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Shahan Der Ohannesian

Episode 051

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The Heart behind Lee's Hoagie House

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About Shahan Der Ohannesian

Shahan Der Ohannesian was born and grew up in Lebanon, moving from city to city and trying to avoid the wars as much as possible. He stayed with his mother in Lebanon while his siblings were in California. When he was 16, his mother decided it was time for him to join his siblings in the United States. Staying with his sister and brother-in-law, Shahan learned how to make his dream a goal and how to pursue that goal. Starting from a dishwasher going to busboy, server, and then as a cook for other restaurants, Shahan eventually opened his own. At 29 years old, Shahan opened Lee’s Hoagie House in Pasadena, which has been going strong for more than 25 years. When he was 37, he had his first heart attack due to the stress of his budding business, young marriage, and two small children. Shahan is looking forward to passing on the family business to his oldest son. Over the years, Lee’s Hoagie House has become a staple in the Pasadena community, even building lifetime relations with almost half their customers.

Location: 2269 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena

Website: leeshoagie.com

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Shahan Der Ohannesian Quotes

  • “I used to be shy, but the restaurant industry made me come out of my shell, and I enjoyed talking to people and learning about them.”
  • “My brother and sister were already in the United States, but my mother kept hearing how bad the teenagers were in the US, so she kept me with her. Eventually, she decided to let me come over.”
  • “He taught me that in order to accomplish something in your life, you have to dream and make it a goal.”
  • “The United States is heaven compared to many other places. We shouldn’t complain about the United States.”
  • Shahan was born in Lebanon and came to the US when he was 16. He went to high school in Pasadena and worked as a busboy after school. Originally, he wanted to be a dentist, but his love of being around people brought him back to the restaurant industry.
  • He worked his way up from busboy to dishwasher to server, to waiter, to short cook, and then decided it was time to open up his own place, Lee’s Hoagie House.
  • For 31 years, he’s been serving the residents of Pasadena and beyond, with 90% of his customers returning.

YOU’RE SO MUCH MORE THAN LEE’S HOAGIE HOUSE. YOU’RE LIKE THIS FIGURE OF PASADENA MORNING AND LUNCH. 

I was raised in Pasadena and went to high school here and at Pasadena City College. Everyone has known me as a busboy in other restaurants, and I’ve built those relationships.

lees-hoagie-house

DOES LEE’S HOAGIE HOUSE SERVE ONLY BREAKFAST AND LUNCH? 

Yes. We are open from 7 am to 5 pm every day except Sunday. That day is dedicated to my family and church.

WHAT IS YOUR CONNECTION TO THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY? 

I was born in Lebanon and came to the US when I was 16. I went to high school in Pasadena and worked as a busboy after school. I loved being around people but thought I wanted to be a dentist. 

After attending PCC, I realized I really liked people and wanted to continue in that environment.

I used to be shy, but the restaurant industry made me come out of my shell, and I enjoyed talking to people and learning about them.

I worked my way up from busboy to dishwasher to a server, to waiter, to short cook, and then I decided it was time to open up my own place.

ARE ANY OF THE RESTAURANTS YOU WORKED IN WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER STILL OPEN? 

None of them are open anymore.

DO YOU REMEMBER MUCH FROM LEBANON? 

Not really. I was pretty young, and it was a war-torn country. We kept moving from city to city until we reached the Damascus area, where we didn’t see a lot of wars.

My brother and sister were already in the United States, but my mother kept hearing how bad the teenagers were in the US, so she kept me with her. Eventually, she decided to let me come over.

WAS YOUR FAMILY ALREADY IN CALIFORNIA? 

They were. I lost my father when I was young, so I don’t remember him. The United States is heaven compared to many other places. We shouldn’t complain about the United States. 

DOES GROWING UP IN LEBANON GIVE YOU A BETTER APPRECIATION OF THE US? 

It does. I’ve always said you should travel abroad to appreciate this company.

I’ve traveled outside the US in the past four years, and I always appreciate coming back. I always tell my sons that they need to be grateful to be living in this country.

I’ve taken them to Europe, and they’ve seen firsthand how great our country is, and I always remind them how lucky we are and how hard I’ve worked to give them a better life.

YOUR CAREER PATH IS UNCOMMON. HOW OFTEN DO YOU HEAR OF SOMEONE LEARNING EVERY PHASE OF BUSINESS? 

That’s what I taught my oldest when he decided not to go to school. I taught him how to clean the restrooms, and now he will run the restaurant for the next 30 or 40 years.

You need to know every aspect of the business because you have to tell your employees what to do, and if you don’t know how to do it, they won’t know how to do it.

WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR WORK ETHIC FROM?

I got that from my brother-in-law. When I came here, I started working with him, and he never gave me a minute to waste my time. He taught me that in order to accomplish something in your life, you have to dream and make it a goal. 

He was like a father to me.

DID YOU LEARN HOW TO BE A DISHWASHER FROM HIM? 

I did. He also taught me how to save money, and I bought my first house when I was twenty-two years old. I was working and going to college full-time.

CAN YOU TELL US WHY YOU BROUGHT THE CHICKEN HOAGIE IN TODAY? 

We created the chicken hoagie by mistake. I was twenty-nine years old and wanted to go into the catering business, and I had a friend who wanted me to cater his wedding.

The next day, we had a surplus of chicken, and we needed to figure out what to do with it. So we started marinating the chicken and began serving it, and my customers were saying how it needed lettuce, mayonnaise, or this and that, and that’s how it became the chicken hoagie.

HOW MANY EMPLOYEES DID YOU HAVE WHEN YOU FIRST OPENED 31 YEARS AGO?

I had two employees, and I was the busboy; I used to mop the floors and would send my employee home after lunch because I couldn’t afford him for the entire day, and we had longer days.

I had to be the plumber and carpenter. I would stay until 9:30 pm and come back at 6 am. I loved it.

YOUR FAMILY GREW ALONG WITH YOUR BUSINESS? 

Yes, when I started, it was just me. Now I have a wife and two sons. I also had two heart attacks. 

YOU’VE HAD TWO HEART ATTACKS? 

Yeah, I had my first heart attack when I was thirty-seven. I think it was the stress of the business, and I had been married for three years and had a kid.

DID YOUR WIFE THINK YOU WORKED TOO MUCH? 

She did, but we were young and establishing a family. She has always been very supportive.

She worked in a law firm, and when I had my first heart attack, she left work for two weeks and helped at the restaurant. 

She would call me every night at the hospital and tell me how the customers would help her. They would clear tables and wash dishes. That’s when she said, “Now I know what kind of place you’ve created.”

WHEN WAS YOUR SECOND HEART ATTACK? 

It was two weeks ago. 

I felt it on Thursday night, and the following day, I had three breakfast catering, and I didn’t want to miss them.

A lot of my customers noticed that I wasn’t myself. After the Friday lunch rush, I felt severe chest pain and decided it was time to go to the hospital.

I was home by Sunday afternoon and back to work at 5:30 a.m. on Monday.

I had a 99% blockage, but I don’t have high blood pressure or cholesterol. I believe it’s just been the stress from the pandemic and trying to keep my business open.

HOW LONG WERE YOU CLOSED DOWN DURING THE PANDEMIC? 

I wasn’t closed officially. We were open for to-go orders, but my business dropped by 70% because we couldn’t do any catering.

It was tough, but we survived.

HOW MANY PEOPLE WORK FOR YOU TODAY? 

I have four people that work for me now, and I’m still there all day.

HOW MANY CUSTOMERS DO YOU RECOGNIZE? 

90% of my customers are repeat customers.

ARE YOU AFFECTED BY THE SLOWDOWN IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN? 

Absolutely. For example, I had an event I was catering, and they wanted a specific type of carrot. I promised them I would have it for them, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. 

I checked three places and called my vendor, but I couldn’t find this carrot.

I have another event coming up soon where I have to feed 8,000 people, and as of yesterday, we can’t find rice. Luckily, another vendor found some rice and was able to send me a limited amount of rice that should allow us to meet what we promised.

IN THE 31 YEARS YOU’VE BEEN OPE, DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WOULD CLOSE DOWN? I

I didn’t because I would never give up. It wasn’t in my dictionary.

DID YOU GO INTO THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS THINKING YOU’D BE WERE YOU’RE AT NOW? 

Yes. I wanted to be big but have only one location. This allows me to run a tight ship and keep the number of employees down, which eliminates a lot of headaches.

HOW DID YOU GET YOUR FRUSTRATION OUT? 

I get a lot of my frustration out by hiking the JPL trail or working out.

WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP FOR YOUR RESTAURANT? 

I want to grow my catering business. That is my goal. The restaurant alone doesn’t support my hobbies or traveling. 

SGV III

What Are Your Favorite Places in the San Gabriel Valley?

  1. The Huntington Library. I enjoy walking there and having tea.
  2. The hiking at JPL trails.
  3. The Descanso Garden.

 

WHERE IS THE RESTAURANT LOCATED, AND HOW CAN PEOPLE GET IN TOUCH WITH YOU? 

Lee’s Hoagie House is located in the heart of Pasadena at 2269 East Colorado BLVD.