Icon of Cranston political circuit, sub shop owner Pashalian dies

Providence Journal , RI
March 26 2004

Icon of Cranston political circuit, sub shop owner Pashalian dies

The back room of his humble sandwich shop became a political hub
where regulars hashed out different issues everyday and state leaders
stopped to speak.

Journal Staff Writer

CRANSTON — Over the past 45 years, Joe Pashalian made the most of
the large front windows of his Gansett Avenue sandwich shop, using
them to post signs that not only touted menu favorites like the
“sensational steak sandwich,” but also provoked public comments with
questions such as, “When is a contribution not a bribe?”

Pashalian, owner of the Boston Submarine Sandwich Shop, which for
decades has been affectionately known in political circles as “The
Back Room,” died yesterday at Cedar Crest Nursing Centre at the age
of 92.

With Pashalian presiding over both the ovens and the daily
discussions, the back room of the humble shop became a political hub
where regulars hashed out different issues daily and state leaders
periodically stopped to speak.

The list of guest speakers included Sen. Claiborne Pell, Gov. Bruce
Sundlun, Sen. Jack Reed, business leader John Hazen White, former
vice presidential hopeful Geraldine Ferraro, and Dr. Stanley M.
Aronson, dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University.

The shop, which was also known for the hearty wheat bread and sizable
sandwiches Pashalian served up, was practically a mandatory stop on
the campaign trail for candidates vying for city or statewide office.

“We came to recognize the place as a wonderful place for political
forums,” Anna Minicucci said yesterday, recalling the 15 years she
and her husband, David, spent frequenting the sub shop. “As word got
around, all the television stations and newspapers would show up,
too, and the place would be packed.”

In the 1990s, Minicucci assumed the unofficial role of event
organizer and said that every famous visitor left with a hefty loaf
of Pashalian’s whole-grain bread. “He baked these huge, huge loaves
of wheat bread,” she said, “and before he’d give them to people, he’d
say, ‘Well, you know, we don’t give dough, but we do give bread.’ ”

Both Minicucci and Aram Garabedian, former legislator and Cranston
mayoral candidate, said that the politics and guest speakers may have
gotten the spotlight, but the real attraction at the Boston Sub Shop
was Pashalian himself.

“He was always bright and always funny and he simply loved words,”
Garabedian said yesterday remembering the variety of dictionaries
that Pashalian kept handy in the back room. “He was a man of words —
he loved to throw out a word and see if you knew the meaning.”

Pashalian’s love of words was evident not only in the ever-present
dictionaries, but in the hand-lettered signs that he plastered his
front windows with and hung from the light fixtures of the back room.
And he always kept a miniature copy of Rodin’s statue The Thinker in
the center of the back room table.

Always kindhearted, Pashalian nonetheless loved to play devil’s
advocate and provoke debates at almost any cost. “He was a charmer,”
Minicucci said, “but he would deliberately take the opposite view to
keep discussions going. Then, when everybody was yelling at him, he’d
yell back, ‘What do I know, I’m just a baker.’ ”

Pashalian was much, much more than just a baker, Garabedian said,
noting that the proud businessman had once studied to be a lawyer.

He served as an ensign in the Coast Guard after graduating from its
academy at Fort Trumbull in Connecticut, graduated from Providence
College, and attended Boston University Law School.

Garabedian, who has been a regular at the shop since the 1960s, said
that it was shortly after his own bid for Cranston School Committee
that he dubbed the shop “the back room” and the name stuck.

Eventually The Back Room drew national media attention in newspaper
and magazine articles, Garabedian said. And while Pashalian enjoyed
the limelight and the visitors, his loyalty was always to his
longtime friends.

Garabedian said he remembers the day that a reporter for a national
newspaper called during lunch hour hoping to interview Pashalian.
“Joe got on the phone and said, ‘I’m too busy waiting on customers,’
” Garabedian said.

“Even though he was operating this little innocuous sandwich shop, he
managed to get attention from all over,” he said.

The small brick-fronted shop, located across the street from Hugh B.
Bain Middle School, may have looked modest, Garabedian said, but the
food was as impressive as the list of guest speakers. Everything
Pashalian made — from sandwiches to hermit cookies — was good,
Garabedian said. Pashalian was known especially for the thin Armenian
cracker bread that reflected both his baking skill and his pride in
his heritage.

In 2000, Mayor John O’Leary honored Pashalian by making him the
recipient of one of Cranston’s “Outstanding Seniors” awards.

Garabedian said that Pashalian had started to falter physically
recently, but he still showed up at the sub shop everyday. Family
members said that the shop will continue to operate under longtime
friend Mike Vittulo.

Yesterday, Pashalian’s big signs were still up in the front windows
— one promising pizza and broccoli pies and another declaring that
“No university ever gave a degree in common sense.”

One small new sign was taped to the door. It notified customers that
the shop will be closed tomorrow for Pashalian’s funeral.

“Joe is the type of guy who wouldn’t want the shop closed too long,”
Garabedian said. “He was still working in the back room when I left
for Florida a couple of weeks ago, and I expected to see him there
when I came back.”

Both Garabedian and Minicucci noted that Pashalian never declared any
party affiliation despite the parade of politicos who dined and
campaigned at his shop.

“I really think that he hated politics, but loved the politicians,”
Minicucci said. “I think that deep down, he just loved people.”

Pashalian, who lived on Bretton Woods Drive, was the husband of Alice
R. (White) Pashalian. They were married for 68 years.

Joseph Pashalian was born in Providence, a son of the late Charles
and Paris (Tashjian) Pashalian. He owned Pashalian’s Market in
Providence before opening the sandwich shop 45 years ago.

Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters: Joyce C. Pashalian
of Providence and Joan A. Morrison of Jamestown. He was the brother
of the late George and Anna Pashalian, Irene Juskalian, Rose
Meldonian and Zarie Dionne.

The funeral will be held tomorrow at 8:45 a.m. from the Nardolillo
Funeral Home, 1278 Park Ave., Cranston, with a service at 10 a.m. in
Sts. Sahag & Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church, 70 Jefferson St.,

Burial will be in North Burial Ground Cemetery, Providence.