Photo courtesy of Ike Gazaryan
Ike and Yulia Gazaryan's March 13 wedding renewal, held in vintage gasmasks at Pushkin Restaurant.
In March, to mark their fifth anniversary, Ike and Yulia Gazaryan decided to renew their vows with a small event where they originally wed: at their Pushkin Russian Restaurant & Bar. With the pandemic and panic buying starting to dominate the news, the party was an excuse to host a last supper for employees and close friends before things got complicated. The date was Friday, the 13th.
Ike bought 20 vintage, world-war era gasmasks for everyone to wear. The bride and groom donned them too, along with their original wedding attire. Except rather than a bouquet, the bride carried the newly emergent symbol of American prosperity: a roll of toilet paper.
Ike and Yulia Gazaryan's March 13 wedding feast, served for employees of Pushkin restaurant and guests
Photo courtesy of Ike Gazaryan
Stylish photos of the event were posted to Pushkin’s social media pages, generating thousands of likes and follows. Looking back, Ike Gazaryan thinks the popularity of those photos set the stage for what happened next: his business’s overnight transformation from Gaslamp restaurant to county-wide grocery delivery service, ASAP Produce.
One of San Diego’s best pandemic success stories, ASAP Produce began with a dour realization: Pushkin restaurant would have to close temporarily. Gazaryan saw the writing on the wall, even before the governor made dining room closures official on March 16. “When you’re in the fine dining business,” says Gazaryan, “To-go orders aren’t going to sustain and pay the salaries of employees.”
The Grandstand wedding venue in City Heights, now repurposed for grocery delivery packing and storage
He made the difficult decision to lay off most of his staff, and hope the restaurant could re-open soon. With a young and growing family at home, his first concern was everyone’s health and safety. So when he visited a supermarket the next day, he was taken aback. People lined up outside the store. It took him 30 minutes to get inside, only to find that most essential items he’d come for had sold out. Browsing customers repeatedly handled what remained on the shelves.
He quickly realized that, while grocery distributors were running out of basics — toilet paper, hand sanitizer, grains, and meats — restaurant distributors had them in abundance. “They had all these groceries they couldn’t sell to anybody, because all the restaurants were shut down.”
Groceries on shelves in a repurposed wedding venue
Gazaryan started buying up essential supplies and announced their availability through Pushkin’s newly robust social media channels. He started bringing back employees to pack and delivery groceries to his customers. There would be no browsing the aisles of this ad hoc grocery: everyone worked with masks, gloves, and hairnets, dropping supplies on peoples’ doorsteps.
Within four days, they were making 20 deliveries a day. By the beginning of April they were up to 50. With rising inventory and media attention, Gazaryan’s team quickly assembled a website to take orders, and started buying refrigerators to keep perishables fresh. Orders kept coming in, and they had to build a second, larger website to keep up. The 3000-square-foot Pushkin, too, was running out of space.
Groceries delivered from ASAP Produce
Meanwhile, Gazaryan’s new, second business had been undone by the pandemic. He’d just put $200,000 into renovating the Grandstand, a wedding hall in City Heights (4201 El Cajon Boulevard). Now, all the spring weddings that had been booked were canceling, and he was having to return deposits.
But, the 8000-square-foot venue features two walk-in coolers, a kitchen, and parking lot. So Gazaryan moved the newly named ASAP Produce operation, including shelves, scales, and its now 16 refrigerators, to City Heights, a position better located to distribute to customers now ordering all the way from Oceanside to the Mexican border.
A pound of grilled lamb lula kebabs — on the menu at Pushkin Russian Restaurant, being delivered by the pound by ASAP Produce
“I started competing with Amazon Fresh and Instacart,” says Gazaryan. Except unlike those services, his San Diego customers could count on same-day delivery. At its peak, he says, ASAP Produce was delivering 150 orders a day, collecting $20K in revenue.
Not that Gazaryan is profiting. Most of the items get only 10 to 15 percent mark-up, while essential goods like toilet paper and disinfectants are sold at cost. The income is paying rent at both business locations and has allowed him to hire back Pushkin’s employees, and several new hires. “Everyone withdrew their unemployment claims” Gazaryan notes with pride, “Not a single person from Pushkin Restaurant has taken a single penny from the government.”
He is hoping his pending application to the Paycheck Protection Program will help him better position to re-open when the shutdown orders finally end, but he’s not leaving anything to chance. ASAP Produce inventory has grown to over 400 items, ranging from produce, yeast, and flour to cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer produced by local distilleries, and alcohol.
These restaurant folk have been learning the grocery business on the fly, but they’re starting to get more efficient at breaking down wholesale meats, grains, produce, even hand sanitizer, and splitting them into smaller packages for retail customers.
My own shopping experience yielded a $4.50 pound of ground beef, $4 for two pounds of Calrose rice, a pound of broccoli for $3, five ounces of fresh raspberries for $4, and a $5 spray bottle of hand sanitizer (four ounces). ASAP recently added simplified versions of a few Pushkin dishes to its inventory, prepared on a charcoal grill behind the Grandstand. I was able to get a pound of lamb lula for $12 – priced at $23 per plate at Pushkin. Also served is grilled chicken, grilled vegetables, and pork ribs. Delivery for food and groceries is a flat $10 within ten miles, and 75 cents a mile beyond that.
Gazaryan says demand has dropped from ASAP’s peak, as shoppers settle in to fewer and smaller orders, and speculates many of his returning customers are those too vulnerable to covid-19 to attempt leaving the house even as more businesses, beaches, and parks re-open.
Eventually, he may relinquish this weeks-old grocery business back to dining and events but says, “We’ll do this as long as it takes… if I didn’t do this I probably would have gone bankrupt in both places.” In the meantime, he looks forward to re-opening a refurbished Pushkin, prepped for the expected realities post-shutdown dining. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to open up the cleanest restaurant in the county!”