National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post) (Canada)
May 6, 2006 Saturday
Toronto Edition

Two scoops to go, and hold the nuts: The successful ice cream shop
that Sam built in the gay village

Mitchel Raphael, National Post

When ice cream giant Baskin Robbins opened up shop in the centre
of Toronto's gay village on Church Street, men's plucked eyebrows
were raised.

Besides the coffee shops, it was the first chain on the strip.

It would never last, some predicted -- especially with
calorie-conscious ab and pec queens.

But it's been nearly 10 years since 31 flavours arrived at 536 Church
St., and the ice cream parlour is one of the finest examples of a chain
fitting into a distinct community. At the centre of that success is
32-year-old heterosexual franchise owner Sam Ghazarian.

"It's Sam's outgoing personality," notes ice cream regular Enza
"Supermodel" Anderson. "It's not just about selling ice cream, it's
about Sam making a connection with everyone who comes in."

Sam knows his clientele. When a regular enters with a new haircut
that is a little too '80s, he's greeted with, "Hey, they're waiting
for you on the set of Growing Pains."

Notes Sam: "It makes for a better customer service [in this
neighbourhood] to have a sharp tongue and wit. Ask any customer,
they love the abuse. I tell some drag queens outright, you're too
old to be a blond. Stick to being a brunette or redhead."

Snaps Enza: "He should step into my heels before he comments on
my hair."

It's the campy banter that has made this Baskin Robbins a magnet for
an eclectic mix of regulars. The majority of Sam's clients are gay,
but there are also students from neighbourhood schools as well as
Cabbagetown and Rosedale families who line up next to leathermen.

Sam knows most people by name, and that includes both drag names and
their boy names.

When it comes to eating ice cream, says Sam, gay people are just like
everyone else. The top Baskin Robbins flavours are scooped out in
the same quantities in Sam's store as in others, though Peanut Butter
and Chocolate is more popular at Sam's. City councillor Kyle Rae is
a big Peanut Butter and Chocolate fan (and dabbles occasionally in
Chocolate Cookie Crackle).

Liberal MPP George Smitherman also did the peanut butter thing but
"since he has become health minister he doesn't eat ice cream,"
Sam observes. But Smitherman still comes and visits, as do other
politicians, like federal Opposition Leader Bill Graham (who doesn't
eat ice cream), Ontario PC leader John Tory (who once helped serve
samples) and former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall (she always gets
Pralines and Cream).

Celebrities are not unknown in this Baskin Robbins location. Several
years ago, Janet Jackson came in and asked for a Banana Royale with
nuts on the bottom.

And "nuts" is a loaded word in these parts. Sam says, "[When] I ask,
'Do you want nuts on top?' I get, '*****, I love nuts on top.' And of
course, 'Do you want a cherry?' gets 'Yeah, I lost mine years ago. I
could use another one.' "

Sam has been able to create a hot spot on Church Street that caters to
all walks of life and respects the uniqueness of the neighbourhood. It
is a lively hangout filled with piquant parlance where tubs mean ice
cream, not a bathhouse.

"I was always impressed he was able to run a successful business on
Church Street without any hot servers," jokes longtime gay activist
Rev. Brent Hawkes, knowing full well it is Sam and his brother, Zev,
who are behind the counter most of the time.

"It's become a fun community place," says Hawkes, adding slyly that Sam
"keeps joking about turning gay and I say, 'No no no, please don't do
that to us. Stay over there. Please, please.' We have enough struggles
in our community without Sam being part of it." When Hawkes recently
married his partner of 25 years, John Sproule, Sam happily brought
his ice cream cart to the reception.

Sam, who recently married his longtime girlfriend, is constantly
the butt of sexual jokes. One Pride Day, a customer made T-shirts
emblazoned with "We support our gay brother," which both of Sam's
siblings wore as they helped him behind the counter.

One of the keys to Sam's success has been community outreach. He has
donated to AIDS organizations and centres for troubled youth in the
area. He has a great relationship with the National Ballet School a
block over on Jarvis Street (some parents have even set up ice cream
accounts for their kids). He also supports many gay sports teams
even though sports are perhaps the least-discussed topic in his shop,
to his disappointment (he was a high school hockey player).

Sam was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents who immigrated to Canada
when he was two. The family was rooted in the Bathurst and Wilson area
and then moved to Woodbridge when Sam was completing high school. He
didn't know any gay people growing up. He became familiar with Church
Street while doing a degree in urban planning at Ryerson University,
which is close to the gay village.

Aside from delivering newspapers, his only job has been serving ice
cream. When he was 14, he worked at Baskin Robbins in Yorkdale Mall.
Years later, the owner of that franchise opened the Church Street
location and Sam was sent down. Two years after it opened, Sam bought
the store.

He says he has been educated by being on Church Street. "I know a
lot about the monarchy. So many people talk about the Queen, Princess
Diana, the Prince. I know how to set up flowers. It has to be arranged
in groups of threes."

He has learned about theatre through the many gay actors, directors
and producers who buy ice cream and has acted as an unofficial theatre
liaison by letting people know about auditions. He found out what a
gay bathhouse was and discovered that one operated above his shop. When
it was bought and renovated a few years ago by the American bathhouse
company Steamworks, Sam went to the community open house to welcome
them to the neighbourhood. He did not wear a towel.

Francine Parsons, who is in the shop almost every day, says she
doesn't like the atmosphere of the bars on the street and finds this
Baskin Robbins "a place of comfort. Peaceful." She admits she never
even ate ice cream before the store opened. "I also never thought I
would be hanging out in an ice cream shop.

In this neighbourhood, the environment created by Sam, a straight
man, is viewed by many as both a gay success story and symbol of
true progress. "People are loyal to businesses that are supportive
of the community and that are a safe space," says Rev. Hawkes. "I
feel comfortable holding my partner's hand and camping it up in here."