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Holding Their Own in Old Town

October 18, 1998|MARYANN HUDSON-HARVEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aux Delices is a French bakery and cafe on Colorado Boulevard in Old Town Pasadena. It is a small place, with nine tables, including one by the window and one outside, though some people have suggested that the owners forgo the window table and display pastries instead. To that, Elizabeth and George Babakhanian say no, because even if it brought more business, they would lose some of the best seats in the house.

"And then if we kept the table outside, people walking by would stand over our customers to look in," Elizabeth says. "It just wouldn't be good."

Elizabeth and George bought Aux Delices in 1987, when Old Town was just plain old, with boarded-up buildings covered with posters of Marilyn Monroe and the windows of the local sex shop covered with brown paper. They looked around Colorado Boulevard, saw construction workers, and took a chance. They are used to taking chances. They came from Iran (though they are Armenian), settling here after trying to live in Boston, where they had relatives.

But there, they felt like foreigners.

"Here, there are so many foreigners, you don't feel foreign," Elizabeth says. The success of their cafe, though, is foreign, an anomaly really, because in the glitz of the Pasadena boom, with giants such as Starbucks and the Cheesecake Factory now surrounding it, the tiny Aux Delices has been one of the few independents to survive. Of the 100 eateries now in Old Town, only a handful of those on Colorado have been there since the beginning of the area's resurgence, managing to stay open amid the rising rents.

"All these stores have come and gone and I feel bad for the people because they put in all that money and the time and then, nothing," Elizabeth says. "We had another store in Glendale, but we had to close it because I couldn't be in both places at the same time. When I'm here, things are under control. I make sure things are going well. I think that is what has helped."

To be sure, there have been shaky times for Aux Delices. The worst came a few years back when the monthly lease more than doubled, from $2,200 to nearly $5,000 -- about the same time Starbucks opened.

"We have had to work harder," George says.

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Elizabeth and George have worked every day since December.

Basically, they have worked nearly every day since 1987. The cafe is only closed on Christmas Day.

Aux Delices had been open about a year when they bought it, and they kept just about everything intact, including the pink exterior and the French chef.

When the chef departed, they kept his recipes, including the calories.

"Sometimes people ask me if we have anything nonfattening, and I tell them, 'Well, it is a French bakery,' " Elizabeth says.

The prices have also stayed about the same. A bowl of soup and half a sandwich cost about $4.50 in 1987. Today the combo is $5.

"It's been hard, because all our costs have gone up but we have had to keep our prices low to stay competitive," Elizabeth says. "When new stores open, some of our regulars leave to try them out. When Starbucks opened, some of our customers started buying coffee there, but they came back here to buy our croissants. I kid them and say, 'Don't you bring that cup of coffee in here.' "

To compete, Aux Delices stays open about 15 hours a day, closing at 10 p.m. during the week and 11:30 on weekends. In November, KNBC-TV designated Aux Delices the best bakery in L.A., so Elizabeth hung a sign outside proclaiming that honor. She says it has brought many new customers.

But for the longtime customers, it is the familiarity of the place and the smell of the bread that keeps them coming back. On a recent day, a customer returning from France stopped by for a loaf of French bread. Elizabeth says he buys a loaf every morning.

"He says he can't find this bread anyplace else," she says.

It is this unique quality that city officials say they are trying to keep in Old Town. Though the city says it can't do anything about rising rents, it is offering a series of free workshops on the art of survival for small businesses.

"The chain stores anchor the downtown, but the independents are the most important because they are what makes it different. They are the cutting edge," says Marsha Rood, development administrator of the Pasadena Housing and Development Department.

"It is critical to what makes downtown special. People have to have a reason to come back."

For some, that reason has been Aux Delices.

"We have students from Art Center who graduate, go have their families and then still come back," Elizabeth says. "And they get so happy when they see me and see that we are still here."

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