The camaraderie is dished up along with the nazook (pastry), lahamajune (pizza) and basturma (dried beef) at Ron's Supermarket in the heart of the Armenian community in East Hollywood.
Los Angeles and Orange Counties are home to an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 Armenians--a population that has swelled since the devastating earthquake in their homeland a year ago--and on any given day hundreds of them meet and greet at Ron's.
There are Armenians from Soviet Armenia, from Iran, from France, from Lebanon. Armenians, whose homeland was once in eastern Turkey, were scattered throughout the world after the 1915 genocide that killed two-thirds of their people.
Wherever they settle, says Garen Yegparian of the Armenian National Committee, "as a group, we're not really there by choice. We don't have a choice of being in Armenia."
So the homesick find havens such as Ron's, which is owned and operated by Armenians Grigor Asatryan and his son, Charlie, who immigrated from Soviet Armenia 15 years ago.
At holiday time, Armenians buy kataifi, a shredded filo dough for baking; soujouk, a rolled sweet filled with walnuts; smoked sturgeon, and for a splurge, Russian black caviar.
Ron's, whose clientele is 40% Armenian, is more than a market. Customers can cash checks, pay utility bills and buy tickets for concerts. Many do not speak English and, Charles Asatryan says, "lots of time they need help for translation" of paper work, perhaps for immigration. "We find doctors for them, lots of personal things. They have problems finding a job, we help."
The sights and the smells are tantalizing. At the deli counter, store manager Jack Artinian (a Romanian who also speaks Armenian, Spanish and English) and his crew poke their heads between hanging sausages to take orders for feta cheese (Armenian customers buy 3,600 pounds daily), poltski (sausage) and vobla, a sun-dried fish from the Soviet Union.
On a recent day, Andre Bedrossian, an Armenian from Paris who is retired from the shoe business, was pushing his cart through the aisle. Russian sausages were on his shopping list. "The Giant, Ralphs, they don't have them," he explained."
"They shop here, they don't need to speak English," says Artinian. Among them, the 120 employees speak 28 languages, and they can help with the 82,000 products that can be found at Ron's.
Sometimes emigres from the Soviet Union are amazed to see canned stuffed green peppers imported from the U.S.S.R. Says Artinian, "New arrivals, they say, 'We didn't see this for 20 years.' "
Artinian can tell at a glance the nationality of his customers, who include Russians, Yugoslavs, Romanians, Greeks and Bulgarians. He greets in Armenian two women, Aykui Oganesyan and Alena Agazarian, who are browsing the aisle. Oganesyan comes here regularly from Van Nuys because, she explains in halting English, "nice food, everything good and expensive."
Artinian good-naturedly corrects her: "Inexpensive. "
They all laugh.