The Babayans Turn their Love of Armenian Recipes, in their Family for Generations, into a Booming Food Company
Written by Linda Grasso | Photographed by Tameka Jacobs
When Annie Babayan enrolled in Whittier Law School, she fully intended to become an attorney. But life intervened.
Four years ago, while still enrolled in law school, she was hanging out at the family home in Burbank. With Annie’s great-grandmother’s Armenian recipe book out on the counter, she and some family members started experimenting. For Nara, Annie’s mom, the cookbook had been something of her bible.
“My mom’s childhood is full of memories of watching her grandparents cook and create delicacies—from sujuk to homemade liquors to fruit leathers, as well as other traditional dried foods,” shares Annie.
One of the recipes was for the Armenian delicacy “sweet sujuk”—essentially a walnut-grape roll. “Walnuts are threaded on a string and then dipped in grape molasses paste. After a few dips to coat, they hang to sun dry, leaving the walnuts crunchy in the core with the paste covering them in a soft, jelly-like coating,” Annie explains.
The group started thinking about how the drying technique yielded such intense flavors.
“We decided to expedite the drying process and found a dehydrator to do it. We then realized the dehydrator could be used for many different foods—including fruits such as the oranges in the backyard.”
They pulled a few oranges off the tree, and Annie’s sister, Lilit, sliced them super thin. After laying the slices on trays to dry, Annie put them into the dehydrator.
Everyone agreed; the results were nothing short of delectable and unique. The “crisps,” as they called them, were terrific on a cheese and cracker platter. They started selling various kinds of dried fruit—including apples and strawberries—at local farmers markets, under the label Dardimans California Crisps.
“Before we knew it, we were selling out at the markets. And then we started selling to retail outlets—mostly cheese and gourmet stores.”
Soon they leased an 800-square-foot commercial kitchen. For Annie, in some ways, it was like being back in law school. “We had many nights of no sleep; it was really lots of hours,” she remembers.
Retail accounts grew and soon companies like Dean & Deluca and Harry & David (both of which do a mean catalog sales business) were buyers.
The number of employees (outside the family) grew to 21, and in 2015 the family brought in a partner, Peter Bagdasarian. “It is really kind of funny. We met him because he was a great client. He owns a number of medical imaging centers and he’d buy the crisps as professional gifts. And he became a friend,” explains Annie.
With corporate structure now in place, Peter is Dardimans’ CFO, Arthur, Annie’s father, is COO and Annie is CEO. Peter’s two daughters, Rosalin and Eugenia, also work there. Rosalin handles social media and special projects, and Eugenia is Senior Account Manager. “But we all do everything. We are all essentially in sales and production,” says Annie, adding, “We still think of ourselves as a family business.”
Last December, the company broke ground on a 15,000-square-foot space in the Valley; they’re now in the final phase of construction. They’ve also added chocolate and lollipops to the product mix.
As with any company that experiences rapid growth, maintaining quality is a concern. When Annie mentions that Dardimans just started conversations with Bristol Farms and Gelson’s, there’s a bit of reserve in her voice.
With the exception of pineapple, which is bought from Hawaii, all products come directly from California growers—most of them from the San Joaquin Valley. “We source it with our own hands at the orchards and slice it by hand. We even package it by hand. Quality is really important to us.”
She believes if everyone stays on the same page and is committed to communication, preserving and building on what they have is possible. After all, preservation is their business.