PHILADELPHIA — For many Armenians, food is one of the most fundamental elements of their identity. Thus, making Armenian food accessible and known in the United States contributes in a modest way toward preserving an aspect of Armenian culture, and Monica Whitcomb and the Sun-Ni Cheese Company play a role in that process. The Sun-Ni Cheese Company, located in Wayne, a suburb of Philadelphia, is one of the leading makers of Armenian string cheese in the United States.
The company was founded through the efforts of Kosrof Der Ohanessian, an Armenian native of Arapgir or Arapkir in the Ottoman Empire. As a young boy who lost most of his family in the Armenian Genocide, he came to the US in 1925 via Cuba and Canada. He had some distant relatives in Philadelphia, which at the time was a big center for Arapkir Armenians. He worked at a variety of jobs for several decades
until he was able to open a delicatessen with a friend in the 1960s. Even before this, he and a friend would make string cheese in his kitchen for fellow Armenians. However, according to his granddaughter, Monica Whitcomb, he began to experiment and tried to Americanize its taste. It was too salty and
unpalatable to Americans initially. He made his cheese from whole milk, and included black nigella seeds and the spice mahleb for flavor. Der Ohanessian began to sell his version in his deli.
The deli, in Center City or downtown Philadelphia, sold a variety of other Armenian and Middle Eastern foods, including lahmejun, börek, köfte and various Middle Eastern delights. Der Ohanessian’s wife, Mary Mazmanian, born in the United States, did much of the cooking, along with other relatives and some local Armenian women. The deli became a meeting place of sorts for local Armenians and was a successful busi- ness, but in 1973 Der Ohanessian’s partner wanted to retire and therefore the business was sold. Der Ohanessian was not ready to retire, and as a result, he began to focus on his string cheese, marketing it to more stores. He was so successful that he had to ask several of his daughters and their husbands to take it over.
This is how the Sun-Ni company was formed, named after the sisters Sonya and Nina. Later a third sister, Adrienne Seropian, and her husband also joined the company.
Kosrof Der Ohanessian passed away in the late 1970s. The cheese continued to be individually made in pots, but more and more women had to be hired, largely Armenians, to do the preparation in a new location which also had a retail store in the front. It was too small for the growing business and so they moved to a nearby larger location. The family bought a machine designed to make mozzarella which it modified for Armenian string cheese. Despite the machine, which cooks and softens the curds, each string cheese still had to be stretched and twisted by hand into the tradition braided shape. Another machine wrapped the finished cheese in plastic.
In the 1990s and then in 2001, Sonya Bulkey bought out her two sisters. In the late 1990s, She moved the manufacturing of the cheese to the factory in New Jersey which was already selling her the curds used to start the process. Bulkey’s daughter, Monica Whitcomb, who joined the firm in 2001, explained that they trained the mozzarella company to make string cheese, and at least once every two weeks she would visit to make sure quality was being maintained. The company delivered the finished product on a weekly basis. Having a factory pre- pare the cheese (which still is hand stretched and twisted) is more efficient, partly because of all the inspections and paperwork that complicate the work of a small food processing company.
Whitcomb eventually became the president of
the company, and her mother passed away in 2009, leaving her and her father as the sole owners. Whitcomb said that initially she did not intend to go into the family business, and in fact, she is the only one of the third generation in the family that did so. She explained: “After college, I worked for the American Red Cross in financial development. I got to go to Armenia and work over there for the Red Cross. After some years, when I saw the things happening at the company I felt I could do something positive there.”
She arranged for a redesign of the packaging of the cheese with an image of her grandfather, Kosrof, on the front in 2002, and introduced some new lines such as marinated string cheese. Whitcomb said that in addition to con- tinually striving to increase sales, she is still thinking of other products to produce. One that has been successful is hummus. She said, “My uncle used to make it for us for lunch, and I thought we should make it for sale. We are looking for other things like that — taking an Armenian or Middle Eastern delicacy and mak- ing it mainstream.”
A plant in Wilmington, Del., makes the hummus, as well as some of the cheese now too. The
Sun-Ni Cheese Company no longer directly sells any cheese retail and since it does not do the cheese preparation either, four people, including Whitcomb, are sufficient in headquarters to run the business.
The company sells primarily to large chains, as well as to food distributor firms which send it to mid-sized and mom-and-pop style small stores. Internet retail sales are handled by ParthenonFoods.com, a Greek-run site based in Milwaukee, Wis.
While it is hard to tell what percentage of sales of string cheese are to Armenians and Middle Eastern or Balkan ethnic groups (some of whom have their own string cheese variants), it is always a struggle to introduce string cheese or other food products Americans are generally unfamiliar with outside of the Northeast, California and a few Midwestern cities like Chicago or Detroit. Only large corporations have the resources to use television and other media with constant advertising.
Whitcomb said, “It takes a lot to get people who don’t know about it to eat it. We deep dis- count it at grocery stores so somebody will try it. I do a lot of demonstrations in stores and food shows. Everybody who has never had it is
surprised.” However, being seen as Middle Eastern or Mediterranean (though not necessarily the less-recognized Armenian) helps sell the cheese now because of the growing popularity of such products as Greek yogurt, tzatziki and hummus.
Slowly Sun-Ni Armenian string cheese is being picked up by major food companies. Whole Foods has been carrying it for a number of years and now is distributed by three of its geographic divisions. Whitcomb is working to increase the number of Whole Food divisions carrying her products. Walmart just accepted it last October for its premium large stores or supercenters in the geographic region east of Saint Louis. There are 450 such stores. While Whole Foods is willing to an extent to pioneer products, other big chains usually want proven sales. This is why, for example, Walmart does not want to sell string cheese in areas where it is not yet known to the general populace. Many other familiar chains, such as Stop and Shop, Wegmans, Pathmark, Walbaums and Ukrop’s, carry Armenian string cheese.
There are three or four Armenian string cheese companies in the US and several non- Armenian ones. None use the traditional goat or sheep milk. Some do not use mahleb, and others use skim milk. It is hard to say which is the biggest one, but certainly Sun-Ni is not the smallest — and it is expanding. More Armenians, scattered throughout the United States, can now find one of their favorite cheeses, while more and more Americans are becoming acquainted with a beloved Armenian food.