Rita Iskenderian

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Los Angeles Daily News, CA June 3 2006

Senate honors local restaurateur BY ALEX DOBUZINSKIS, Staff Writer

Rita Iskenderian was born in Syria, married in Beirut during a civil war and started running a restaurant business as a widow. But she had never visited the capital of her adopted state - until this week. On Tuesday, Iskenderian flew to Sacramento to be honored for the success of her six Zankou Chicken restaurants, including locations in Glendale, Van Nuys and Burbank. State Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, chose Zankou for the 2006 Small Business Award for his 21st Senate District.

Over the years, Iskenderian, 50, has dealt with tragedy. But being applauded on the Senate floor was almost enough to get her talking like a teenager.

"I was stunned. They took me there and they stopped the meeting and all the senators clapped," she said a day after the experience. "Can you believe that? I was going to die."

Scott's office said it chose Zankou because it was looking for a small business that had left its mark on the district.

"With six restaurants in Southern California - three of which are in the district - Zankou Chicken has been a leader in the local business community," Scott said in a prepared statement. "Hers is an immigrant story of hard work and perseverance."

Iskenderian, who spends much of her time driving between the various Zankou locations handling day-to-day operations, took over the business after the violent 2003 death of her husband, Mardiros Iskenderian.

He shot his mother and sister before taking his own life in an apparent dispute police say could have been aggravated by judgment-clouding cancer medication.

Now, Rita Iskenderian, along with her four sons, runs six Zankou locations. A seventh in Hollywood, where the business started in 1984, belongs to her sister-in-law.

Speaking in Zankou's 3-month-old Burbank location, Iskenderian said she knows about adversity.

"Life itself is a challenge; every day is a challenge," she said. "But you have to be strong to conquer everything."

On April 24, 2005, a vandal splashed red paint on Zankou's Glendale location because the Armenian-American business happened to be open the day Armenians commemorate the 1915 genocide.

That location was also robbed by the same man twice within a year - once in September 2004 and again the following July. The suspect has not been caught, Iskenderian said.

But even as she has faced challenges, Iskenderian has been reinventing Zankou, named after a river in Armenia.

The Burbank spot, with its stone and tile work and painted interior dome, is more in line with the way she wants any future restaurants she opens to look - upscale instead of just functional.

Iskenderian's son, Dikran, talks about opening a Zankou in New York City.

She goes further, dreaming of having a Zankou in every big American city.

But she also knows her limitations after having opened two locations recently.

"I need to a little bit rest," she said, "after those two stores in one year."

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