CANOGA PARK – Depressed and dejected, laid up at home for months, Mehrdad Khorramian had a vision: He would make the world a better place by devoting himself to God, family and Taco Bell. As a result, smiley face stickers and $1 tacos helped save the life of Mehrdad – and turned his store, across from Canoga Park High, into the best in the nation. Known to customers and colleagues simply by his first name, Mehrdad runs a humble, unassuming-looking Taco Bell on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Dressed in a crisp, blue shirt and a tie tacked down with a shiny golden pin, he’s the one who opens the door, hails diners, mops the floor and brings out food. Not long ago, though, Mehrdad was far away from his place at the pinnacle of Mexican fast food. His first job after emigrating from Iran was washing dishes at McDonald’s. He took the gig not so much for the money – he was so unfamiliar with the working world that he didn’t cash his first paycheck for months – but to learn English and the ways of his newfound country. He stayed there all through college and beyond, even after graduating from the University of Missouri, Rolla, with a 3.875 grade-point average and a degree in civil engineering. Mehrdad came west with McDonald’s in ’85, moving to the Valley and running a trio of local burger joints. Six years later, a Taco Bell headhunter recruited him away, landing him a job running operations in South Central Los Angeles and Gardena. He’d stay there more than a decade, content and comfortable with a house in Encino. But things came apart with a violent click Dec. 31, 2002. While running an errand at a bank in Gardena, Mehrdad was held up by armed bandits, who threatened him and made off with all his money. He still discusses it reluctantly, hesitantly sharing details of the robbery that would change his life. The event was so jarring to this grinning, affable man that he closed up and withdrew. He became so depressed he could not work for three months, moping around and avoiding contact with the job that had defined his life since he was a teenager. He had given up. But not for long. One day, Mehrdad experienced a profound epiphany, one that lifted him from this bottomless funk. “I had a vision – I loved to be in the restaurant, so there was nothing else I could do,” he said. “I said that I’d prove myself to my peers.” At home, he poured himself into his faith, attending synagogue three or four times a week, and vowed to spend time with his wife and two young children. And Mehrdad proudly put on his Taco Bell uniform and went back to work with the seemingly daunting task of making Store 3070 into the best store in the company. He did so with an attack plan, one honed from his years in the industry and through interviews with Pat O’Malley, a former two-time general manager of the year for the chain. It was amazingly simple: talk to at least two customers in the dining room, ask how their meal was and bus their empty trays. He armed himself with sheets of smiling stickers, which he doled out to his staff and patrons alike. He learned the names of his patrons and made sure to greet them when they sat down for their gorditas. He worked the room like a four-star chef, inquiring how diners liked their meals, asking how he could make the place better for them. Through this basic strategy, he figured he’d have a shot at No. 1 within three or four years. “He’s a great guy,” said Ed Samuels, a retired professor of biology from Woodland Hills. “He circulates around, and he’s really good with people, so you feel special here.” But Mehrdad miscalculated when he returned to work in 2003. It didn’t take him four years to beat out more than 1,000 other stores in the chain for the coveted No. 1 slot. It took him only one year. “I absolutely thought he could get there, and I didn’t think it would take him very long,” said Richard Gibbard, Taco Bell’s market coach who oversees Los Angeles operations. “When he first came in, I saw him pulling a little bit more. Just the little things, he does it all in a very positive, inspiring way.” This year, the company filmed Mehrdad and his team to use as a blueprint for other store operations. And while he’s enjoying his spot at the top of the taco world, he aims to win it again for 2005, still working the register and pulling graveyard shifts to meet more customers. To an outsider, these seem like minor, insignificant things. To Mehrdad, they’re what gave his life meaning once again. When he speaks of his plan to improve the world, one tray of Double Deckers at a time, it’s clear that this is something that’s deeply, deeply important to him. And, in some small way, he seems to be doing it. The store used to have problems with graffiti, which declined sharply when he got to know the kids, who’ve become regular patrons. Executives and homeless people leave with the same smiles on their faces. He reasons that if he can make them feel good about themselves in his store, they’ll pass that good will on once they leave. “If I hadn’t gone through that unfortunate experience, I wouldn’t have had this happen,” he said. “My mission in life is to make the world better for other people.” Brent Hopkins, (818) 713-3738 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBlues bury Kings early with four first-period goals “I went hundreds of feet under the earth to miles off the ground,” he said. “I’m on top of the world.” His store, 40 years old and a bit worn around the edges, doesn’t look that much different from other Taco Bells with close-packed tables and huge soda dispenser. But its employees, bursting with energy, set it apart. No tray lingers on tables long, nearly every patron gets greeted by name. The crew, from Mehrdad on down, chases trash like linebackers lunging for a fumble. For this reason, Taco Bell Corp. recognized Mehrdad as its top restaurant general manager among more than 1,000 stores across the country this year. Based on a combination of customer service, staff, profit and sales, his store was the only one in the chain to receive a perfect score. With a few weeks left to go in 2005, he’s on track to repeat the performance once again. For many people, fast food is a starter career, a job to pick up some spending cash or to break into the work world. For Mehrdad, however, it’s an integral part of his life, interwoven with all the classic elements of the American dream.