By Aram Arkun
BELMONT, Mass. – Lately more and more restaurants in the Boston area seem to be offering shawarma and other Middle Eastern foods, but Ani Catering and Café in Belmont has a combination of spices in its mix that make its chicken shawarma different from the others. It has become the top-selling menu item for the business – and a weekly addiction for this journalist. Ani’s range of Syrian and Armenian dishes and its warm and welcoming staff have made it a mainstay for many non-Armenians as well as Armenians living in Belmont and surrounding towns.
Ani was established in 1993 as a part-time catering company by Hovannes Janessian together with his wife the eponymous Ani. Janessian, born in Aleppo, studied economics in college in Syria and worked for nine years in Saudi Arabia in sales of electronics before coming to the United States in 1988. He worked again in electronics in New York for three years before starting a food distribution company, specializing in Middle Eastern ingredients. He stopped the distribution business in 1995 and worked in a different field of sales until 2005, but continued catering part-time on weekends.
In 2006, Hovannes Janessian turned the catering business into a fulltime one, and moved to the present location in Belmont. His wife still helps when needed. Ani and Hovannes Janessian developed the recipes. Customers asked for takeout and so in May 2012 Hovannes Janessian expanded the business, while in October 2014 he was able to turn part of his store into a sit-down restaurant.
There are 16 seats inside, and 8 more outside during the summer. The interior of the restaurant has pictures of Yerevan, Aleppo and various Middle Eastern and Greek cities, along with a television slide show of functions catered by the business in the past. The apricot and red colored walls are covered with a painted stylized Mt. Ararat.
Son Ari has always helped in the catering business, but he began to work fulltime with the takeout business. His father proudly said, “We owe the success of the takeout business to his efforts and outgoing personality.” Aside from father and son, there are two more fulltime employees, and one part-time driver for evening deliveries. The business is open at present from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Hovannes Janessian said that people in the area are familiar with Armenian and Middle Eastern food, so it is in great demand. Ani Catering and Café has participated in the Watertown-Belmont Chamber of Congress annual food festival, garnering more exposure.
Customers now come from as far afield as Concord, Lexington and Wellesley, while the catering business ranges over all of eastern Massachusetts, even going into neighboring Rhode Island occasionally. Events for up to 600 people have been catered, including both corporate and family or social occasions indoors and out. Ani Catering has a trailer with a portable grill, so onsite cooking can easily be arranged. Advice for event planners can be provided concerning photographers, music and entertainment.
Hovannes Janessian explained that “freshness is our secret. We use only natural ingredients, with no preservatives or processed food.” They replace the chicken stacked on the spit or vertical rod for shawarma three times a day, so it is always fresh, while falafel is fried only after it has been ordered. The garlic sauce or “toum” is always in demand. It is only made of pure ingredients. Hovannes exclaimed, “If it was up to me, I would even eat it with ice cream!” Hovannes categorized his food as endowed in general with full, robust flavor.
Chicken and lamb kebab are among Ani’s other popular dishes, as is a salad made of pomegranate juice and eggplant. One unusual item is catered five or six times a year primarily for show on special occasions like weddings: a whole lamb is cooked in the store oven and its belly stuffed. It is taken to the event and guests can pull off desired pieces of meat.
Desserts include paklava, katayif and moushabak as well as apple and strawberry pie and cookies. New items are periodically brought onto the menu, and Hovannes’s travels to Armenia and the Middle East often lead to new culinary approaches.
With Ani Catering and Café so successful, Hovannes Janessian now is planning a second restaurant and takeout place in a different town in the region. He declared that as he and his family are a part of the Armenian community, Ani supports all organizations that need its help, whether through food, donations or volunteer work.
It is located at 687 Belmont St., Belmont.