How Social Media is Changing Mini Kabob, an Old-School Kabob Restaurant | KCET
How Social Media is Changing Mini Kabob, an Old-School Kabob Restaurant
It’s hard not to notice Glendale’s growing transformation as buzzed-about restaurants like Shake Shack, Eggslut and Tsujita Ramen have been moving into the neighborhood. But just around the corner from the bustling Americana and Glendale Galleria is a longstanding, mom-and-pop kabob restaurant that’s finally starting to get the attention it deserves — with some help from social media.
Mini Kabob may very well be the tiniest kabob restaurant in Los Angeles, and that’s part of its charm. This Armenian eatery, that’s been at the same location for 28 years, is situated inside a no-frills, 220-square-foot space. Customers are often seen ordering takeout at the counter, or simply dining at one of the restaurant’s three tiny tables. On a regular day, you might find 64-year-old owner Ovakim Martirosyan sitting down with a customer at a table playing catch up; or his 60-year-old wife Alvard dancing in the kitchen to an electronic music track their 28-year-old son Armen is playing on his phone.
Even before you enter the restaurant, there are fragrant scents of spices and grilled meats wafting outside. For having such a small kitchen space, the Martirosyans are surprisingly able to do a lot with their kabob plates, which run the gamut of ground chicken and beef luleh, to succulent chicken breast chunks. The dishes are thoughtfully plated: The restaurant’s fluffy basmati rice is encircled with kabobs; vibrant, roasted tomatoes and jalapeño; folded lavash flatbread; and hummus dusted with Aleppo pepper.
It’s important to Ovakim Martirosyan that he and his family not only focus on the cooking aspect of their restaurant, but also have an artistic approach to it. “Some places just serve food for eating; some places you serve it like art,” he says. “Your food must look beautiful, too. If you serve it ugly, [customers] don’t want to touch it.”
There’s also an Egyptian influence in some of their dishes. The recipes the family uses for their creamy hummus, silky smooth toum (a flavorful garlic-and-oil sauce), and falafel were passed down from Ovakim Martirosyan’s grandmother, who lived in Egypt as a refugee after fleeing from Armenia to escape the Armenian genocide.
The patriarch of the family is serious about his cooking. Ask Ovakim Martirosyan about his food and he will discuss the finesse of cooking meat, like how you have to use the right, all-natural spices and ingredients in the mix, and know how to carefully grill the meat and keep a watchful eye over it so you never burn the kabobs. Oftentimes, he’s the one preparing the meats, while his wife grills, and his son attends to the customers and sometimes cooks in the kitchen. This work makes him happy, he says.
He has a strong opinion about cooking because he’s had nearly 50 years of experience working in professional kitchens. Ovakim Martirosyan, who hails from Yerevan in Armenia, says his father recognized his passion for cooking early on, and helped send him to culinary school in 1968. After graduating, he served as a chef in the Soviet Army for two years, and later worked at fine-dining restaurants in his home country.
Ovakim Martirosyan met his wife Alvard serendipitously in his cousin’s home in Armenia. He says at the time he thought he was already old at 33 and didn’t think he would ever get married, but then realized she was the one. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1987, but it wouldn’t be for another 10 years until he started working at Mini Kabob.
In 1997, the original owner of Mini Kabob recruited Ovakim Martirosyan to come work at his restaurant. The small eatery had gained popularity when it first launched in the late 1980s because it was the first Iranian-Armenian restaurant to open in L.A., giving homesick immigrants a taste of home, according to Ovakim Martirosyan. Right before he was brought on board about 20 years ago, the restaurant was failing, but when he put his special kabob plates on the menu, it saved the business from closure. Owners came and went over the years, and eight years ago, Ovakim Martirosyan went from chef to owner and bought the restaurant.
New blood is something that has helped Mini Kabob stay open for so long. It’s come full circle for the family, as Ovakim Martirosyan’s son came on to work full-time at Mini Kabob early last year. Like his father, Armen Martirosyan also attended culinary school, and graduated from the now-closed Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. He went on to work at Tatsu Ramen for three years, and while he says he’s thankful for everything he learned there, he felt the need to move on. “I’m too ambitious for me just to stay and work for someone else,” Armen Martirosyan says. “I have goals.”
