From ESL to the Oscars: Former ESL Students Make It BIG with Big Mama’s & Papa's Pizzeria

Gevik Anbarchian, Niles North High School

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Pride is a deadly sin, I know, but admittedly, in this case I can’t help myself: My cousins, Ararat (Aro) and Allen Agakhanyan, are the proud owners of the Los Angeles-based pizzeria chain, Big Mama's & Papa's Pizzeria (BMPP), that delivered the three now famous pizzas to Ellen DeGeneres at this year’s Oscars. The two brothers, with a little seed money from their mother, my Aunt Mariam, opened their first shop while still students at Herbert Hoover High School in Glendale, CA. By day, they were enrolled in ESL classes, having recently arrived with their mother and older sister, Ano, from Soviet Armenia after the untimely death of their father, Garnik, with just a few suitcases and a few hundred dollars. By night, they were managing their own store, getting home just in time to somehow get their homework done before catching the few hours of sleep necessary to repeat the process day in and day out. Now they manage twenty franchised restaurants all around Los Angeles and employ over two hundred people, many of whom are fellow immigrants.
And the young man who delivered the pizzas on-air, Edgar Martirosyan, was actually an employee of the now famous Hollywood location before signing up to be a BMPP franchisee. Which brings up another cause of awe for me--my cousins’ heartfelt desire to pull up others as they were pulled up by those who gave them chances. Aro and Allen actively seek out talented employees they can make franchise owners as they look to expand the brand. The owner-operated franchise is an integral part of Big Mama's & Papa's business model.
I spent many a summer as a kid then as a youth hanging around their first shop, Roselli's, when they were desperately hanging on to their then fledgling business. The competitive pizza industry forced them to think outside the box and try different business strategies in order to survive. Many times they were on the brink of being wiped out and trying something else. But they hung on. And on. Their appearance on the Oscars involves quite a bit of luck, I know. It could have happened to anyone. It's like winning the lottery. But their hard work is not a fluke: Through sheer endurance and sacrifice, they put themselves in a position where something like this could happen and that is no fluke. It’s the result of years of hard work coupled with shrewdly playing their cards right. As we say in sports, they put themselves in a position to win, and they capitalized on their chances. No fluke. No way.
I can imagine how Ellen came to place the call that has changed Hollywood BMPP franchisee Edgar Martirosyan and my cousins' lives. It was morning of the Oscars, and Ellen was in her kitchen having her coffee, wondering what original gag might break new boundaries of funny, what silly antic might be memorable.
"Eureka! I've got it!" she thought. "I'll have pizza delivered live on air. GENIUS! But wait, which pizza joint?"
Now, at this point, Ellen could have called any one of a hundred pizzerias that line the streets near the Dolby Theater, but something in her memory took her to Big Mama's & Papa’s Pizzeria. Maybe it was BMPP’s successful marketing of its Guinness world record pizza, the Giant Sicilian, which Ellen had seen advertised over the years through different media channels. Maybe it was because her studio ordered from BMPP’s Burbank location on a regular basis. Maybe it was the customer service I know is paramount to Big Mama's & Papa's business model--what Armenians simply call hospitality. Or maybe Ellen was looking for an inspiring American Dream story come true to highlight. But it wasn't just luck. Something in what Aro and Allen have created stood out in her mind and the call was placed to BMPP. It's hard to know what exactly makes a place our favorite hang out or our favorite eats, but there is something that brought Ellen, the Oscars and Big Mama's & Papa’s Pizzeria together. 
It’s also the result of knowing who you are. I see too many students today buying the dreams that others sell them, and God knows there are enough hucksters and salesmen out there selling us all kinds of dreams. What I’ve always admired in my cousins is their self-awareness. Yes, they chased dreams, but dreams that were attainable. They were not seeking wealth, thus they found self-fulfillment. They were not seeking fame, thus they found recognition. Did they succeed and make money along the way? Of course they did. It’s American capitalism, after all. But that has never been the goal. I know you find that hard to believe, but in rare cases it's true. For me to have cousins like that is my winning the Oscars. Family is family, and they win an Academy Award for that--not for acting but for being themselves.
But I do not tell their story here to trumpet the glories of the American Dream. I am not blind to the reality that for many the American Dream is simply that--a dream. I know for many it is out of reach, a fairy tale beset by obstacles of various kinds. I am also not here to say that business is the way to go for everyone because in many cases it’s not. It wasn't for me. Nor did I have the necessary talents to take to South Beach. For better or worse, I was born to teach, and, to quote my friend Josh, I went with what I had.
But I also know that in America great things are still possible, and that true American immigrant success stories are still what make this country what it is. I also tell it because throughout my life the Agakhanyan brothers have been a constant source of inspiration for never feeling sorry for themselves. Many buckle under the burden of loss, but they made a life out of the tragedy of losing their father. They took direction and inspiration from their mother, a strong woman who raised three children on her own an immigrant in an unfamiliar country. And Aro’s wife and friend of twenty-plus years, Paulette, provided further inspiration, supporting Aro through the many ups and downs as they sought to grow the BMPP brand. Inspiring, indeed!
