Nearly two million Iranians (both immigrants and their offspring) call the United States home, yet many of these people don’t have direct access to the ingredients and dishes inherent to their Persian heritage. That’s where Marietta resident Arezoo Armaghan and her online grocery store Persian Basket come into play.
Armaghan immigrated to Georgia in 1995 to pursue a doctorate in pharmacy at the University of Georgia. Since receiving her degree, she’s met her husband, had a family, and worked at Emory University Hospital and Northside Hospital. Yet, something was missing from the life she had spent years building here in America: the food she grew up with in Iran.
Excluding cities like Los Angeles, the Iranian population in the United States is spread far and wide. Armaghan and Iranians who live in metro Atlanta are lucky. They have easy access to Persian restaurants and grocery stores in driving distance from their homes or even within their neighborhoods. But many communities with high Iranian populations around America do not have direct access to Persian grocery stores or ingredients.
“Some of us have to drive three or four hours to find substitute ingredients,” she says.
Armaghan conceptualized Persian Basket in 2013 with her husband Mansoor “Max” Lofti, owner of Divan Restaurant & Bar in Buckhead. Persian Basket officially launched in 2015, and the first order (two packs of tea) was placed within hours.
Persian Basket strictly sells Persian items—no substitutes, no compromises. Much of the goods sold on the site come directly from Iran. Armaghan stocks the inventory like a typical Persian kitchen, but gives a lot of leverage to her favorite products—dried Persian baby limes, blue rock salt from the northern province of Semnan, rose tea infused with saffron and cardamom. If she doesn’t personally know the product, it’s been recommended or requested by her customers.
In 2016, Armaghan decided to add homemade, ready-to-eat meals to Persian Basket’s roster. She felt authentic Persian cuisine, especially fresh food, was something the community was missing in America. Traditional Persian dishes are notoriously time-consuming. Ghormeh sabzi, a stew loaded with parsley, cilantro, soaked red kidney beans, and lamb or beef, can take anywhere from three hours to one day depending on how finely the herbs are chopped and washed. Ingredients such as barberries or imported Persian pistachios are often unavailable.
The next step was finding an authentic Persian chef. After connecting with Peyman Rostami—master chef of Mix Cafe in Erbil, Kurdistan, master chef of Shandiz in Muscat, Oman and, most recently, the personal chef to Oman’s royal family—Armaghan and Lofti helped the chef immigrate from Dubai. Armaghan says she and Rostami spend about a week coming up with each menu item in the kitchen of Lofti’s Piedmont Road restaurant Divan. “We cook it at least seven or eight times to make sure the spices are up to par,” she explains.
Rostami is now the head chef at Divan, in addition to assisting Armaghan in Persian Basket’s test kitchen.
In Iran, spice intensity varies regionally. Armaghan and Rostami hail from different cities in the country—Mashad and Tehran, respectively. Most Persian spices come from Mashad. Cooks in that region tend to add a greater volume of spice to their food. Armaghan and Rostami work to balance the spice level in each dish they prepare. Then, they’ll add something to keep customers coming back.
“I wanted to give Persian Basket and the food a twist, a flair – something that you cannot easily create at home,” she says. “Something that you eat and always remember and always crave.”
As soon as the ready-made meals went live on the site, there was excitement over the new offering. “They’re just like us,” Armaghan says of Persian Basket’s customers. “They don’t have time or energy to cook, but still want to feed their families nutritious and authentic meals.” She says, however, approximately 30 percent of their clientele are non-Persians who have fallen in love with the cuisine.
The team has worked to add seasonal and holiday items—monthly specials of dishes like abgoosht, a thick soup with noodles; gojeh sabz, sour plums for once the weather warms up; or sweets and decorations for Nowruz, the Persian new year—to give their customers an opportunity to experience all the nostalgic foods they’ve missed from their childhood.
Up until May, when President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, Armaghan and Lofti were ordering goods straight from Iran with no problem. The sanctions implemented on August 7, however, have complicated things. Some of Persian Basket’s most popular items, such as candies, cookies, nougats, Persian pistachios, and fruit rolls, were directly imported from Iran. Unless the procedures change, Persian Basket won’t be able to access or distribute them.
Despite those limitations, Persian Basket is still growing. Three years after Armaghan and Lofti launched the site, Persian Basket is now shipping its foods and ingredients worldwide. The site can ship anywhere in the United States within 48 hours. The couple recently opened a second facility in Santa Ana, California to better serve the western U.S.
“People are so happy we exist because now we have made something possible for them that was impossible before.”
Should business continue upward, Armaghan is looking into the option of opening additional facilities in Texas, and even in Canada.
1700 Cumberland Point Dr SE, Suite 25-26, Marietta.
3025 South Harbor Blvd. Santa Ana, California. persianbasket.com
Divan Restaurant & Bar, 3125 Piedmont Road NE, Atlanta. divanatlanta.com