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Armenian Food Festival Dancers
Dancers at the Armenian festival of September 17th Photo courtesy of John Asdourian

Armenians Celebrate at Annual Food Festival

Good cheer prevails despite persistent backdrop of agony in Azerbaijan

•••••••••• October 2023 ••••••••••

Even though conflict is brewing in Armenia in the Nargorno Karabagh region, reflecting the clash of Muslim and Christian factions, the Armenian community here in San Francisco remains strong. Tragedies in Azerbaijan were far from ignored, but celebrants demonstrated the communities’ spirit at the recent Food Festival at Saroyan Hall on Brotherhood Way. The annual celebration at St. Gregory's Armenian Apostolic Church occurred on September 17th.

Food Festival Logo

Coincidentally, St. Gregory’s will be celebrating its 50th anniversary as a congregation on Oct. 16. There are four Armenian churches in San Francisco, all on the Westside of the City. And just like any church or gathering hub, these congregations provide fellowship and foster ties and connection.

The weekend event was well-attended, with over 20 vendors and more than 17 sponsors. Speaking about that weekend, SF realtor John Asdourian said. “it's usually so crowded. It was fun and the food was great with reasonable prices.” 

St. Gregory’s Armenian Apostolic Church at 51 Commonwealth Ave.

Overall, California has the largest Armenian-American community in the US. These 249,539 Armenians represent .64% of its total population. And, while many Armenians settled in Southern California, Northern California is home to a considerable community.

There are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than within. That's because, in 1915, hundreds of thousands of people fled Armenia to escape the tyranny and genocide of the Ottoman Empire. According to some sources, another dispersion from the homeland occurred when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and struggled with transitions in the early ‘90s.

Bay Area Armenian-American author Bruce Janigian explains. “These are devastating times for the Armenians remaining in their historic homeland, with the destruction over the past few weeks of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabagh), it’s as if another genocide has begun.” 

quote marks

The West, (Western Europe in particular) turned its back on the people who helped engender it, and today oil and gas is seen as more important than democracy, human rights, or anything we deem to call ‘Western values.’ What is unfolding in Azerbaijan today,” added Janigian, “is a tragedy that flies in the face of everything the West stands for.”

Janigian, who writes under the nom de plume Avery Mann, continued, “What distinguishes the Armenians is the ongoing nature of their elimination from a homeland several thousand years old.

“Armenian-Americans share a rich cultural and intellectual history, along with other ethnicities that have found a safe haven and myriad opportunities in the United States.”

With its natural beauty and unique 'micro-climate,' California has provided plenty of opportunities. And perhaps this is why so many Armenians have made California home.

San Francisco has always been home to many prominent and successful Armenians.

Among the most recognizable is Al Nalbandian. He appeared in over 50 movies and TV shows during his lifetime and never quit his day job as a florist. His father, Paul Nalbandian, arrived in San Francisco in 1915 after fleeing the Ottoman genocide.

Interior of St. Gregory’s Armenian Apostolic Church

Despite setbacks, his father's determination to earn a living and provide for his family was undaunted. 

In the early 20th Century, there were over 160 flower stands in San Francisco. Nalbandian’s brother Harvey took over his father's flower stand. Eventually, Nalbandian bought his famous flower stand on Geary Street at Union Square from a relative in the 1940s. As SF Weekly noted in a tribute in 2017, it was a somewhat illegal enterprise that gradually became a legitimate part of the City's commercial landscape.

His little business inadvertently gave him opportunities to pursue an acting career that spanned over 30 years.

SF Weekly also noted his love of art and culture in its tribute obit at Nalbandian’s death over six years ago. Nalbandian also amassed an extensive collection of Armenian art and manuscripts, including calligraphy by author William Saroyan.

Nalbandian's collection was extensive enough to supply an exhibition of the works of French-Armenian painter Edgar Chahine at the Legion of Honor in 1976.

Another notable example of determination and entrepreneurship, especially here on the City's Westside, is that of Alvin & Helen Azadkhanian. In 1976, they opened Alvin's Scrumptious Coffee & Teas on Irving Street in San Francisco. Almost 50 years ago, there were no Starbucks or Peet's. Specialty coffee drinks as we enjoy today — back then were unknown.

Only Italian restaurants served Cafe Latte or a cappuccino at special cafes in North Beach or ethnic neighborhood shops. Such places were not in the everyday mainstream.

Initially, Azadkhanian aimed to provide the best and most unique fresh roasted coffees. It was his way of bringing the cappuccino and espresso of North Beach into the Sunset District. And, of course, a bit of Armenia to San Francisco and the Bay Area.

The roasting process and techniques he used were passed on to him by previous generations. Long before there was a caramel macchiato, Azadkhanian created his coffee recipe blends like “Cafe Damavand.”

As time passed, the Sunset District changed, and chain outlets like Starbucks moved in, literally across the street. Yet Azadkhanian maintained a presence despite the competition until he retired in 2011.

As he told the Sunset Beacon, “Sure there has been lots of change and our City has been known for its extremes. But troubles and problems exist everywhere all over the world. Yet, San Francisco expresses a unique compassion and understanding that often is unlike other places.”

Map of Armenia.

Janigian agrees. “Places like San Francisco and California were and are in some ways still a welcoming place.”

Yet, surveying the current situation in Armenia, Janigian said. “The West, (Western Europe in particular) turned its back on the people who helped engender it, and today oil and gas is seen as more important than democracy, human rights, or anything we deem to call ‘Western values.’ What is enfolding in Azerbaijan today,” added Janigian, “is a tragedy that flies in the face of everything the West stands for.”

Janigian is very proud of his Armenian heritage, and with every ‘success story’ he likes to remind people that Armenia is a “cradle of Civilization.” As mentioned in the September issue of the American Conservative, The mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, where trouble is currently brewing, is the heartland of the Armenian people.

As reporter Sohrab Ahmari for The American Conservative said. “It’s where they developed the Armenian alphabet and where they managed to retain sovereignty even as the wider South Caucasus traded hands between the Persian and Russian empires across long centuries.”

How the current conflict in the Nargorno Karabagh region resolves itself is unclear. The BBC recently reported more than 6,500 people have fled the region. Officials in the Armenian capital city of Yerevan warned that an ethnic cleansing could occur. The Armenian government said it is anticipating a wave of refugees from the region, as many as 40,000.

Jonathan Farrell is a local reporter.

October 2023

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