Saipanpreneurs of the Week: Victor and Linda Balian
Saipanpreneurs of the Week: Victor and Linda Balian
The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!
In last week’s column, I made the suggestion that Saipan (and of course, the entire CNMI) could achieve a brand identity as a place of health, healthy lifestyle and/or eating. As a result, I received quite a few suggestions to meet and get to know a special couple who already seem to be leading the movement to achieve just that.
Meet Victor and Linda Balian, owners of the Golden Lobster Restaurant, located on the Chalan Lau Lau end of Middle road opposite the NMPASI building, a few yards down from TicToc. Syrian-born Victor, and his wife Linda, originally from Iraq, are now proud U.S. citizens who took over the Golden Lobster in May of this year. (They’ll be changing the name of the restaurant very soon to the Magic Lamp to reflect its new Mediterranean menu.)
So, how and when did the two of you meet?
Victor: “My sister is good friends with Linda. She introduced us back in 1986. I think we met in a hospital for about 10 seconds. But she was married to the “other guy,” [Linda smiles] so we were just acquaintances. We didn’t get to know each other better until after Linda divorced. So I’d say we really met and started getting serious in 1995.
How did you end up on Saipan?
Victor: It was business initially. In 1996, I was made a great job offer by a major construction company. So we’ve been here for 10 years now.
You mentioned you’re Armenian, born in Syria. Would you explain that please?
Victor: “Armenian is an ethnicity I’m very proud of. It’s just like here someone might be of Chamorro or Carolinian blood, but born on Saipan, I’m of Armenian blood, born in Syria.
Why a restaurant? Is that a mutual passion?
Victor: My wife is a very good cook. It’s her passion to cook.
Linda: A few months ago, we were sitting home. We had both lost our jobs, and were deciding what we were going to do next. Should we leave the island? Should we stay? We love Saipan, so we decided to stay.”
Now even though you serve a wide range of meals including chicken and beef, yours is the first I’ve seen with such an extensive vegetarian menu. Why is that?
Victor: My wife has been vegetarian for six years now. Since we’ve been here on Saipan, it’s been a little difficult to find restaurants that really understand what that means. I remember once we were in a restaurant and ordered vegetable soup. When the soup came, we saw it had shrimp in it. Linda is also allergic to seafood. So we told the waitress that we ordered a vegetable soup and showed her the shrimp. She took it back to the kitchen. A few seconds later, she came back, put the soup on the table, and we noticed that the shrimp was still in the soup. She said, “Chef says, ‘don’t worry, no charge for shrimp!’”
So what makes YOUR restaurant special?
Linda: What we serve in here is very unique. You cannot find it anywhere on the island, and nowhere in the Pacific for that matter. Nobody has what we have here. We’re representing Mediterranean food, from our countries, so we go to special lengths to make our food taste just right.
Victor: See those 50lb bags of there? That’s bulgur wheat. I import it myself. It’s a regular part of people’s diet where I come from.
Linda: Bulgur wheat is very low in carbohydrates. No starch, so it’s great for people who are diabetic. It comes in different sizes, so you can use it for many types of dishes, including as a rice substitute.
Victor: We get exotic Mediterranean spices for our dishes, many that you can’t find anywhere even in the states. And my wife mixes her own spices.
Linda: There’s no MSG in our food either.
Victor: My wife makes a homemade chocolate yogurt that kids really like; kids really like the chocolate, and there’s no sugar in it, and it’s healthy. We also make homemade pickles.
Linda: And if there’s any cheese or butter in any of the dishes, I make sure the saturated fat is less than 3 percent.
Speaking of saturated fat, you mentioned something very impressive about that when we spoke earlier. Could you share that with our readers?
Linda: Well, I brought my cholesterol level down myself without any medication. It was 260; now it’s 190…just by eating pretty much what we serve here.
