Near East rice pilaf which is a blend of rice, spices and toasted pasta, has been popular in the United States ever since an Armenian woman started the company in 1962 in Worcester, MA as a small, family-owned business, which went on to become a billion-dollar multinational corporation.
In an article published on The Boston Globe, author Keith Pandolfi remembers the salty, nutty mix of rice and toasted orzo along with its accompanying paper flavor pack of onion, garlic, and bouillon.
The company itself was started out of an Armenian grocery store in Worcester and was the brainchild of one of America’s most unsung female entrepreneurs, an Armenian immigrant named Hannah Kalajian. And while her story once appeared on every box of Near East, these days it’s largely been forgotten.
In her out-of-print autobiography, “Hannah’s Story” (Armenian Heritage Press; 1990), Kalajian writes that she was born Heranoush (Armenian for “sweet fire”) Gartatzoghian (Armenian for “reader”), one of five children, in Duzce, Turkey, in 1910; that in 1915, her father, Mateos, a beloved local butcher, was taken away to a labor camp by Turkish soldiers, where he would perish. By 1920, Kalajian and her family were forced to flee their hometown as word spread that the Turks were coming and the realities of what’s now known as the Armenian genocide became all the more palpable. Her mother, Cohar, knew that if they didn’t leave Duzce right away, they would face the same fate her husband did. Or even worse.
After securing refuge in Constantinople, Cohar, unable to care for all her children, placed Kalajian in an orphanage. They would reunite a year later only to flee the Turks again, this time to Lebanon. In 1924, Kalajian secured passage on an ocean liner bound for New York, where she lived with a married older sister. She applied for a job at Bloomingdale’s, and when the hiring manager couldn’t pronounce “Heranoush,” she changed her name to Hannah. Soon after, she met George Kalajian, a family friend and fellow genocide survivor. After a 10-day courtship, they married and, by the early 1940s, ended up in Worcester, where George opened an Armenian grocery store and luncheonette called George’s Spa and Market. While the luncheonette started out selling mostly coffee and doughnuts (its most avid customers being the employees of a nearby lumber mill), it expanded to daily specials of chop suey, beef stew, baked beans, and Armenian rice pilaf, a customer favorite.
It was Kalajian’s favorite, too. After all, pilaf had always played a special role in her life; just the idea of it nourishing her through the turmoil of her childhood. While enduring the 100-mile walk from Duzce to Constantinople, her mother provided her starving children a glimmer of hope by setting an imaginary pot over an imaginary fire, and stirring it. “Now the pilaf is cooking,” she would say. “It will be ready soon! . . . Can you smell it?” In her book, Kalajian writes that the tactic worked. “I am sure I can smell the hot pilaf and see the glow of the flames,” she writes. “Somehow it is easier to go to sleep with the taste of home in our heads.”
It took her a year,” her daughter Carol Kasparian told me on the phone recently. “She researched every aspect of the business. She talked to the rice commissioner to learn more about packaging; she learned about shelf life — she even designed the box!” Originally, the pilaf was made in the market’s second-story apartment with dried brown rice, broken vermicelli noodles, and Lipton chicken stock. “It was a real Mickey Mouse operation,” Kasparian remembers. “All these Armenian ladies working in that tiny room.”
To market their product, Kalajian relied on Kasparian (her only child still living at home) to drive her to grocery stores and markets all over the East Coast with a card table and an electric pot packed in the trunk for cooking demos. “Even though Mom had a license, she was always afraid to drive,” says Kasparian. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and before long, hundreds of Stop & Shops, Star Markets, and even the Macy’s in New York City were carrying it. “We had articles in papers, and it seemed like food writers were always doing stories about us,” says Kasparian.
After outgrowing the small bedroom above the market, Near East relocated to a larger space in Worcester, and then, in 1977 a plant in Leominster. By the 1980s, Near East was among the top-10 best-selling supermarket items in Boston.
Kasparian, who lives in Northborough, has been out of the rice business for a long time.
When asked what she thought about the billion-dollar multinational corporation her mother’s small Worcester-based business is today, she voiced but one concern: While Kalajian’s story is still mentioned on Near East’s website, her name no longer appears on the packaging as it once did. “I worry that most people who buy it now don’t know who she is,” she says. “Or who she was.”
Near East was sold to the H.J. Heinz Co. in 1986, and is now owned by PepsiCo.