Armen Martirosyan always knew he would one day return to work in the family business. He ended up ramping up Mini Kabob’s presence on the Internet by pursuing marketing in a unique way. He networked with food writers and influencers in the city, and armed with a camera, began taking photos of food to post on social media. He launched his EatBearded food Instagram account and other sub-accounts, which have generated around 100,000 followers in total. Armen Martirosyan did this mostly with the purpose of cross-marketing his parents’ restaurant. Even Mini Kabob’s Instagram account, a seemingly never-ending scroll of beautiful photos of the restaurant’s kabob plates, has over 11,000 followers.
Armen Martirosyan humbly points out that he’s just the social media guy and his parents are the real stars. Amongst the food photos on the Mini Kabob Instagram, he’ll sprinkle in some snapshots of his parents, sometimes posing with celebrity clientele like electronic music producer Diplo and actor Iqbal Theba from Glee.
He translates in English for his mother Alvard Martirosyan, who says she’s proud of what he’s done. Ovakim Martirosyan says that he didn’t know anything about social media before his son stepped in to help. Up until that point, his customers found out about his restaurant only through word of mouth. Business had been slowing down, but since his son began working on increasing their social media presence, he’s noticed an uptick in customers. Ovakim Martirosyan says diners will come in and ask who’s running his Instagram account, and say that it looks perfect; even someone from Food Network called for them recently. “Armen [is] doing his best,” Ovakim Martirosyan says. “He’s a good marketing guy, he’s a good blogger, he goes [to] many places. He tells me our food is very good.”
There’s more in store for Mini Kabob beyond social media. Armen has plans with partners to open a second location, a larger one that serves wine and beer, and uses a tonir, a traditional Armenian clay oven where lavash is made. The oven is an open underground well that is heated up with charcoal or wood. Traditionally, women will roll out the dough, lay it onto a pillow, and then slap it against the inside of the well oven. The flatbread will then start to bubble and the lavash will cook within a minute or so.
It’s important for Armen Martirosyan to have a visual component to his upcoming restaurant. “I want people to come in and see and feel the homey vibe and drink that red wine or whatever they want to do,” he says. “[I want them] to understand that this place is no frills, no nothing, so you can sit there and eat comfort food and enjoy the company, with the people with you, and the quality of food that’s with you.”
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Armen Martirosyan says there’s sentimentality for his family behind the tonir. His mother Alvard came from Ashtarak, a small village in Armenia, and often made lavash using a tonir. “It’s sentimental to me in the way she grew up and the way they grew up,” he says. “That’s how they used to eat food out there. She learned [how to cook] from there. Her mom and her sister, they would cook together.”
Alvard Martirosyan never had any formal culinary training, but cooking comes naturally to her. Her son says that prior to working at Mini Kabob, she spent her time raising him and his brother, and would sometimes bake at home to make some extra money. Her husband taught her how to cook his food, and she caught on immediately. In English, Alvard Martirosyan says that she managed to learn how to do everything on the first day because she has talent. She checks in with her son to see if she’s using the right word. “Yes, talent,” Armen Martirosyan says, and they both laugh.
“My wife is a good cook. She learned [how to cook our recipes] from me. . . . She was my student and now she’s my boss,” Ovakim Martirosyan says, while laughing.
The men in the family praise Alvard Martirosyan’s cooking skills, saying she can hold her own and makes the best potatoes and cheesecake you’ll ever have, specialty items that she makes at home. Armen Martirosyan points out that his mother has a very young soul, and that whenever she’s with his aunt in the restaurant, they’ll be energetically dancing to the music he plays.
Alvard Martirosyan says through her son’s translation in English, “It’s not your specific age that makes you old. It’s how you feel and your soul inside.” That might just be the secret to the Martirosyans’ success.
Top photo: Outside of Mini Kabob. | Courtesy of Jean Trinh
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