There was a window of time last year, as Los Angeles County faced another round of lockdowns during what would become the region’s deadly winter coronavirus surge, when the massive, three-story Glendale Galleria stood Echo Canyon empty. The 45-year-old mall, home to more than 250 storefronts, was a retail behemoth in search of a customer base that, because of stay-at-home orders, legally couldn’t exist.
Across the entire 1.6-million-square-foot property, which encompasses multiple buildings, only three businesses were open to customers. There was Target at the southern end, with its own entrance, and Dick’s Sporting Goods in an adjacent building a full city block to the northeast. And then there was Massis Kabob.
“We had runners,” says Gevik Baghdassarian, whose family has operated Massis Kabob inside the Glendale Galleria since 1976. “People weren’t allowed to come inside the mall, so my son and a couple of my nephews would take orders outside to the curb.” As managers turned kebab skewers and filled takeout containers with hummus and shirazi salad, the kids thanked drivers for supporting where they could. Otherwise, Massis was alone in the world, floating inside an empty food court. Eventually, well-intentioned mall management put out some dining tables in the shade of the parking garage, but the cordoned-off placement mostly just drew funny looks and internet hot takes about the dystopian setup.
“We had to look ourselves in the eye and say, ‘Are we going to make it?’” says Baghdassarian. “Everything my dad did for 45 years, are we going to lose it all in six months?”
Gevik’s father, Hacop Baghdassarian, wasn’t like other businessmen. The Armenian family man had run a paint supply company in Iran but fled to the United States at the outset of the country’s long and brutal revolution. The Baghdassarians landed in Glendale, home today to the largest concentration of Armenians outside Armenia itself, just in time to catch wind of the emergence of the mega-mall Galleria development. With no restaurant experience, Hacop Baghdassarian found a way in on the ground floor: a small Armenian food stall measuring 300 square feet. Massis, a colloquial Armenian name for Mount Ararat, was born, with Baghdassarian turning skewers, making falafel, and greeting customers.
“He was truly old world,” says Gevik Baghdassarian of his father. “When my dad was around, you knew it was a family operation.”
Massis grew from that first location in October 1976, expanding its existing footprint and then opening five other mall-only locations, from the Westfield Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks out to Arcadia. Openings were measured across decades, always entirely owned by the Baghdassarian family, and always tied to the belief that the malls’ foot traffic would sustain them.
“Because we’re in a mall, people assume that we’re part of some larger conglomerate,” says Gevik. “The uniforms, the logo... people just assume you’re no longer some small operation.”
Hacop Baghdassarian died from a rare blood cancer in 2017, leaving the fate of Massis in the hands of his sons and widow. In 2020, the pandemic began in earnest, dramatically changing both the retail and restaurant landscape forever.
“We’ve always been at the will of the malls,” says Gevik. “The only other thing I can remember that’s close to this past year is when the Northridge earthquake happened in 1994 and they shut us down for three days. I can’t imagine what my father would be like if we had to tell him the malls were closed for three months.”
Now Gevik has been tasked with creating a new vision for Massis, and that starts with moving beyond the old ways — and moving away from the stigma of being a food court restaurant.
The next iteration of Massis begins with a standalone, non-mall location in Glendale. The project, currently under construction at the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Glendale Avenue, had been a lifelong dream of Hacop’s, a place for the family to truly grow its roots even more deeply into the Armenian community.
“We’re a historic ethnic population that’s been here for so long,” says Gevik, “and we’ve contributed so much to LA — not only in food, but in culture.”
The younger Baghdassarian is determined to see his father’s passion project cross the finish line, even if the pandemic has delayed construction by nearly a year. With a little luck, the building will host its grand opening this fall, on the 45th anniversary of the first Massis Kabob, as part of a larger Armenian celebration with support from city officials and a nearby Armenian American museum project.
“We really want this to be a flagship store, something we can roll out to other cities,” says Gevik, pointing to renderings that show a dining area, patio, and the company’s largest kitchen. The Baghdassarians are taking inspiration from fellow Glendale Galleria tenant Panda Express, which opened its first-ever location at the mall, on how to grow without ceding control.
“Panda opened up right next to Massis in 1983,” says Gevik. “I used to joke with my dad that we had a head start on [founder Andrew Cherng], and now he has over 2,000 locations. We’re still stuck at six. What’s going on?”
Growth is the goal, but family and community are the priorities. “Everybody knows the food at Panda Express,” says Gevik. “We want to do the same thing for Armenian food. My dad’s happiest moment was when non-Armenian customers would come in and order koobideh, and they would pronounce it correctly because they knew what it was.”
It won’t be easy making koobideh a household menu item, Gevik admits, but it’s worth a shot. Step one is moving beyond the food court, without leaving the lessons of the mall behind.