Victor: My wife also has a diploma in Fitness and Nutrition, AND she’s a Herbalife distributor, so if anyone needs it, she can put them on a diet and help them make money at the same time! [Laughs]
Linda: Let’s see….Our pita bread is home-made. I mix my own baking powder.
Victor: And we make our own ketchup! With low sugar!
Now Victor, you’re not vegetarian. How do manage at home?
Victor: Well it’s just like on our menu, there’s food for the vegetarian and food for the meat eaters. We’re not out to change anyone, but just want to give people different choices every now and then that they might find tasty.
Linda: Being vegetarian is just my personal choice. We started raising animals here on Saipan. And as I got closer to the animals, I just couldn’t chew on them anymore! Everytime I think about it, I hear our goat crying in my mind.
Victor: My wife asks me ‘how can you eat that? Don’t you remember Bambi? Don’t you hear the goat crying?’ I say, ‘yes, I’m crying too, but I’m hungry!’
And just in case people think a healthy diet isn’t just as delicious as what they eat now, tell us some of the feedback you’ve gotten.
Victor: We had a group come in the other day, and when they had our Shawarma [Mediterranean dish popular throughout Asia.], they said they never tasted Shawarma like ours!
Most of our clients who are doctors from CHC and other places are regular customers.
Linda: People taste our hummus, and say, ‘We never ate humus like this.’ That makes me happy, because I give the dish as much as it takes to be perfect. If I cut back on the lemon, or on the tahini, it won’t taste the same.
[On their way out, two diners from NMC complimented Victor on the food. Just then, another customer, Jack Stokes of the TSA, came in and greeted us. I decided to find out for myself what people liked about the Golden Lobster. I asked Mr. Stokes:] Why do you come here?
Jack: “I love the Shawarma! It’s different, tastier…. the lunch specials are reasonable, I like the atmosphere, and the customer service is fantastic.”
And I understand you do all the cooking yourself, Linda? Wow, talk about passion!
Linda: I’ll give the food as much as it takes. There is a big difference in the food whether you spend 10 minutes or two hours preparing like I do. There’s a difference whether you use canned vegetables or fresh like we do, soy sauce or real spices like we do. I only use virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar in our salads. If it is expensive, it doesn’t matter. The quality of the food is what comes first in my list. This is how I am. If it takes expensive, exotic spices, that’s what I use. What I’m sharing is a traditional and cultural way to cook. I cannot just make shortcuts.
[During the interview, Linda got up a few times to go the kitchen.] I notice how involved you are in the cooking. Are you training anyone to take over for you?
Linda: In my country, we say, "It’s the hand." The unique way the food tastes is in the cook’s “hands”; it’s the spirit of the cook that you taste. It’s a talent, passed from one person to another. I got it from my mother, and she got it from her mother. When I cook, I don’t even have measurements, my measuring cup is my hand. And I don’t even taste the food. I know how it tastes just from the smell. So I cannot train someone. I’m not trying to be selfish, but it’s just that the quality of the food will suffer, because they have different hands.
[While I was there, a couple walked in, sat down, looked at the menu, but left shortly afterwards. I asked Victor about it.] Why did that couple leave?
Victor: She [Angel, the waitress on duty] told me they wanted a certain pork dish. We don’t serve pork. Not because of religious reasons, but because it’s not healthy. That’s been proven.
Linda: I come from a different corner. I cannot change my quality or serve certain dishes just to get more customers. I can prepare a dish of humus much cheaper but I would rather close. These are my principles in the kitchen, and I cannot change it.
Follow your passion and stick to your principles. That seems like great advice for everyone. Victor, any advice for other entrepreneurs?
Victor: Pay attention to every detail in your business. You may need to alter your expenditures in hard times, but be patient for better times to come!
Experience Linda’s Mediterranean cooking passion every day from 8am to 2pm, and from 6pm to 10pm. (Lunch specials start at 11am). Contact Victor and Linda at the Golden Lobster (soon to be Magic Lamp) at 670 234-765. Visit www.magiclamprestaurant.com for more information.
* * *
Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!--Walt