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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.

“It’s super fun, and it’s really worth your dollar because you end up leaving with so many things you make,” Kendrick said. “I took a donut-making class — my mom and my sister and I took it together, and we ended up with 160 donuts!”

Though firmly rooted in Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s has a mail-order program that extends the business’s reach to the entire United States. In 1994, Mo Frechette became a founding partner of the mail order, which now rivals the deli in terms of sales volume. When Frechette was first starting out, his business was a curiosity in the food world.

“There was no food mail-order business industry; there were no television shows about food; there were no blogs about food,” Frechette said. “It wasn’t common for people to have an interest in food, or to have that as a passion.”

Another passion of the Zingerman’s gang is travel. Frechette and the other Zingerman’s partners go on epic adventures, sort of culinary vision quests, to find the ideal foods for their businesses.

“If you travel with me, I’m going to drag you to a grocery store,” Frechette said. “It’s my museum.”

On a whirlwind tour through Spain, from Bilbao to San Sebastian, Frechette spent hours perusing the grocery stores’ seafood aisles.

“You consider tinned seafood to be a low-end commodity,” Frechette said. “They treat it like a great and amazing thing. Things you’d never think would be in a tin can be found there — barnacles off the side of a boat, for instance.”

After these journeys, employees share their finds with the rest of the discerning staff. On an average month, Zingerman’s employees will taste 200 foods and maybe two will be considered worthy additions to the menu.

“What’s considered mundane in one place and sold in a gas station is sometimes special somewhere else,” Weinzweig said. “Almost everything we sell is poor people’s food, but if you’re not from the area where it’s produced, it seems exotic.”

The haters are out there

Another partner with a global perspective is the Bakehouse. For 20 years, Frank Carollo and his staff have hand-crafted every hearth-baked loaf. They’ve also scoured the globe in search of new recipes.

Since 2011, members of the Bakehouse staff have traveled to Hungary three times to eat and to learn traditional artisan bread baking. The bakers brought their experiences back with them, selling Hungarian torts, breads and soups in the Bakehouse shop. Zingerman’s also offers Hungarian baking classes. As Carollo put it, “We want our customers to learn with us.”

Weinzweig has a unique business philosophy, which may have been a catalyst for Zingerman’s success. As a Russian history major, his focus was on the anarchists. He said that the philosophy has shaped his managerial style and noted that there are striking similarities between hundred-year-old anarchist writings and modern progressive business books.

“Except one group was going to jail and one was on the best-seller list,” Weinzweig said with a laugh.

Weinzweig’s anarchist utopia stresses free choice and respect for individuals, with the belief that a strong work ethic comes from conviction in one’s work. In fact, Zingerman’s is a place where the employees truly run the business.

“We wanted to push decision down as far as in the organization as we could, so that decisions were not going to be made based on who had the most authority, but who has a good idea — who has a solution,” Saginaw said.

Zingerman’s has been called “The Coolest Small Company in America” by INC Magazine and received high praise from celebrity chefs Bobby Flay and Mario Batali.

But as Saginaw put it, “The haters are out there. They hate us to the bone.” These detractors take to Internet forums bitterly moaning that Zingerman’s food is overpriced, as if they’d been tricked into ordering a $12 sandwich.

After AnnArbor.com published a story about Bobby Flay tweeting from Zingerman’s, user “Goober” griped: “He has the money to eat at Zingerman’s.”

Saginaw was quick to admit that Zingerman’s isn’t a necessity.

“Nobody gets up and says, ‘If I don’t get an $8 loaf of bread, life isn’t worth living.’ We don’t sell anything that anybody needs,” Saginaw said.

Despite the naysayers, Zingerman’s has flourished by offering traditional, full-flavored food whose production value explains the price tag. The specialty ingredients are imported; Saginaw noted that by definition you can only get parmigiano reggiano from Italy.

Being a good corporate citizen

However, many of the ingredients in Zingerman’s goodies are grown with pride in Michigan.

“I believe that the local business is the backbone of the economic system,” Saginaw said. “It is what will drive it and help create vibrance.”

“You earn your right to do business in a community by being a good corporate citizen,” Saginaw added. “You need to be profitable but you need to make a profit responsibly and share that responsibly with the people you work with and the community from which that profit comes.”

Saginaw tries to support the Ann Arbor community by buying locally whenever possible and through other philanthropic endeavors. After taking stock of the rampant waste in the food industry he founded Food Gatherers, a hunger relief organization.

“The reality is that a line cook after working 12 hours isn’t driving across town to look for homeless people,” Weinzweig said.

That’s where Food Gatherers comes in. The organization liberates perfectly good leftovers that would otherwise end up in trash heaps from local restaurants and distributes them to community kitchens.

Weinzweig added, “For somebody who is in need of a nutritious meal, it’s totally healthy, but maybe it wasn’t as tasty as the restaurant wanted.”

In a time when many businesses are struggling to stay open, Zingerman’s is already planning its business strategy for the coming decade.

The plan states that Zingerman’s will run up to 18 independent businesses by the year 2020. A Tunisian restaurant is already in the works.

“We’ve been selling many Tunisian products that come from one family, and we’ve become very close with the family,” Saginaw said. “They are consulting on this, and the two employees who are interested in doing this have stayed with the family and learned from them.”

Always the overachievers, Zingerman’s bought a herd of Tunisian sheep in order to serve a very specific type of Tunisian lamb in the restaurant.

From a tiny delicatessen with four employees, Zingerman’s has grown to a nationally known enterprise. They will end this fiscal year with $47 million in sales, 18 partners, eight businesses and about 600 employees.

Though their official birthday is March 15, Zingerman’s will commemorate over three decades of service, philanthropy and culinary exploration with an evening entitled “Celebrating 31 Years with Ari,” on April 3.

The event will highlight the deli’s history and provide a tantalizing glimpse of things to come.

“It’ll be a lot of good food and probably some of the things that I’m excited about moving forward,” Weinzweig said. “A little past, a little present and a little future.”