, it was prepared mostly by me,” said Movsesyan. “No man likes to roll the grape leaves,” she laughed, continuing that she was “doing everything” such as grape leaves, fried kibbe, stuffed cabbage, salads, tabbouleh, mujadra, etc.

According to Movsesyan, after seven years in business, the partners decided to open a Southfield location. Being in what was once the heart of the local Armenian community and with the massive religious, cultural, and educational complex of St. John’s Armenian Church and the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School nearby, as well as being nearby her home, Movsesyan became manager of the Southfield location. But six months later, she says, she paid off her partners and took over the Southfield restaurant as her own, though the name, signage, and much of the menu remained the same.

It was Movsesyan’s independent spirit and her introduction to some of the delicacies of Western Armenian cuisine that began the process of turning a run of the mill Detroit style Lebanese eatery into an Armenian community gathering place.

“I took everything under my control because I wanted to do something extra,” says Movsesyan “I wanted to put something extra, I wanted to put some Armenian food. When he [the Lebanese partner] saw me doing the manti, he said, ‘I’m not gonna do this in Novi!’”

Proprietor Hasmik Movsesyan shows off her special family recipe Armenian Walnut Cake

Yes, Movsesyan’s Farm Grill restaurant is the only restaurant in the Michigan that serves manti. But as she tells it, manti, though it’s been popularized in Armenia over the last 20 years, was practically unknown there when she left in 2000. The story of the manti is the story of how Farm Grill became what it is today.

Manti Inception

In 2015, “Two sisters came to eat in our restaurant,” Movsesyan says. They were Diaspora-born Armenians of Western Armenian descent. One sister asked Movsesyan if she could make manti, a popular dish throughout the Diaspora, and no less in Detroit, where it is associated with immigrants that originated in Istanbul, Kayseri, and Evereg. Not knowing precisely what it was, Movsesyan asked for clarification. The woman said that it was like a dumpling. According to Movsesyan, there is a type of dumpling popular in the fomer Soviet Union that is also called manti and is native to Uzbekistan. “It’s steamed and it’s very big,” similar to Georgian khingali, says Movsesyan, who then inquired of the woman how many of these large dumplings she would eat at once.

Daughter, Anahit Movsesyan, a graduate of the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School was standing by. She nudged her mother. “Mom, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “What do you mean I don’t know what I’m talking about?” “This is not the same manti!” Anahit insisted. But she then agreed to help her mother fulfill the woman’s request.

Having attended the AGBU Manoogian school with classmates of all Armenian backgrounds, many of Anahit’s closest friends were decedents of various Western Armenian diasporas. In fact, mothers from the school regularly congregate to make manti which is bagged, frozen, and sold to raise money for the school. Anahit had helped out with this effort many times, “but I never saw those mantis,” said Hasmik Movsesyan, “because she never brought them home!”

With the help of her good friend Linda Kalfayan Movsesian (no relation) and Linda’s mother Mrs. Sonia Kalfayan, principal of the AGBU Manoogian Lower school, whose parents hailed from Istanbul, Anahit Movsesyan learned the method of making manti, “and one day,” Hasmik Movsesyan said, “she came, she made the dough, and she’s opening, rolling the dough, and she’s opening it bigger and bigger. I said, ‘what are you doing?’”

“MANTI!” replied Anahit.

Movsesyan continued, “She started to roll the dough, and eventually I’m looking and she’s making like the small tiny squares, and I looked at her and I said, ‘Is THIS the manti?’ She says, yes. ‘Well never ever I’m going to make this in my place!’ because it took her like five hours to make two pounds or something! But guess what, that was the start!”

Initially, Movsesyan thought that she was going to make manti only as a request for the two sisters who initially asked for it. “I kept those 3-4 pounds only for them. They used to come back at least once a week to have the manti.” But in the end, the four pounds would run out. And then one day, the woman said to Movsesyan, “You know, we’re talking about your manti already everywhere.”

Movsesyan was a bit stunned and asked her to repeat what she had said. “Yeah, I tell everyone that you serve manti!” said the woman. Movsesyan was hesitant to have to fill even more orders of the time-consuming delicacy. “I hope [all these people that heard about it are] not going to come back and ask for manti,” Movsesyan thought to herself. But sure enough “One guy walks in and says ‘I hear you are serving manti.’ I said, ‘Well, I have one order left, I’m going to serve it for you.’ And he ate and he’s like ‘Oh, please can you make it again, can you start making this’,” Movsesyan recalled.   

