Photo: Seta Najarian is retiring from Starbucks after 14-plus years.
The sign on the door at 48 Leonard St. in Belmont Center reads “Starbucks” but on most weekday mornings for the past decade and a half, it might as well have read “Seta’s.”
That’s because it would be hard to find any more commanding personality among the whole of the baristas working in the Seattle-based coffee conglomerate than Belmont’s Seta Najarian, a five-foot-tall Lebanese-born and bred grandmother who demanded respect from those waiting to be served but at the same time loved her customers unconditionally.
Seta hardly the archetypical young-ish millennial that make up the mass of baristas – she doesn’t display or have tattoos, never heard of Young Thug and wears the most sensible of clothes. What she might have lacked in hipness she brought that first generation familiarity for the customer to the job. She knows what you drink, what your kids are doing and she’ll give you a quick kiss for that special day, “like a sister, a good friend or a neighbor.”
“[The cusomers] think I own this place,” said Najarian, a long-time Belmont fixture. “I’ve been here so long, I felt like it was my place, to tell you the truth,” she said as her friend Carol interrupts the interview to say how sorry she’ll be to see her leave.
But last week, on Friday, Dec. 29, after 14 year and three months to the day, Seta is taking a well-deserved break from working full-time that began when she was a teenager. The store held a small party at the store with the district manager “hang around and then say goodbye to everybody.”
The cafe and the town are going to miss Seta’s mannerisms that border on charming but which others would say it’s more her “old school” view on almost everything.
How old school is she? Seta’s aunt arranged her marriage to a “neighborhood boy,” Avedis Najarian, who lived in America and was visiting Lebanon.
“And I’ve been married for 45 years,” she said. “That’s old fashion!”
Born in Beirut, Seta started working at 16 as a secretary for a Swedish company in Beirut – she got the job because she can speak French, English, Arabic, Turkish and Armenian – sending and receiving telex posts. After she married at 19, she came to Watertown and her daughters Christine and Tanya came straight away. But Seta was not one to sit at home.
“I’m a workaholic, I guess,” she said. “I love working. If a person wakes up in the morning, they should go to work.”
And she did, working at a bakery then opening businesses with her husband including a gas station and for 17 years running restaurant across from the Arsenal Mall.
After closing the Watertown eatery in the early 2000s and with her husband settling into retirement, Seta began working at Starbucks in Belmont Center “because I didn’t want to stay home. I’m cursed in that way.”
“I am always with the public. I love talking, connecting with the people,” she said
And Seta soon was making the outlet of the multinational coffeehouse chain her own.
“Because I’m an older generation and I ran my own businesses, I know what works,” she said. If a customer would take too long to order, Seta would give them a stern look over and “suggest” a purchase but would greet a regular with a resounding shout of their first name.
She also took up the role of vigilant overseer of the store. During her interview, she stopped to pick up and move a pallet that was left where it could be stepped on. “See what I mean? I’m always looking like its my [place]” she said.
Seta admits that it takes a while for her to warm up to someone new coming into Starbucks. “If I don’t know them, I’m not good with them. I have to know them, they have to come close to me. But once I know that person, I will give them my heart,” she said. And while she wasn’t shy to express her opinion on how some of her colleagues’ methods – “Why do you leave the water running? It’s not your water.” – Seta had only the kindest comments for her follow baristas “although the young ones always go away so soon.”
She claims – it’s not known if this is true or not – that she’s responsible for the large number of fellow Armenians who would make a visit a part of their morning routine. “They knew me from my old place so they followed me. They were looking for the chicken.”
“I’m proud to be Armenian. It’s a beautiful, rich culture, language, music and food! The best food!” she added without prompting.
This summer Seta will downsize her current abode and move to one of her homes in Watertown that’s “walking distance from the church” and spend more time with her grandchildren, three boys and a girl, between 17 and 3 years old,
“They are my life, those grandkids,” she said.