The story of Koko’s Mediterranean Cafe is no doubt a familiar one to Pasadena restaurant owners.
Imagine your successful restaurant—a long time destination for hundreds of local office workers on South Lake Avenue—suddenly closed to foot traffic. Not because you’re closed, but because there is no more foot traffic, and there hasn’t been any since the summer when LA County demanded an end to indoor restaurant dining, in an effort to stop the rapidly growing Covid-19 pandemic.
Reduced to fewer staff and fewer hours, the restaurant, which will quietly celebrate 24 years in business this week, has bravely persevered through the crisis, every day a small battle to keep the doors open.
As family owner Nora Manougian-Bogharian told Pasadena Now over the weekend, the café was established by her in-laws, Krikor, lovingly known as “Koko,” and wife Sosy Bogharians, in 1996.
Mr. Bogharians, like so many others, had migrated with his young family from Lebanon in pursuit of his own American Dream.
They decided to open the first location at The Paseo, then known as Paza Pasadena, serving authentic homemade Lebanese meals.
They moved to their current location on Shoppers Lane, east of Lake Avenue,
In 2000. Sadly, Mr. Bogharians passed away in 2016.
“My dad was very exacting, and he was sort of a perfectionist,” recalled his son, Shant Bogharian, who spent many summers and long weekends in college and high school, helping out at the restaurant.
“He had this image of what he wanted all the Lebanese food to be like,” Shant continued, sitting out on the empty patio Saturday afternoon, as a slow but steady stream of customers and delivery persons picked up orders.
“And he basically incorporated all the flavors and all the recipes that he enjoyed while he was growing up,” said Shant. “And of course, my mom also gave him some feedback about what to do with different dishes. And here we are.”
But then the world shut down.
“When the pandemic happened,” Shant recalled, “the first thing we had to do was stop indoor service. We stopped doing even the outside patio. We were just doing takeout and delivery and for the most part, it kind of helped, but with the sudden lack of offices around us, and the lack of schools or anything else, our business dove, maybe 90%. It was an unprecedented thing, it was uncharted territory.”
But Shant was struck by another notion, the realization, that his customers were struggling as well. They might no longer be able to afford to come back regularly, he thought.
As he recalled, “My community is not doing well. They’re not going to come in here. And as much as I was trying to find different ways to shore up the business going, it was incredibly difficult because there was just no foot traffic. What we were used to was completely gone.”
According to Shant, the business is still down, anywhere between 40 to 60% from regular business. But, he emphasizes, they’re still standing.
As he said Saturday, “I’d like people to know that we’re a family owned business. We’ve been here for about 24 years and it’s been tough and thankfully, because of (the community’s) support so far, we’ve been able to keep that door open, and I’m hoping that maybe by reminding them and trying to reach out to them, that they’ll continue to do that because I still want to be here. And I still want to be a part of this community because this community has given me so much. And after my father’s passing, a lot of them did so much to help me out. And now it’s just, it’s hard to tell me that this sort of thing gets taken away.”
Heading back to the counter after our interview, he prepares a meal for me to take home.
“Please,” he insists, “Whatever you want. Something to drink?” Behind him, a small group of workers are prepping chicken kabobs, and filling to-go boxes with fresh salads.
Having been delayed heading home, once there I excitedly lifted the lid on the packaging, and the melange of flavors from the beef kabob plate rose up to greet me, as if the food had been prepared only moments ago. Meals like this—that I could barely finish in one sitting—would be a tough thing for the community to lose.
Even tougher would be the loss of yet another local restaurant, lovingly cared for and maintained by its owners for 24 years.
Koko’s Mediterranean Cafe is at 273 Shoppers Lane, Pasadena, CA. Delivery is available through Grubhub and DoorDash. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open Saturday, 11-3 p.m. Closed Sunday. Kokosmediterraneancafe.com. (626) 793-8844.