“Pizza” Power: A slice of life with the Lahmajo Man of Vardanants Street

In today’s Yerevan, moving ever closer to the ways and means of the West, Ara Torosyan’s success may already be something of a bygone opportunity.

With only 17 borrowed dollars and taste for good “Armenian pizza”, Torosyan started a business 11 years ago that, today, has grown in stature, but has not outgrown the original idea.

He had no degree in business, no particular academic specialty.

Torosyan had, though, a family to feed, and times were tough and getting tougher . . .

“I had no means for living, we were hungry. I have an acquaintance who advised me to make lahmajo. I borrowed $15 dollars from my wife’s cousin and his wife lent me $2. That’s how we started,” he recalls today, in the two-storied house of lahmajo, built on $17.

Ara Torosyan’s success may be attributed to ingenuity, but the customers who daily fill his bistro seem less concerned with business acumen than with the 100 dram (about 22 cents) tasty discs his kitchen produces.

(Lahmajo is a dish with minced meat spread over a round lavash seasoned with hot spices – pepper, onion and garlic. One manager of a lahmajo place called his products Armenian pizza so that it might be more understandable for foreigners. But unlike pizza, lahmajo bread is so thin that you roll it before eating. A person may satisfy his hunger with 5-7 pieces of lahmajo. At Arayik’s place, two or three pieces are filling, as more meat is spread over lavash. Another peculiarity is that those who eat lahmajo at Arayik’s smell of garlic all day long. With his lahmajo, no billboard is needed – customers can simply follow the smell to the alley-way place off Vardanants Street.)

Torosyan, 57, was a chef during Soviet times. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union he prepared barbeque on the shore of the Azov Sea for 11 years: “I worked until 1990. When nationalism and calls for the communists to leave began, the roads got closed. Unrest was not only here, everywhere movements began and businesses stopped.”

The disintegration of the Soviet Union took from him his professional work and necessity revealed he had a business vein.

Preparing lahmajo was not something that he had practiced before.

“We prepared lahmajo at home,” he recalls. “We had no license. My wife baked with her friend and I took lahmajo to sell. I went out four times a day, day and night. I went out in the morning and came back at 2 o’clock at night.”

Pulling a cart loaded with lahmajo through the neighborhood, Torosyan pulled his family out of poverty.

At first, he was not a lahmajo master. But peddling for money was not unfamiliar; as a child, he sold water from a kettle to fans during football matches.

Making an effort he mastered the technique of cooking lahmajo, in a manner that makes his “Armenian pizza” peculiar among the dozens of kitchens in Yerevan.

Torosyan is perhaps the only cook who still prepares lahmajo in frying-pans, while others now use large electric ovens. “I know what to do,” he says and does not intend to change the technique, as customers like it.

In the yard of the building, far from the eyes of passers-by, Aro’s place is always full of customers. They know that here they can eat cheap lahmajo, drink tan (a drink made of yoghurt, water and salt) and that it is a rare place to where one can bring drinks from outside.

The House of Lahmajo, might be confused as a house of worship. Walls are decorated with primitive copies of paintings on evangelic subjects: the crucifixion of Christ, Mother Mary and her infant Jesus, Christ preaching, etc.

Arayik is not a member of any religious organization, and he didn’t read the New Testament, but he readily explains the point of the paintings. “What is Christianity? If you like humanity yourself, don’t lie, enter your friend’s home and don’t do ugly things, then you will be a Christian.”

Until recently, Torosyan continued to go out to the streets pushing his lahmajo cart. But at the insistence of his son he now confines himself to managing the business.

“I became rich thanks to this cart, and that’s why I don’t want to give it up, but my son kept saying to me: ‘Daddy, it’s an embarrassment’.”

But for the neighborhood, waiting for the lahmajo man also became habit.

“People in Vernisazh (the nearby outdoor bazaar) are waiting for me, they say: ‘Why don’t you bring lahmajo, Arayik?’”

Today, Torosyan’s little lahmajo factory employs seven, and feeds a lot more. It is also home to about 60 pigeons – a hobby handed down from Torosyan’s father.

Customers of the second floor often eat lahmajo under the hammering of pigeons’ wings.

“Keeping pigeons is like a narcotic,” Torosyan says. “You can’t drop it. Then, every pigeon has its own story.”

And so does the $17 businessman . . .