Fery Haghighi’s life has the hint of a Cinderella-like fairy tale, from hours of hard work to parties at a palace. Except in her case, those events didn’t occur in the usual once-upon-a-time sequence.
As a child growing up in a prominent Iranian family – her brother was the country’s secretary of education – Haghighi was treated almost like royalty. But all that changed in 1979 when the shah was overthrown, and Haghighi and her family fled.
Aided by another brother, former Spokane physician John Ganji, Haghighi and her family moved here and opened the Au Croissant bakery and café in 1980. Fifteen years later, she closed the bakery to focus on Fery’s Catering.
During a recent interview at her lower South Hill shop, Haghighi was asked how she has thrived in such a fiercely competitive business. As she pondered the question, one of her three grown children, son Sean, who had dropped by to pick up an elaborate Persian dinner, cheerfully piped in, “She treats her customers no different than she treats her family. That’s her secret.”
“And we don’t say no to anybody,” Haghighi added.
Here’s more of that interview:
S-R: Where did you learn to cook?
Haghighi: When I was 15, while attending boarding school in Devonshire, England, I spent the Christmas holiday in London with a guardian. She made a mincemeat pie. I’d never cooked, but I watched her. And a year later, when I was back in Tehran, I told my family I wanted to cook for them. So they had the cook leave the kitchen and I closed the door, and I made them a mincemeat pie. And they were so happy.
S-R: How did food evolve into a passion?
Haghighi: When I was 18, my husband, who was a geologist, and I moved to a mining town south of Tehran, and we had cooks and drivers and nannies. My brother was very close to the royal family and would go to the palace a lot. I always asked him what they served there, and I tried to copy that at my parties.
S-R: Did your cooks mentor you?
Haghighi: No, they did mostly Persian cooking, and I was more interested in Western cooking. I also took lessons in Chinese cooking.
S-R: How did you end up in Spokane?
Haghighi: When the revolution came, we had to run away. We came here because my brother – another brother – was a cardiovascular surgeon here. We had no money, and he gave us everything. But it was very embarrassing. We had to do something. A friend had a small grocery store, and said if I’d take a cashier class she’d give me a job. When she left, I cried, because in Iran that was a very lowly job. Cooking was very lowly, too.
S-R: And yet you opened a bakery?
Haghighi: In Iran we had a lot of French pastries. And when we visited San Francisco, we saw French bakeries. So I thought this was a classy job. My brother gave us the money to open Au Croissant. But he was sure we’d go bankrupt.
S-R: And you didn’t?
Haghighi: We were so successful we’d have lines out the door and would sell everything by 10 o’clock.
S-R: You had that shop 15 years. What happened?
Haghighi: All of a sudden, the cholesterol thing came up and people said butter was bad, eggs were bad, and our business dropped quite a bit. And we were not business people. We were naïve. We paid $35,000 for a croissant oven, and when we quit making croissants, we had to pay someone to haul it away.
S-R: What next?
Haghighi: We remodeled, changed the name to Fery’s and opened as a restaurant with a more sophisticated atmosphere than Au Croissant. But two things happened. The nice tablecloths scared people – they thought it was an expensive place. And we made the switch just as Luna was opening.
S-R: So you quit the restaurant business?
Haghighi: Yes. We divided the business with a partner – he took the bakery on Second Avenue – and we auctioned off most of our equipment. But I kept a few things, and for a year I did catering out of a cafe we’d had in the University City mall.
S-R: And then you moved to 421 S. Cowley?
Haghighi: Yes, it was for rent, but we learned a lesson after paying $600,000 in rent over the years at our downtown location. So this time we insisted on buying the building.
S-R: How would you characterize your cuisine?
Haghighi: A lot of French cooking with a Middle Eastern accent.
S-R: How many people work here?
Haghighi: I have a manager, a baker, two dishwashers and, when we’re very busy, my sister-in-law, my husband and my daughter help.
S-R: What kind of boss are you?
Haghighi: I tell all my employees, work hard, be honest and be on time. I’m a good boss, but if something goes wrong, I’m very tough.
S-R: What has gone wrong?
(Haghighi looks at her manager, Melissa Larson, and both women smile.)
Larson: Once, a dishwasher refilled a sugar container with salt. We made a crème brûlée with caramelized bananas on top, and accidentally used two-thirds sugar and one-third salt. Guests came up and said, “This dessert is so amazing, so unique. What’s in it?” Then we tasted it. Fortunately, the caramelized bananas were so sweet, they saved it.
S-R: When are you busiest?
Larson: From graduation parties in mid-June through the middle of September. And December is a killer. We cram three months of catering into 20-some days, and work 60 to 80 hours a week.
S-R: Has the recession affected your business?
Haghighi: A little bit, but not as much as everyone else. We are very careful with our spending. We buy the best quality of everything, and don’t waste anything.
S-R: What’s it like to have gone from princess to cook?
Haghighi: Now I wash bathrooms, floors, dishes. When I went to a jeweler to buy a ring, he told me, “Oh, these are working hands.” But I’m very comfortable with that.
S-R: Are you happy?
Haghighi: I’m quite happy. I think I wasted my time before I came here. Now, when I go home tired, I think of how many people I’ve made happy.
S-R: How do you relax?
Haghighi: By cooking. I love cooking, and I love my shop. I am happy to get up and come here. And if I wake up at night, I think of ways to make things a little better.