Value Added: Peter Tabibian's little burger empire

By Thomas Heath
Monday, December 7, 2009

My favorite issue of Forbes magazine is the annual special edition listing the 400 richest people in the United States. I can't wait for it. I pore over each mini-biography that describes where the billionaires came from, how they got their start, where they got their big breaks, where they hit their home runs and where they struck out.

I find the stories aspirational and inspiring, and the magazine stays on my coffee table all year.

At 37, Payam "Peter" Tabibian is no billionaire. But the biography of this tenacious salesman and hamburger-joint junkie is as compelling as any on the Forbes list.

He and his family fled Iran in 1982 after getting word his father was going to be arrested. Tabibian, his sister and his parents left the country that night, leaving behind a profitable manufacturing business that gave them a comfortable life.

They paid smugglers to get them to Turkey. They dressed as farmers and hid under blankets in trucks to make their way. They landed in Switzerland, where an uncle was in the import-export business. They moved to Bloomington, Minn., in 1984, to live with an aunt.

Tabibian started his first business in a Bloomington middle school; he bought chocolate bars from his uncle's business for 50 cents and sold them to classmates for a buck. He sold as many as 50 to 60 candy bars a day.

At 14, he started his apprenticeship in the hamburger business at a Burger King next to his middle school, taking out trash, washing dishes and cleaning the parking lot. It paid around $4 an hour.

"I was curious," he said. "I learned everything. It was great."

The family followed Tabibian's aunt to the Washington area, settling in Northern Virginia in 1988.

He worked at several Burger Kings before he became the youngest manager ever at the L'Enfant Plaza restaurant at age 17, which taught him how to handle high-volume lunch crowds.

Tabibian said the key is everyone moving in synchronization, with enough cash registers to keep the line moving.

"You have to be fast," he said.

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