From manti, Movsesyan branched out to other classic Western Armenian dishes. The second was sou beoreg, the recipe for which daughter Anahit again scouted out, this time on YouTube. Sou beoreg, which is like an Armenian lasagna minus the meat and tomato sauce (it includes layers of dough and flat pasta along with cheese), is a highly popular delicacy in Detroit, again thanks to the large amount of Armenians descended from Evereg and elsewhere in Central Anatolia.

From there, the Movsesyans started including recipes from their native Yerevan, Armenia. “After Anahit started everything, well lahmajoun, it’s easy to make. It was easy for me. And after that I purchased a pizza oven [to make the lahmajoun], and why not make the lavash too! Movsesyan also offers Marlenka cakes as well as her own walnut cake which is a family recipe from Armenia, as well as gata prepared in the Eastern Armenian style found all throughout Hayastan today. When local Armenian caterer Gary Reizian retired, Armenian customers of the restaurant requested cheoreg and cheese beoreg from Movsesyan, and she began making these items as well. But it is the manti that remains the draw for many and of course is so time consuming.

“Some days I might have 70 percent of [my work] is just manti and sou beoreg, that happens on Sundays after church,” she says.

Community Gathering Place

As the word of Movsesyan’s manti spread throughout the Metro Detroit Armenian community, Armenian-Americans, many of them second- and third-generation, showed up craving the traditional delicacy. The restaurant’s proximity to St. John’s Armenian Church, and in particular on the route many take from the church to their homes in the more northerly suburbs, has made it a popular destination for Sunday afternoon lunch. It has also become an easy choice for local Armenians who want the typical Mediterranean fare of shawarma sandwiches and hommos but also want to be able to buy a couple lahmajouns. Movsesyan was in the business of providing the Western Armenian fare that locals wanted but did not have the time to prepare themselves.

Not only that, but naturally, fellow natives of Hayastan come to the restaurant because they know Movsesyan personally, trust her, and enjoy her hospitality and the warm atmosphere she has created. They call the restaurant horants doon, meaning “father’s house,” i.e., the family home where one can relax and enjoy home-cooked meals.

“Like I said, the business its home, it’s friends, it’s everything,” says Movsesyan. “My customers, when they come here, they don’t want to go anywhere, and they’re like, ‘this is like horants doon.’ My friend just called and she said, ‘I was in Armenia for about a week and when I came back, I said to my husband, Hasmik’s back, can I go see Hasmik?’ And her husband says, one second I turned around and I heard her tires screeching because she took off to go to Hasmik’s place. She says, ‘I feel so comfortable here.’”

The confluence of Armenians from all over the map has resulted in new acquaintances and given the restaurant the feel of a community gathering place. When going to the Farm Grill you are never sure who you will run into that you might know.

For Movsesyan the restaurant is also like home. “It’s not only my people, my cousins. This is like my home, too, you know I go home at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock. Noone’s going to come to my house at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock unless you have something to do.”

Hasmik Movsesyan, proprietor of the Farm Grill restaurant, displays package of her in-house lavash

“You come to my place you eat, I appreciate, you get happy, your stomach’s full; happy, healthy, fresh food,” Movsesyan continued. “My cousins, my customers, they come here. And if anyone needs help, and doing any paperwork or something, they come here. Everything. Plus, I’m a real estate agent. And I do that also here. I started doing that about a year ago.”

Movsesyan loves helping people. She also does immigration paperwork for her Armenian friends, and is a registered notary, as well as doing translations of documents from Armenian into English. She does it for free, she says: “not a penny out of those. In the meantime, I run my food business to support myself.” She also has hired several women over the years who are recent arrivals from Armenia and would have a tough time finding jobs elsewhere. “This is another help for them, because some of them don’t speak English,” says Movsesyan. Rather than having to clean hotel rooms as Movsesyan once did, they can work for a fellow Armenian native, trusted woman boss while being able to practice their English with the customers.

Movsesyan’s customers aren’t just Armenians of course. They come from all walks of life. Being one of the cheapest takeout places for trusted quality Mediterranean food in her neighborhood, it is favored by local area residents. The Planet Fitness gym also supplies much of the clientele, who are interested in healthy food.

