Interview w Rita Iskenderian

Rita Iskenderian, president of Zankou Chicken, knew next to nothing about the ins and outs of her family business empire when her husband Maridos suddenly died in 2003. With four sons who were too young to shoulder the responsibilities that their highly creative and entrepreneurial father had almost single-handedly shouldered, Rita found herself thrust in the day-to-day affairs of her small but vibrant chain of restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Overnight, Rita went from never having worked a single day in her life to slogging 14 hours every day of the week. How she managed is an inspiring story of mind over matter—of persistence over frailty—together with the realization that struggles and sacrifices have always been the bedrock of her family business.

Dikran: You’re a mother and the president of Zankou Chicken—what do you like most about being a leader?

Rita: I usually ask wise people around me for advice. I don’t like making decisions by myself. I would say that I am a democratic type of leader. I don’t enjoy making all the rules. It’s all about teamwork.

 

Dikran: But what do you like most about that position?

Rita: As I said, what I like is … . To tell you the truth, I wish your father were here to be the leader. That would have made me more comfortable. I always depended on him to make the right decisions. All of a sudden I was left with a lot of decisions to make, a lot of load to take. It’s not easy at all.

Dikran: You are loved by our employees. They approach you and love to see you. What is it about you that makes employees love you so much? What’s the secret to having that kind of relationship with employees?

Rita: I think the employees have such a relationship with me because I love them and I respect them. A lot. That’s why they love me and respect me. They are the reason I am here. They are the reason to make this business grow. I always respect what they do. I want to help each one of them. I want to be there for them and do whatever I can to make them more comfortable—to give them health insurance and other facilities. I love my employees. Without them, the business will not grow. It will not be there.

Dikran: A lot of people are interested to know about the origin of Zankou. We came here from Lebanon. What was it that helped us succeed? A lot of immigrant families fail. They try to open a business but it doesn’t work.

Rita: It’s the persistence to keep working hard. Sometimes you don’t make any profits. Instead, you have to invest your own money into the business. We struggled when we came here. For the first three or four years we didn’t make any money.

In fact, on the first day in our first store in Lebanon, we sold only one chicken. The second day we sold two. But we persisted. On our first day in Hollywood, your dad was so busy that his feet got swollen from standing up. At the end of the day, he had to walk with the help of two people. But it was one the happiest days of his life.

Dikran: You didn’t make any money, and everyone kept putting money in so that the business would survive?

Rita: Yes.

Dikran: People don’t know that. They think we succeeded right away. When the Hollywood Zankou opened in 1984, it was very busy.

Rita: Yes. It was very busy but then slowly it [the number of customers] went down. We had to struggle to make things better.

Dikran: That’s very interesting. People don’t know that.

Rita: Yes. I struggle at the house, but your father and your grandparents struggled a lot. They were stressed a lot. They weren’t making any profits. At one point, your father had to let employees go.

Dikran: So dad was making the food instead of them. I remember that.

Rita: Yes. He was the cashier, the cook—he was the one carving the meats.

Dikran: He said he didn’t have time for a bathroom break.

Rita: Yes. So, to go back to your question, when people keep losing profits it’s very hard to keep going. They close the business. But we believed in what we were doing so we kept struggling and slowly—very slowly—the business caught up. We put different items on the menu. Seven years after our first store in Hollywood, we opened in Glendale in 1992.

Dikran: You have a great palette. You know a lot about food. You cook a variety of dishes. How does one build on that tradition and make it succeed on the restaurant level?

Rita: I was not the one who put all the ingredients together. That was your father. He had a better taste in his mouth than me. He was very good at that. He changed the menu all the time. He changed the ingredients.

Dikran: He kept changing the ingredients until they got to what they are today.

Rita: Yes. I’m not the one who put those ingredients together. I added the tabouleh to the menu—it was my idea. I added the ingredients. I also added the rice and the ingredients to the kebabs. The rest was all your father’s doing.

Dikran: So dad was constantly making the dishes better.

Rita: Yes. But to make things better and better you have to use the best ingredients.

Dikran: High-quality ingredients.

Rita: Yes. For example, you can’t use “Chinese” garlic—low-quality garlic—in our menu. You have to use the highest quality garlic and the finest meats. We get our garlic fresh from Gilroy every day.

Customers are not stupid. They are not fooled by cheap ingredients. They will taste the food and go somewhere else. To keep customers, you have to use the best ingredients and be consistent in the way you prepare your food.

A stingy person can’t be a restaurant owner; you have to be generous. If a dish goes bad, you throw the whole thing out and start afresh. If you suspect that the meat or chicken tastes just a little different than what it should be, you have to throw out everything. You may have a lower profit margin of course, but it’s worth it because if your food is fresh and has high-quality ingredients and you will sell more of it. The profit will come from the volume of sales. That’s our secret—our profit margins are small, but we sell a lot.

