What started as a small bake sale is now Richmond's oldest food festival that attracts thousands

Posted at 10:12 AM, Sep 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-07 10:20:12-04

RICHMOND, Va. — Saint James Armenian Church has stood at the corner of Pepper and Patterson Avenues for 67 years, but inside a pastime is underway that precedes this place of worship.

"We are making Bourma," explained Lilly Bourouijuan Thomas, the church's lead baker. "It's like baklava, but instead of layered, it's rolled.”

Lilly has been baking traditional Armenian pastries at Saint James for 30 years, the same desserts that church ladies before her created that helped pay for the church's sanctuary.

"They survived the genocide, the Armenian genocide that was in 1915," she explained. "They wanted to have their own church, so they started doing sales and raising funds. They bought the land, and they started building little by little."

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Today, those bake sales still happen, but on a much larger scale over the course of two days.

"Whenever we're somewhere if they find out we’re Armenians, they say, oh, the food festival, we love your food festival," Lilly smiled.

The Armenian Food Festival is now in its 63rd year, the oldest and longest running food festival in the River City.

"Not only does it help the community and serve the community, but it also educates the community about our rich history, our culture," said Leiza Bourouijian, the food festival's organizer and Lilly's sister-in-law. "We're not that big of a community, so for us to put this type of festival on, it takes every person."

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Since May, the Bourouijians and about a dozen other church members have spent nearly every Tuesday rolling and buttering filo dough to prepare for this weekend.

"Thousands of pieces of pastry goes through these hands," explained Lilly.

It’s not easy work, but they said it's all worth it when they see the smiles that come after just one bite of these flaky sweets.

"We're very happy to do this for the Richmond community," explained Leiza.

They are proud of their success because the festival supports the church and its families.

"As an immigrant to this country, it's a way to keep our identity, our spiritual place of worship, and as well as our identity as Armenians," the organizer noted.

The Bourouijuans hope the thousands expected to attend this year’s celebration leave with a full belly and also a little more knowledge about Armenians and the hardships so many have overcome but others still face.

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"We currently are in a struggle," Leiza explained. "120,000 Armenians in Artsakh are struggling and are on the verge of starvation, so we have a duty and a responsibility to bring awareness to Armenia and Armenians."

This small church that was built on its food plans to keep the oven on for decades to come.

"We are still here, and we will continue to still be here," Leiza noted.

There won’t just be pastries at this weekend’s festival. You can taste chicken kabobs, cheese boreg, Armenian meat pies, stuffed grape leaves and more.

The festival also features traditional music and dancing, as well as Armenian beer and wine.

Admission is free and the fun kicks off Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

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