As an ESL teacher, their success reminds me of the world of possibilities that exists out there for both native and non-native students. Yet, it saddens me to see so many students today who seem at a loss for what to do. As their teachers, we try to guide them and expose them to different possibilities, yet, too often we are quick to almost unconsciously prescribe certain life choices based on a one-size fits all educational model. Today, we push “college for all”--something I too have been terribly guilty of. Sure, academic proficiency is a great sign of intelligence, and a profession after years of formal college education is certainly a noble goal. But there are many other ways a young person can show their intelligence, and there is more than one way a student today can become successful tomorrow. Who would have predicted such success when Aro and Allen were in high school struggling to learn English? Struggling to adapt to as enigmatic a place as Los Angeles? How many may have written them off to the margins of society as casualties of immigration simply because they were focused on endeavors outside the parameters of school, beyond the scope of the school day? How many among us write students off today though teachers we may be? In schools where the Common Core and College Readiness reign surpeme, we are increasingly leaving very little room for other ways to demonstrate learning and success.
I have no doubt that both of my cousins would have done well in college had they decided to go. As a colleague pointed out, anyone who can run a business of that size clearly has smarts. Thus, our students' decision not to go to college is not some failure of intelligence on their part or a systemic failure on ours. Life dictates different paths for each of us, and the Agakhanyan brothers answered the clarion call as they had to. Yet today, we blindly encourage students to pursue college without considering the full picture. We burden students and their families with college loans that they cannot pay back because of unemployment or underemployment. For a society with a fairly anti-intellectual bias, strangely enough we sure do tout the wonders of university education for one in all. Yet, it seems to me that as educators we often do so because we don’t know what else to do given the narrowing curricular options. And maybe because we too, whether consciously or unconsciously, have come to see a college education as a rather expensive but necessary status symbol in our modern culture.
Anyone who knows me knows that I teach my classes as college prep courses and demand that my students put forth serious academic effort. But what many may not understand about me is that it's not academic perfection I expect but a sense of purpose and seriousness. If school is not for you, fine, then at least demonstrate that there is something else you are serious about while still putting forth effort to learn as much as you can from the classroom. Show some direction rather than languishing in mediocrity. My cousins have never been mediocre and have made it impossible for me to accept mediocrity. They have always lived with purpose, and that's the biggest determiner of success as far as I can see after nearly two decades of teaching. They have always strived for excellence. They are true artists of their trade. Armed with such direction, I reckon success is possible for everyone.
For the past few years, Aro has been coming to Chicago each May for the annual restaurant show, and each year I invite him to visit my classes and talk to my students about his life. We have many students with immigrant backgrounds in my school district, and Aro has a very interesting story to share about the life of an immigrant who’s done well for himself in America even before the Oscars. To them, as an immigrant who learned the language well enough to teach it, I represent one kind of success, and Aro, the resourceful entrepreneur, represents another. I would love for them to meet him. Plus, he’s a hell of a guy: When he and his close friend, Robert, decided to have a joint baptism for their children last August, they asked their guests to make in-lieu of donations to a charity in Armenia. They ended up donating almost $30K to an orphanage because that's the kind of people they are. They told their children that they have more than enough material wealth while there are many others struggling just to get by. (Incidentally, their baptism party had an Oscars theme. The wife of a friend is a party planner who, like our now honorary cousin Ellen, came up with the idea on a whim. Coincidence? I'm starting to think not. I'm downright spooked, actually!) And while it is very common for immigrants to "take care of their own" and focus their altruism on their own communities, the Agakhanyan brothers have never limited their charity work to things Armenian. To be sure, the Agakhanyans have a vast network of friends and family in Southern California's Armenian American community, but for years they have also given to local police and fire departments, to public schools and to hospitals.
Yes, for years I have asked Aro to pay my classes a visit, but for years, Aro has said, “Maybe next time?” Maybe the classroom is a distant memory for him as it is for most adults who don’t work with young people. Or maybe he feels awkward around sassy teenagers--I know I still do, but hey, I've only been at this for fifteen years! I’m hoping Aro will have a change of heart this spring. You see, my cousins need not have appeared on TV for me to be impressed by them and thus want to introduce them to my students, but we cannot deny that doing so highlights who they are and gives them a platform to allow their words to be heard more loudly and to have more meaning. We live in the age of the image and the sound bite, and the image of their pizzas on stage at the Oscars makes a bold statement that thousands of my words can never--Success is possible if you do something you’re good at and stick to it. Go your own way and don’t let others dream dreams for you. Beyond the financial gain, they now have a chance to be heard in an increasingly loud media environment and make contributions in other ways. I'd be honored to have them in my classes.
My cousins are now part of American pop-cultural history. What a world! What a country! I think I will be sending Ellen DeGeneres a Holiday gift this year! I've always loved that lady! (Actually, I had never watched her show, not even a single episode, but that's all changed in the past month, folks.) Again, forgive me if I am a bit overtaken with pride. You do not know my cousins like I know them. You do not remember them when they were just starting out. To see them now on the national stage--it truly does leave me speechless, and those who know me know how rare that is.

*Photo credit: 
Ararat and Allen Agakhanyan
Gevik Anbarchian teaches ESL at Niles North High School and Niles West High School. He is also Secretary and Past President of Illinois TESOL-BE. 

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ITBE Link - Volume 41 Number 4

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