CHICAGO -- Pizza. It’s a food so good it holds a special place in the hearts of many.
But for Gary Vartabedian, this delicious cuisine serves a much higher purpose.
Vartabedian is the proud owner of the Armand’s Pizzeria branch located in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, and since its opening four years ago, he has donated thousands of pizzas to local non-profits, hospitals and schools.
"The pizzeria has evolved to be a charitable vehicle. We take a lot of pride in doing good things in the neighborhood," he said.
Vertabedian hasn’t always been known as a "pizza guy." In fact, his story is one of reinvention.
Growing up on the city’s Northwest Side, Vartabedian had some goals in mind.
“My passion was to open up a little hot dog stand, or pizzeria," he said.
But instead, Vartabedian pursued the corporate world and began working on Wall Street in the 1970s. He eventually became a bond salesman for Merrill Lynch, where he worked for 33 years. But in 2009 as the country was going through financial crisis, he took an early retirement package.
“I was too young to retire at the age of 55," he said. "I started looking for other things to engage with my life.”
With little knowledge of the restaurant industry, Vartabedian traded in his suit and tie for an apron and hat.
He opened Armand’s -- a dream, decades in the making.
“It’s a dream come true, it’s fun to come in every day and feed people and talk to people," Vartabedian said. "Wall Street was a different type of business. It was a job you work every day, 9-5, you get a paycheck. This job is a little different. more fulfilling.”
Since opening Armand’s, Vartabedian has become a staple in the community because of his charitable donations.
“He has just has this great, big welcoming personality," said Lindsay Eanet, Director for the North Center Chamber of Commerce. "You can tell he really cares about his business, the neighborhood. He’s the guy. Gary is the guy."
Just recently he helped ring in the new year at Lil Kickers -- a soccer program for kids -- providing food and drinks to the little ones.And the list goes on, with donations to St. Jude’s Hospital, St. Benedict’s Parish, and non-profits like Misericordia and the Brotherhood for Fallen Heroes.
All of this, adding up to thousands of pizza pies.
"It makes me feel great. And then when I come back, the people that are preparing the food feel good about it. So it’s a great experience being here and being a part of what we try and do and what we try and give back," Vartabedian said.
Give a lot, take a little: It’s a business model that has given Vartabedian a well-deserved reputation.
“It’s people like Gary that build communities. Small business owners are really the economic backbone of the community like this,” Eanet said.
And he does it all, from washing dishes to making pizzas. He even makes deliveries -- a far cry from his days on Wall Street.
"I think that if you’re humble and don’t have a big ego, you can do these things and feel good about it," Vartabedian said. "I’m at a place in my life now where these things are good for me. I enjoy it. It’s fun."
Vartabedian’s generosity goes beyond Armand’s.
He’s also involved in St. Benedict’s Protégé Internship Program, where he uses his experiences on Wall Street to help prepare students for life after graduation.
Gary Vartabedian. He’s one of Chicago’s Very Own.