Dikran: A lot of times when people look at our dad and at what happened to him and our family, they tend to judge him because they didn’t know him. You knew him very well. What part of our father do you want people to remember?

Rita: What happened [in our family] was because of his sickness. If he weren’t sick, nothing like that would have happened. He was a very generous, giving person. He had a heart of gold. He gave to Armenian schools and churches. And he gave without making his contributions public—he didn’t want people to know. If you compare his earnings to what he gave, nobody we know gave as much as he gave to the community. In fact, the more people came to know that he was a giving person, the more they came to ask him for money.

All the writers and singers—a lot of different kind of people. They came every day. And he just kept on giving more and more. At one point he said he couldn’t go to the store because people are coming and asking for money all the time. He said, It’s better for me to sit at the house because I can’t say no. He couldn’t say no to anybody. He gave everything he had. I never saw a more generous person in my life. That’s how I want people to remember him. He was very smart and very giving.

After we got married, the first Christmas that we were together, he didn’t want to go anywhere. He said to me, I’m going to take you places. We were in Lebanon back then. He took me house by house, knocked on the doors of people I didn’t know, and gave them money. That was our first Christmas as husband and wife. The whole evening we went from house to house, giving people money. He had a heart of gold—maybe diamond.

Even before he opened the Glendale store, we used to go downtown on Christmas and give money to the homeless. From the car, me and him. Our Christmas was like that. We did that two or three times. Then I got scared because the people hung onto the moving car and put their hands inside.

Dikran: You’re a very persevering person. How did you overcome a lot of difficult circumstances both in business and in life? Our house caught on fire, business went up and down—I can’t even name all the tough situations.

Rita: My husband taught me to be strong. Whatever happens in life, he said, you have to be strong. God forbid, even if you lose one of your sons, he would say to me, you still have to be strong. Because life is for strong people. You can’t be weak in life, otherwise …

Dikran: People will walk all over you.

Rita: Yes. That’s why I’m very strong in personality. Look at Armenian people in general. They survived the genocide. And look where they are now. We have that instinct to survive—and thrive—in our blood. Every Armenian likes to work.

Dikran: Armenia is famous for its mountains. An artist who once visited the country said that no other place has mountains of such striking colors and textures. And he compared Armenia’s mountains to its people: Armenians are as strong and hard as the mountains in their motherland. Do you agree?

Rita: Yes. But look at it this way. All over the world, when the parents pass away they leave their belongings to their children. Armenians were massacred so heavily during the genocide that they lost everything. Even those who survived couldn’t leave anything to their children. They had to work hard. They started from zero. So it was not that their strength came from hundreds of years [of history]. They had to persevere. And they had a dream of succeeding. That’s the difference between Armenians and people of other countries, as I see it.

Dikran: One other country that has been through a lot and whose people are famously tough are Koreans. And the two things that Armenians and Koreans seem to have in common are the emphasis on family and food. Food is a big part of Korean culture, as it is among Armenians. Where, in Armenian culture, despite all of Armenia’s historical crises, do you think that emphasis on food comes from?

Rita: The emphasis on family, I think, comes from the fact that Armenians were separated from each other over much of recent history—in the 1800s, and then again in 1915 [the year of the Armenian Genocide]. So the family was an institution that was almost worshiped, and it became a source of strength because Armenians wanted to keep their families together. The brutality of the genocide prompted Armenians to develop stronger bonds with each other on the level of the family.

My husband’s grandmother, for example, survived the genocide and was living with us. She lost her younger brother in the genocide and she never stopped dreaming about him. She believed he was in another country. She never saw him again, but her bond with him and other members of her immediate family was very strong. When my second son was born, she implored me to name him after her brother—Stephan.

Dikran: Do family and food also have a bond in Armenian culture?

Rita: Yes. When family members get together, what else are they going to do? They’re going to eat! Just the other day, for example, I wanted to see the mother of my “bride” [Dikran’s wife, expectant at the time with their first child] so I decided to cook. Food brings people together.

Dikran: What kind of food did you grow up eating?

Rita: Armenian food, Middle Eastern food.

Dikran: Name a few dishes.

Rita: Sarma—or dolma—grape leaves. There are also some traditional foods that Armenians brought with them. Each village in Armenia had its own food—or a typical dish. For example, your father was from Hajian, which had its own speciality food, such as jidabour. Hajian is in Turkey now—it was one of the villages that Turkey took from the Armenians. My family was from Aintab, which also had its own dishes. For example, we made an eggplant dolma. Other villages had a cous-cous dish cooked with tomato and lemon, without meat.

So when Armenians went to other countries, such as Lebanon and Syria, they took with them their culinary traditions. And there, they began making dishes from other villages as well because they were next to each other.

