Lahmajoun from Basmajian Bakery

Basmajian Bakery Serves Up Western Armenian Home Cooking in Michigan

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SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Caroline Basmajian has always wanted to be in the food industry.

“My mom used to do it, my sister did it, I do it,” she says. “We can be in the kitchen 24/7 and we won’t say no, that’s how much we love cooking.”

Caroline, along with husband Berj and son Harout are the proprietors of Basmajian Bakery, which Harout describes as a “pop-up” in Southfield.

If owning her own restaurant or catering business was Caroline’s dream, Harout is the entrepreneurial brains behind making his mother’s dream a reality.

“My previous career was working with sales, but the last job was in PR and reputation management with a major Canadian telecom company. Quite a bit of social media influence as well. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but Canada does not encourage entrepreneurship. So, I moved here and sold my belongings. And sine mom was moving this way we decided why not, let’s all move here,” he said.

Caroline Basmajian and son Harout show off their cheese bread and lahmajoun

Though Caroline moved to Detroit in 2015 and Harout moved in 2017, their roots in the area run much deeper than that.

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Caroline was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to an Armenian Catholic father from Kessab, Syria, and a Lebanese-Armenian mother with roots in Evereg, a small town outside of Kayseri (Gesaria) in Central Anatolia.

Her mother, Sossi Kayayan Basmajian, is the spirit and inspiration behind the family business. After the Lebanese Civil War broke out, the family moved to the Detroit area, settling in Southfield in 1976. Sossi found a job as a cook at the Manoogian Manor – Michigan Home for the Armenian Aged.

The logo of Basmajian Bakery logo depicting matriarch “Nene” Sossi Kayayan Basmajian

“My mom was a great cook and chef at Manoogian Manor. She made lahmajoun, dolma, sarma, kufta. A lot of the recipes we are using are from her, including the lahmajoun,” said Caroline.

Sossi Kayayian Basmajian passed away 9 years ago.

Caroline graduated from Southfield High School and then married her husband Berj, a Montreal Armenian who was also born in Beirut, to a family hailing from the Kharpert region. She moved to Montreal and the couple had a family. Son Harout was born and raised there, graduating from the Sourp Hagop School.

Despite being born in Canada, Harout always had a special connection to Detroit.

“Granted, she [my mom] has roots here, I’m completely new here, I’ve met so many great friends, and I feel back at home, more so here than I do back home [in Montreal].”

Caroline relates that growing up, her kids were in Detroit every summer because the family couldn’t afford babysitters and her mother-in-law in Montreal was too old to take care of two kids. “So every summer we’d come here for two months.”

“I’ve always loved Detroit growing up, my grandmother and grandfather were here, as a kid we came here all the time. I became a teenager and I started driving here by myself,” said Harout. “We have roots, so it’s great, and we want to be more a part of the community as best as possible.”

Caroline Basmajian mixes the dough for the lahmajoun

Moving Back to Michigan

After some 35 years in Canada, Caroline was getting tired of the life there. “We were always working for other people; I used to work for a trust company and my husband worked for manufacturers. We weren’t advancing, and it was time to pick up and go,” she said.

The more business-friendly climate in the US and the heavy competition in the Armenian food industry in Montreal also played a role.

“I always had a side hustle. I used to make sweets and pastries in Montreal. And my sister used to do catering here in Michigan,” Caroline said. However, “to have your own company in Canada, it’s too much competition, there are a lot of Armenians and Lebanese in Montreal [in the business].”

Although there are scores of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants in Southeast Michigan, mostly run by Lebanese, but also Yemeni and Chaldean families, as well as a huge Greek presence in both the Mediterranean and American diner style restaurant business, there are very few food service businesses run by Armenians in the state, despite the relatively large community. But Caroline felt that even if the city was full of kebab places, she could succeed if she offered more Armenian-specific specialties, like lahmajoun, which has now become Basmajian Bakery’s mainstay. “My husband always wanted to do lahmajouns all the time.”

It has been a journey to get to where they are now, however. After working with her sister, Pauline, in her catering business for five years, and son Harout’s subsequent relocation to Michigan, the family acquired a restaurant and catering business, “Filo Fresh,” from a Chaldean man looking to get out of the business, in January 2020. They weren’t exactly prepared for the pandemic to hit the US merely two months later.

