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Linda’s café located in San Marino, Calif. offers outdoor dining in the form of a sidewalk café, while the deli and store are indoors.
I met with Linda Grace Zadoian via video conference on a weeknight after work at the end of September. When I asked what prompted her to open the San Marino Café and commit to this location, her altruistic nature was on full display. “I believe it comes from a deeper place, from feeding people and serving people within a capacity that is meaningful to me. The café was not something that was sought out and developed. It’s almost as if it fell into my lap.” Naturally, I wanted to know how she acquired her café. “There were a couple of restaurants in that space previously, but they didn’t work out. A conversation with the landlord led to next steps. Within five weeks, I made the decision to open up a café, train staff, put a menu together, and open my doors to this lovely community.” Her café located in San Marino, Calif. offers outdoor dining in the form of a sidewalk café, while the deli and store are indoors.
I was curious about how the café played a role in who she was and how her upbringing may have played a part in that. Linda went on to tell me what it’s been like running a business. “In the past four years, since I opened the café, it’s really given me the chance to look at myself in different ways, through a lens I never had before. I come from an immigrant family, but I was the rebel. I did not do what I was supposed to do. I was a high school dropout, then got my GED. Took some college classes, dropped out of that. I made my way up through corporate America and got into middle market lending. I always knew that I wanted to chase something bigger, but I just had a lot of questions deep within myself of how I was going to do that. I always knew I wanted to make money though.” We both smiled at this, as any business owner would agree, success is important. But for Linda, it wasn’t the only thing. “I got to a point where I wanted it to be much more meaningful; I wanted to make a deeper impact.” Linda describes herself as just an ordinary person who took a chance on herself. “I’m not more special than anybody else. I just took an opportunity and I owned it. I made it mine. I was resilient and I was determined. I didn’t stop even though I knew the odds were against me and everyone told me that this was not going to work, [but] I believed in myself.”
“Growing up, I had a lot of insecurities. Then, I guess I was in the right place at the right time and there was a moment when I stopped doubting myself.” Spoken with the confidence of a successful business owner, her head held high and a bright smile to match. I found it intriguing when Linda shared her business motto, “I do not believe in a work-life balance. For me, it doesn’t work. I believe in work-life integration. I personally choose to serve and I do so with my heart and my hands. Whether that’s injustice and inequality or a panini and a salad, I integrate my work into everything that I do.” With such passion behind Linda’s answers, I wondered if this was something that was instilled early on. She described how her Armenian heritage influenced her. Linda gave me a brief history lesson on the Armenian genocide and how her people were systematically annihilated by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1915. Part of Linda’s identity is derived through her ancestors, she is the granddaughter of genocide survivors. Her grandfather once ran his own restaurant in Iraq, near the Tigris River. “He opened a very bustling restaurant and that’s when he reinvented himself. I think resiliency is something that’s within us. I guess it’s in my DNA.” Linda’s family history, in turn, motivates her to forge ahead. “I think the greatest success and the greatest triumph is to now extend our hands and to feed people. I mean how much better does it get than that?” Linda asked, radiating.
The love she extends to her community is evident in her approach to her business, but even more so during the pandemic when she created her Love Your Neighbor campaign: “There was a time when people would come to me and ask, ‘Should I pay my rent or get food?’ It was then I thought it was my duty to help those that I could. We started off by choosing one family a day [to sponsor] and that turned into five families a day. The community here chose to actually sponsor some of these families, and that’s something that touches me very deeply.”
I wanted to know how the café was managing services like catering despite the pandemic, to which Linda replied, “The pandemic has shaped the way that we cater. We had to come up with these very interesting ways to coordinate wine tasting or beer flights and logistically deliver to around 60 or 70 homes across Los Angeles and Orange County. However, as things began to slowly open back up, we were able to go back to a different style of catering. Although, a lot of people are still infused in the social distancing aspect — and that means our food is individually boxed.”
Linda’s café catered in other ways as well. “I asked the community: ‘What do you need? Is there anything I can give you?’ I wanted to connect and build relationships because I believe that’s how we support each other.” The community, especially the elderly, didn’t feel safe venturing out to the supermarkets at the height of the pandemic and they responded with the need for basic kitchen staples such as milk, eggs, flour, etc. Linda began carrying what they were looking for in her corner bodega. “They trusted me; I didn’t take a day off for 10 months.” I expressed how that must have been exhausting and Linda was quick to add, “That’s probably the most energy I’ve had in a long time. I went into survival mode.”
The café, like many businesses, was affected and I was curious how Linda and her team managed — being a place of comfort and community, how did the café get along during the lockdown and its mandates for eateries? “People were eating at home, but people were also isolated, and they needed to feel community because that’s human nature. We all want to be a part of something. San Marino Café created that. It was a place to go, where people could leave their house and walk to the café and see other people.” Linda also talked about witnessing the change in human interactions during the pandemic and how people coped. “I saw people emotionally really struggling with alienation, feeling like they didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow. Things did get better, for a lot of people, we’re reminded by a smile or a, ‘How’s your day going?’ I saw how people changed when we started hugging again.” Not quite ready to cross that threshold myself, I asked Linda how she felt about personal security (space) and what measures were taken to protect herself. In June of 2021, Linda’s café was vandalized. She was called into the store by one of her employees who told her there was broken glass everywhere. Luckily no one was inside or injured at the time of the incident. She explained that the neighborhood was generally safe, and that she felt it was difficult to predict isolated incidents like this, despite security cameras and other standard precautions. She expressed to me the feeling of vulnerability and hurt she experienced when she heard the bad news. “It’s almost as if someone hurt my child because I have poured so much love and spirit into this place and that kind of violation hits very, very deep.” She didn’t expect the outpouring of concern from the Armenian community, neighboring schools, and others after the incident. “Everyone stepped forward to help.” – Diara Fowler
As we closed out the meeting shortly after, one thing that resonated with me most was Linda’s refusal to see failure as an option. “There was no, ‘If this isn’t going to work out’. It was only about figuring it out and how to get to growth, to be able to make a meaningful impact through food and community.”
The history of the Armenian Genocide is one that to this day, is not fully shared or widely acknowledged. Even though various ethnic cleansing massacres of the 20th century would gave way to the term “genocide”, some governments refuse to acknowledge that these events ever occurred. The Armenian Genocide is denied by the Turkish government. In 2019, the United States Senate passed a resolution after three previous blockages, to officially recognize the 1.5 million Armenians killed from 1915 to 1917 as a genocide, much to the dismay of the Turkish government.
To learn more about the history of the Armenian Genocide, and hear stories and memories from survivors and ancestors, you can visit armenianmuseum.org, and also experience the beauty of Armenian heritage and the work they do to conserve their history.
Conversations with Diara Fowler. Written by Diara Fowler. Edited by Eugenia Macias & Jess Lo.