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Zingerman's celebrates 31 years of flavor

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Julia Kline, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 14, 2013

Zingerman’s Delicatessen is an Ann Arbor icon, but it might never have existed if not for a chance meeting between founders Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw more than three decades ago.

“We had music and drugs in common,” Saginaw said.

Otherwise the two are polar opposites; Weinzweig is shy, introverted and prefers books to social gatherings. Saginaw, on the other hand, is very gregarious and loves to be surrounded by people.

“We have very different day-to-day ways of viewing the world, but we have shared vision and shared values,” Saginaw said of their partnership.

Before their serendipitous meeting in 1978, Weinzweig and Saginaw both studied at the University, with no intention of pursuing careers in the restaurant industry. Weinzweig was majoring in Russian history, and Saginaw pursued a degree in human nutrition at the School of Public Health.

After suffering a tragedy, the suicide of a close friend who had been unhappy in his work, Saginaw began to question if the path he was on would bring him happiness. In a moment of clarity, he resolved to quit school and work in the restaurant industry, a pursuit he felt real passion for.

Meanwhile, Weinzweig graduated and felt adrift, with no definite career plans.

“I just needed a job. I didn’t want to go home to Chicago,” Weinzweig said.

A really great corned beef sandwich

He applied for a job at Maude’s, where Saginaw had worked his way up to the position of general manager. The two became fast friends and talked about one day owning a business together.

“People in the food business historically tend to talk about opening their own place one day, and most of them don’t do it,” Weinzweig said.

Weinzweig left Maude’s in the fall of 1981. A few days later, he received a call from Saginaw, who declared that he had found a location for their restaurant. Zingerman’s Delicatessen opened its doors time four months later.

On that first day, Weinzweig and Saginaw manned the store with two other employees. By the time they put up the closed sign, there was a little less than 100 dollars in the cash register.

As a fledgling company, Zingerman’s had very modest goals.

“I don’t know if the word ‘vision’ was even in our vocabulary,” Saginaw said. “We wanted a really great corned beef sandwich.”

From the beginning, the owners knew they had no intention of leaving Ann Arbor.

“We want to grow, but we only want to grow around here,” Weinzweig said. “We only do each business once because we like unique things and we don’t like replicas.”

Accordingly, Zingerman’s never franchised. Instead, it expanded by welcoming new partners into its community of businesses. Zingerman's Creamery entices with a rainbow of gelatos and wheels of fresh cheese. At the Bakehouse, golden-braided challah and loaves of rustic Italian bread crowd the shelves. The Roadhouse serves up platters of all-American fare such as macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. A coffee roaster, a candy manufacturer, a catering company and a small press all fall under the Zingerman's umbrella.

The people’s food

The original deli still makes its home in the quaint, redbrick shop, but the offerings have expanded. Over 70 sandwich options grace their massive menu board. The deli itself has also grown through three renovations.

Zingerman’s has achieved extraordinary success, but instead of keeping their formula to themselves, they share it freely. Weinzweig has written several books about effective management. ZingTrain offers consulting on the art of customer service. BAKE!, a hands-on teaching bakery shares the secrets of Zingerman’s most delectable breads and pastries with over 60 different courses.

School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Heather Kendrick has worked for Zingerman’s for two years and has taken three of the BAKE! courses.