Filo Fresh was a catering business and a restaurant for Mediterranean cuisine, but “we made our own version, which is Armenian or Lebanese style — stuff that we generally cater; kebabs, salads, fattoush, tabbouleh, hommos, babaghanoush…”

When Covid hit, they were fortunate in that they were allowed to be open as a curbside takeout. But there was no business. “We were literally sitting around doing nothing, we’d go in and sit around. There were days when we had nothing to do, and he [son Harout] said ‘let’s try lahmajoun.’ I said, ‘I can’t do lahmajouns, I’ve never done lahmajouns.’ So he said “well, let’s work on Nene’s recipe, and then we’ll take it from there.’”

Harout’s plan worked. The craving for thin-crust lahmajoun, associated with historic Aintab and Ourfa, was strong in the area; old-line Detroiters were used to Gary Reizian’s unique, more meat-heavy “Sepastia style” lahmajoun, but immigrants from Lebanon and Syria as well as East Coast transplants had long craved a reliable local source for the thin crust type which is prevalent in most Armenian communities around the world.

The lahmajoun orders picked up to the point where it became their predominant business. It was no longer profitable to even bother with making salads or sandwiches as opposed to selling dozens of lahmajouns. They were getting so many orders that the small convection oven they had was no longer cutting it; they needed a pizza oven. “We invested a lot of money into that place to make it more ‘restauranty,’” said Harout, but ultimately they had to sell it, in November 2021.

But with Reizian’s retirement and his Uptown Catering, a long-standing community institution, closing its doors, the field was wide open for Caroline and Harout to open Basmajian Bakery. They just needed a location.

“Somebody told us about this place with a grocery store and there’s an oven in the back where nobody’s using it,” Caroline stated. The owner of the small Arab grocery store told her they could make a deal. “And it ended up that my mom used to come there, shop there, and I didn’t know. So that was like, ‘ok, it’s a sign, mom was here.’”

“The reason we call it Basmajian bakery is because it’s my mom’s recipe for lahmajoun,” says Caroline. “And then to have Nene’s picture on the logo,” added Harout. “It’s a tribute to her.”

 

Tray of manti from Basmajian Bakery

Big Dreams

Harout has always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and with the bakery, his dream and his mother’s dream have combined. “Here the environment allows you to, encourages you to. We’ve been blessed that the community has been welcoming, and has been accepting of our product, and we’ve been blessed on that front where we’ve been encouraged. The industry is very niche in this area. But it’s a certain service that is necessary. Every new customer I meet, says ‘we’ve always wanted to have an Armenian restaurant in this city.’”

Currently, Caroline, Berj, and Harout run the bakery with two part-time employees. Caroline’s sister Pauline has her own pastry business making pakhlava and ghourabia out of her home, but sometimes helps with the bakery.

Basmajian Bakery sells lahmajoun, zaatar bread, cheese breads and other manaish flatbreads, including cheese bread with soujoukh on it. (“Back in Montreal, we have a few places that specialize in this kind of thing,” explained Harout.) They also make cheese beoregs, spinach pies, and meat pies; manti and kufta (sold uncooked and frozen), and yalanchi sarma. They have added cheoreg to the list of options in anticipation of this upcoming Easter and they also continue to do kebabs and salads for catering; they recently catered a meeting of Armenian Assembly representatives and local Armenian community leadership with Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan).

The wish constantly expressed by customers for a full-fledged Armenian restaurant in the area is one shared by Harout and Caroline. “We want to have our own place. It’s a pop-up location [right now]. It’s hard to find what we’re looking for, and also money issues,” said Harout.

“We have big dreams,” Caroline added. “Slowly but surely.”

“We can do so much, but we need the time and the place,” explained Harout. Finding help, also, is one of the hardest things today in the food service industry. “Covid has caused a paradigm shift,” said Harout. “It used to be that in a diner, the more tables you had, the more business you could do. Now people don’t want to sit down; more and more of the business has shifted to take-out. So it’s caused a shift in the business where real estate is not necessary. We don’t need the space, we need the help to make up for the work that you’re going to have to do,” he concluded.

Berj prepares the lahmajoun dough.

Despite the difficulties, as much as his mother is dedicated to her restaurant dreams and her love of cooking, Harout, the entrepreneur, is also passionate about food service. “Food is what we do every single day, he says. Food is our people’s love language!”

On the connection between Armenian and Lebanese food, Harout stated, “most of the cuisine in Lebanon is Armenian because our people had a huge influence on the cuisine over there, and vice-versa. To this day Lebanon is known for the best food in the region. The food that comes out of Lebanon, it is made literally with love. Love is what gives it that different taste. And that’s how we show our heritage, we just try to do our part, and always remember where we came from. Our people are artists. We showcase that art in written word, in paintings, in music and in food!” he concluded.

Basmajian Bakery is located in the back of Altas Market in Southfield, at 29225 Greenfield Road. You can check out their Facebook page or their website.

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