Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 26, 2023
Is there a more iconic eating place in Evanston than Sarkis? Maybe not.
Located at 2632 Gross Point Road, a block north of Central Street, it has been serving up a wide variety of grilled food, including the famed Loretta sandwich, for more than half a century.
The original owner/operator was Sarkis Tashjian, “a larger than life personality,” as the menu bio describes him, famous for his energy and ebullience. “He would kiss all the girls and call out, ‘Hey, buddy!’ when he couldn’t remember your name,” recalled current owner Marla Cramin. He passed away in 2018 at age 86.
Tashjian came to Chicago from Jerusalem, a child of Armenian parents. “Sarkis was trained as a dentist,” according to the funeral home death notice. “When he arrived in the United States in 1958, he operated a carpet cleaning business before buying the Evanston Breakfast & Brunch Restaurant in 1965.” He utilized “his Armenian roots and his personal flair to parlay breakfast food into a breakfast experience for the next 35 years,” the menu bio says.
Cramin’s husband, restaurateur Jeff Cramin, joined Tashjian as a partner in 2000 after the city Health Department shut down the site for code violations. “Sarkis wasn’t one for following rules,” observed Cramin with a laugh.
Jeff ran it for a year and a half when he drowned in a tragic diving accident in 2002 off the coast of Bermuda.
Took over in 2012
For 10 years Sarkis was run by the Cramin family, until Marla Cramin took over sole responsibility in 2012.
With a master’s degree in psychology and another master’s in health systems, Cramin was concerned she might not have the skills to run a restaurant, she recalled. Plus the business was heavily in debt. “It was scary as hell when I took over,” she admitted. She almost gave up but for two things. One was “Jeff’s legacy,” as she called the operation. The second was her family: “I don’t know how to cook, I don’t like to cook,” she said of the dark days. “I just knew I had to keep going because I had three kids to raise.”
Once she started, she realized, “I liked it. And I wasn’t bad at it either!”
First thing she did was utilize her business school background to put together a spread sheet and repayment schedule. Because of the debt situation, she had to pay vendors in cash for months. Fortunately, her hard work, determination and management approach began to work. She said within six months the restaurant began to turn around.
The pandemic was another dark time. She met with Mayor Dan Biss to relay her concerns, telling him the city was giving her a hard time about the large heated tent she had put up to serve customers outside as well as the awning at the side of the building. She said Biss responded, “‘The city should be your partner, not prey on you.’ He was fantastic.”
During the pandemic Cramin didn’t take her usual salary, and although business has recovered somewhat, she still takes only a very small return. “I’m not sure we’ll ever return to pre-pandemic levels,” Cramin said.
All hail the Loretta
Cramin said the No. 1 menu item is the Loretta sandwich (melted white cheese, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, mayo on French bread, with a choice of bacon, ham, turkey, chorizo, carnitas or veggie), named after one of Tashjian’s girlfriends. Orange Fanta is the drink of choice with a Loretta. Price? $9, or $13 with a side of hash browns.
The restaurant is often jammed, especially on weekends, with people coming from all over the North Shore. Among them are many Evanston Township High School and New Trier kids, who find Sarkis one of the few congenial meeting sites to mix. Cramin called it “a neutral zone. The kids tell each other, ‘Don’t mess with Sarkis,’ and they don’t.”
The experience of going there for the first time is often indelible, as described by Ric Gibbs in a reminiscence on Tashjian’s funeral home website in June of 2018. “I met Sarkis when I was sixteen. Friends who had been up all night spoke with reverence of the morning meal they’d found in a little corner of Evanston, and the man there who did wonders with eggs and sausage at 5 a.m. Soon afterwards, I made my own pilgrimage up to this truck-stop caf. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Like most North Shore kids, I suspect, I was unprepared for the great burst of hospitality that greeted me when I crossed that threshold. “Come. Sit. Eat some food, you look hungry. Don’t worry, we feed you here. We feed everybody.” And so he did. For the next several years, all through high school and most of college, I returned to that diner countless times and feasted on so much more than eggs and sausage.”
Cramin has five full-time employees, several of whom have been with the establishment since the early days. One of them, Nico Hernandez, even has the distinction of having his own menu item: Niko’s Huevos a la Mexican for $12.50. Ingredients: scrambled eggs with onions, tomatoes and jalapeños.