When Agnes Saghatelian first started attending industry trade shows as president of her family’s baking company, she saw firsthand how male-dominated the food industry was.
“Men, primarily, would approach me and say, ‘Can I speak to your president?’ And I’d reply, ‘I am the president,’ and their eyes would just fly right open with surprise. Then I’d hand them my business card, they’d look at it carefully, and then say, ‘OK!'”
That actually didn’t come as much of a surprise to Agnes. “My mother dealt with that same situation for years, and when I’d attend shows with her, men just assumed that there was a man standing behind my mother who was doing the job. The truth is, there wasn’t — it was all her.”
Passing the torch
Agnes is a third-generation owner of the Valley Lahvosh Baking Company, which was started in 1922 by her grandfather, Gazair Saghatelian, a master baker in his native Armenia. For 100 years, the Saghatelian family has been creating deliciously different breads and crackerbreads in Fresno, California, all in the same location, 502 M Street.
Gazair had six children, and when he died in 1982, his daughter, Janet, took the helm of the bakery, with the goal of carrying on the family business. She did, splendidly.
Under Janet’s watchful and creative eye, she put the company on the map with the heart-shaped cracker. After that product became well-known, she created other shapes, including stars, minis, and trees.
Agnes spent her childhood helping her mom out in the bakery, and after graduating from Fresno State in 1993, she knew exactly what she wanted to do: “Go to work, officially, for my mom and our business.”
She worked closely at her mom’s side until the latter’s passing in 2010, at which time Agnes became president of Valley Lahvosh Baking Company. “For all those years, I was my mother’s sounding board and confidante, and her closest advisor, so I was prepared to take the lead after she died. But, wow, I had huge shoes to fill.”
Behind every great business is a greater woman
Agnes is celebrating her own anniversary this year — 30 years with Valley Lahvosh Baking Company. But, looking back, she realizes how challenging things were.
“At the beginning of taking charge, and I think I can speak for anyone who takes over a family business, there’s self-doubt, anxiety, and some trepidation about being able to handle the job. I think that’s natural, but the only way to make it work is to dive in and continue to move forward,” Agnes advises.
She also recommends anyone who’s starting or taking over a business, whether it’s a family one or not, to listen to what people have been saying for years.
“To succeed, it is vital to have self-confidence and to trust your instincts. You just need to stay motivated, be in a healthy and right frame of mind, and make sure to keep investing your time, money, and energy in the company, its people, and its business partners.”
For Agnes, that has meant expanding the company’s relationships, looking for opportunities within the food world. Valley Lahvosh sells to a variety of industries, including food service for hotels and restaurants, and retail (including grocery stores), and also manufactures for other private labels.
Agnes has also slowly acclimated her own daughter, Danielle, to the business. “I encourage her to do anything she wants in her life, even if that doesn’t include working here,” Agnes stresses. “She’s only a teenager, but she does help out and asks questions about what’s going on.”
More importantly, Agnes hopes that she’s setting a good example for her daughter. “I think she sees how much work I put into the business,” Agnes says. “I also think she’s becoming aware of all the responsibility I have, as well as how accountable I am to all the work and to our wonderful team that I lead.
“At the beginning of taking charge, and I think I can speak for anyone who takes over a family business, there’s self-doubt, anxiety, and some trepidation about being able to handle the job.”Agnes Saghatelian, President, Lahvosh Baking Company
“I think she also sees that, as a single mom, I am juggling being the head of the company with being the mom of our household. My daughter sees how much work I do on a daily basis and after hours. I know how important it is to make sure she gets the right amount of attention.
“There are times, though, when I’ve had to be honest with her, after some really long days, and just tell her that mom is tired. But I think this is important, to make time for her and to make sure we do things together. I’m lucky that we communicate well. I just hope I’m doing things that make her proud.”
On a roll
Does Agnes think her mom would be proud of her and where she’s taken the business? “Oh, she would be so proud. Oh my gosh, she was my biggest supporter and cheerleader,” Agnes says fondly. “My mom would have loved every second of our 100th anniversary celebration that that included special sales and store hours, a party, and a proclamation by the mayor of Fresno!”
A lot has changed for the century-old company that Janet didn’t get to see, including all the beautiful photographs posted to social media featuring charcuterie boards and the clever ways they show off their hearts, stars, and tree shapes.
“Mom would get such a kick out of all the wonderful comments people leave. She’d be thrilled with it all, and that makes me so happy.”