So Armenians began cooking tabouleh, which is a Lebanese dish. Or shawerma, which is an Arabic dish. But nobody would cook a dish better than the people to whom it was native. People from Aintab, for example, cooked the best dolma. And nobody could cook jidabour better than the people from Hajian. It’s a meat-and-grain dish that has to be cooked for hours.

Dikran: Was your mother a good cook?

Rita: Yes—but my mother-in-law was a better cook. They had different ways of cooking. When I got married, I didn’t know anything about cooking. Afterward, I learned everything about cooking from my mother and my mother-in-law. I mixed their methods and came up with my own!

Dikran: What’s it like to preside over a family business—what are the ups and downs of the process?

Rita: I highly value my family business because I witnessed all the struggles that went it making it a success. My husband struggled at the business, and I struggled at home, where I was alone all the time, seven days a week. I didn’t drive at the time. I didn’t see my husband day and night. We didn’t go out, we didn’t do anything [together] for years.

Dikran: Which business owners do you admire?

Rita: The restaurant business is a very difficult business. I admire all the people who, without franchising, have made it to the top. I can name a couple, such as In & Out Burger and Panda Express. Panda Express started at the same time as us, in 1984. They have something like 1,500 restaurants and are in a better position today than we are. I want to be like them one day. But without franchise—I don’t like franchises.

Do you sometimes think the owners of Panda Express have a level of stress 10 or 50 times more than yours?

No, I don’t think so. I think they are in a position now where they can relax and where their business manages itself. But our business is different. The food is different. It’s not like In & Out, where you serve hamburgers and French fries. It doesn’t take much to make hamburgers and French fries.

Dikran: Panda Express can train a cook in two weeks. At Zankou, a cook needs to be talented as well as a master of technique.

Rita: Yes. Our food, on the other hand, takes time to cook. It has many ingredients, multiple spices. It’s marinated. To cut the food, put it together, make the sauces, it’s a lot of work. That’s why it’s not easy for us to that way [like Panda Express or In & Out Burger]. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to grow. My dream is that one day we have 1,000 locations—without franchising—preserving the same quality of food. Day and night I think about it, I dream about it. I saw my husband and mother-in-law and father-in-law struggle a lot. And I want to grow my business to such a point that when I meet them one day I can tell them, Look what I did with your business.

Dikran: When you took charge of Zankou Chicken after dad passed away, what did you find in the first few days or weeks?

Rita: All of a sudden, when you and your brothers came to me and said, Mom, you have to work, my reaction was, Oh, wow, until now I didn’t have to work, and now that I lost my husband I have to work! I felt bad about that.

Fortunately, my sister was there to help out. She worked as the manager for our Pasadena and Van Nuys restaurants. I watched what she was doing. For two or three months I watched while helping her. At that time, in 2003, we didn’t have credit cards—the business was all cash. I used to count the money with my sister, and it was a lot of money. When we made a mistake we had to count the whole lot of money again.

And all the while, when I started working, I couldn’t look at the employees’ faces! Gradually, I got to know them one by one, and I was there for them. Some of them needed financial assistance, so I would give them cash and they would return it little by little. I helped them every way that I could. I became friendly with them. Little by little I opened up to them and they opened up to me. And that’s how the bond started between me and our employees.

With time, and with the advice and help of my sons, I changed the management system and made it more efficient so I didn’t have to go from store to store every day. But for 10 years I didn’t go for even a one-week vacation. My sons were free but I was not free. The first time I left was when my brother got sick in Germany. He had cancer, so I had to go and see him. And the second time I left was when he died. I went to his funeral.

Dikran: Would you have preferred to continue living the way you always had—not involved in the business at all?

Rita: No. Your dad gave me a very different view of life. I was a mom, I was cooking all the time. I didn’t get involved with the business and didn’t have a business-oriented mind. I wasn’t meeting people.

Dikran: Suddenly your life opened up to the rest of the world.

Rita: Yes. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t change the system so I would still be going from store to store.

Dikran: Who did you turn to for advice?

Rita: I asked my sons. I didn’t do anything without their approval or opinion. I didn’t act alone at all. But then again, the business teaches you things that you don’t know. When you are there every single day, you think of ways to do things better. And because you are there every day you notice things nobody else notices. You also learn that where there is a will there is a way.

Dikran: What advice would you give to someone—another businesswoman, say—who is compelled to follow the same path that you did?

Rita: Value your business. You have to really love what you’re doing—don’t go into a business if you don’t want it and don’t love it. Be persistent and give the best to your customers. If you give good value to your customers and value your business, your struggles will be rewarded one day.

Dikran: Our family business is now in its third generation and doing quite well. What advice would you give to the fourth generation?

Rita: Do what you love to do. Value the business you are in—don’t take it for granted. And if you’re still in the family business, remember that your grandfathers and grandmothers struggled to make it work.

Dikran: What are your top three words of advice for people reading this book?

Be strong. Eat healthy. Love people.

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