Nine years ago, Hagop Azelian started his application for Armenian citizenship at Armenia’s Consulate in Aleppo in hopes of relocating his family to a safer neighborhood with access to education for his daughter. After living in Dubai for one year and a half, the Azelians became official Armenian citizens.
Little did Azelian know that his relocation would result in immense success in Armenia’s promising restaurant industry. With the cash in his wallet and hopes of creating a better future for his family, Azelian opened a small eatery on Derian Street. “We started to do barbecue, only sandwiches, like shish kebab, tikka kebab, shish taouk, eggplant kebab. And since then, we’ve been cooking it like we did at home.”
The authenticity of his mother and mother-in-law’s cooking has set Derian apart from the rest. “They started their business with the power of their women,” Soghomonian said. “The two ran the kitchen and took the business to a whole new level. With the culinary talent of Azelian’s mother Kohar Azelian and his mother-in-law Verjin Hamalian, Derian made a name for itself as a haven of home cooked food.”
Next to their tiny kiosk, an Armenian travel agency that was moving out urged Azelian to take over their space. “From the first day, they helped us because they knew we came from Syria.” Thanks to their hospitality and carefully managed social media accounts, Derian has grown to become widely popular and now has two locations. Azelian oversees the upscale restaurant on Buzand Street.
The family’s transition to Yerevan wasn’t without problems, as high unemployment rates and rising costs of rent proved to be his biggest burden. “We lived in Yerevan for six months, every month we paid $800 rent for our house. The problem started after six months, because our cash flow ran low,” Azelian recalls. “We had to think about what we could do to earn money to afford living in Yerevan.” He determined that the key to success was to uphold his reputation and continue his repeat business, which requires him to personally taste-test the meals before they are served or delivered to customers. His ingredients come from a trustworthy Syrian butcher shop, ensuring the authenticity and quality of his cuisine. “This is not like any other job,” he clarified. “When you send food out, and there is a mistake, the customer will not come a second time.”
Given his perfectionistic oversight, Azelian needn’t worry about unsatisfied customers. Online restaurant reviews written by Armenians and non-Armenians alike rave about Derian’s dishes. In fact, Derian received TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence in 2018, a recognition that celebrates consistently great service around the world and is reserved for only ten percent of businesses. Local Armenians, global tourists, government officials, and even celebrities keep coming back to Derian for a delicious home-cooked meal. Celebrities like Michael Caine, Elton John, and Serj Tankian have drawn even more attention to Azelian’s business.
Tourists, however, have helped boost the business of Derian exponentially. “They’re helping us a lot, especially groups from Lebanon, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Poland, and England.” And their verdict? “They love the food!” Azelian curates a special package for tourists consisting of a full assortment of dishes. Each order contains the best Syria and Armenia can offer, complete with hummus, tabbouleh, rice, sweets, and coffee or tea.
Azelian is also working with the United Arab Emirates Embassy, catering halal meals for their ambassador during Ramadan services. According to Azelian, “We send 400 meals every day to Muslim students in Yerevan.” Derian also prepares myriad vegetarian and vegan options, aligning with changing dietary needs and appetites.
Azelian aspires to open more restaurants, but says the rent is high in the center of Yerevan. Though Derian is thriving, Azelian believes he needs to continue building on its success. To that end, he is saving his profits to be ready for the next location. “We are young, and we must work hard. I have a family, and I must be prepared for today and the future.” Nevertheless, he reported, “I love my work.”
For a full list of Syrian-Armenian food and dining enterprises in Yerevan, click here.
Banner photo by Davit Hakobyan