“Because of the menu, it’s Mediterranean, it’s favored by lots of people, doesn’t matter the culture, because as soon as they try it, they like it and they always come back,” says Movsesyan. “Not only Armenians like the manti and lahmajoun and sou beoreg, I have Americans that try it too, and they call [manti] “dumpling soup.” Please don’t call my hardworking dish ‘soup’! Soup, you can make it in a half hour! It’s dumpling dinner, not soup!”

All ingredients at the restaurant are fresh. “We know the Mediterranean cuisine is one of the healthiest cuisine. Because their ingredients are garlic, lemon, vinegar. Very good for diet,” says Movsesyan. She makes her own madzoon (Armenian homemade yogurt) and creates her own chicken broth, fresh, from the chicken meat that she uses for kebab and shawarma. She also grinds her own beef for the dolma.

The manti is served in chicken broth with madzoon, garlic, and sumakh on top. Movsesyan’s unique broth is known for her addition of small cut up vegetables in addition to being fresh. “I don’t like plain,” says Movsesyan. “They call my manti, ‘comfort food.’ One Lebanese guy came and I gave him the lahmajoun, sou beoreg, manti.” The customer, and many others, refer to the manti as “comfort food.” The term especially caught on among Americans who can’t remember or pronounce the name. They refer to Hasmik as “Jasmine”, the English translation of her name and ask her to bring their favorite treat from her kitchen (manti), known only to them as “comfort food.”

Solidarity Through Tough Times

Movsesyan mentioned that, “To have my own business was not my goal, but during the time I worked for people, that’s how I found out: why do I work for other people?”

She loves being able to share her hospitality with the Armenian community as well as the broader community of Metro Detroit. “The best advantage of this restaurant, I just became so close, all my communities, all my Armenian friends, from church, from customers…their happiness is my happiness, God forbid their pain is my pain. Like they become family, we have become one big family, including our beautiful St John’s Church and Armenian School.”

Movsesyan also credited the Armenian community with helping to keep her business afloat during the tough years of Covid-19. “Businesses are [hit] very hard, especially after Covid,” Movsesyan said. “[The years] 2020-2021 were just terrible years for us. We barely survived. Thanks to my Armenian community, I knew some of them were here just to give me business, and I appreciate that. I know many of my customers were here and they would just order something, just to give me business, and I really appreciate that.”

In turn, Movsesyan feels an obligation to continue to provide the community with their beloved cuisine and gathering place. “Why am I keeping this, mostly because of my Armenian community. There are some moments when you are feeling tired. This is already 15 years, I might do something else. And guess what I think after the next second — what am I going to do with my customers? I can’t close my doors. I can’t do that. So maybe I’ll just keep that and do something else on the side. Because I like changing. I don’t want to just stick with one thing.”

In that vein, Movsesyan is looking to expand into a space that can accommodate large parties, replicating to some extent the role that the now-closed Allegro restaurant once played in the community. “Currently I’m looking to go bigger,” says Movsesyan. “So many are asking me if they can come with 30-40 people, and I don’t have the space, I’m looking for a bigger space. That way we can have parties there.”

Movsesyan feels that she has succeeded. “What’s the success of the mother, when they see their kids doing well. This business has helped not only myself but so many other people. When I came to the United States I had zero, I was like a little infant, newborn. No language, no speech, no driving. Like a baby. I can’t do that, and that’s why I put myself through school with my children. [Movsesyan graduated in 2014 before opening the Southfield Farm Grill.] I started with the housekeeping. From one work you enter into a different work, with no car, no driving. You are cleaning. It was hard, it was stressful, but thank God, everyone’s happy, I’m happy, I have my grandson, I go crazy every night when I see him.”

Ultimately, though, she attributes her success to her work ethic and desire to constantly learn. “I took a test to be licensed in the food industry, and I passed, and I’m thinking, what should I do next? Anahit goes: ‘MOM, stop! Enough learning!’ I’m not going to stop learning. I’m going to learn, I’m going to study until my last breath! All the time I said to my children, Artak and Anahit: ‘You guys have to choose something, a major, education, that all your life you have to keep learning. Not to go do one thing and that’s it.’ I said to Anahit, ‘If you are going to be in medicine, guess what, there’s always something new to learn.’ Now they’re helping me!”

Check out Farm Grill at 29702 Southfield Rd # B, Southfield.

 

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: