Home to the best sandwiches in Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s Delicatessen has been serving as a campus staple since its opening in 1982. The Jewish deli prides itself in its emphasis on education, flavor, and tradition. Every customer is guaranteed to have a favorite with the extensively crafted menu, ranging from a classic reuben to a plate of noodle kugel to hand-shaped bagels. Even in the crisp November air, people still wait in the notorious line that loops around the block. Standing in the cold with an empty belly, one could wonder: what makes Zingerman’s so special?
The story of Zingerman’s all started back in the spring of 1978, when now-partners Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw coined the idea one night after work in another Ann Arbor restaurant. Saginaw, a general manager, and Weinzweig, a dishwasher, had their own plans. They talked of a restaurant, free from the super-high standards commonly associated with Ann Arbor. One that brought different foods together, like goat cheese and potato pancakes, without hesitation.
In 1979, the journey to starting Zingerman’s finally began. Weinzweig, Saginaw, and another partner, Mike Monahan, opened a fish market in Kerrytown. The fantasy of a delicatessen still persisted though, as Weinzeig and Saginaw grew up eating Jewish food. And then, an opportunity emerged. A two-story, red brick building was opening around the corner from the fish market. With nothing to lose, the two took the leap and in four months time, a deli was born.
The deli introduced the concept of “specialty food” in Ann Arbor, something that most people weren’t familiar with at the time. Local grocery stores didn’t sell a variety of single-estate olive oils or chocolates from all over the world. Now, this is more common, but at the time, Zingerman’s was unique to this. Ann Arbor residents continue to flood the deli with support and praise for its style and traditions, making it a popular foodie highlight for people visiting the city.
Today, Zingerman’s represents a unique community business model that isn’t just a franchise. The evolution of the deli has lead to several smaller businesses, each with their own specialty. Of course, there’s the original deli, the Bakehouse, ZingTrain, Zingerman’s Catering, Zingerman’s Mail Order, Zingerman’s Creamery, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Zingerman’s Coffee Company, Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory, Zingerman’s Cornman Farms, Miss Kim, Greyline, Zingerman’s Food Tours, and Zingerman’s Service Network. It’s safe to say, there’s no lack of Zingerman’s in the Ann Arbor area. Each individual business has its own managing partner(s) in order to maintain a fresh style and evoke a different sense of passion. I decided to explore one of the businesses and get a better feel for this passion the deli boasts about.
Zingerman’s Bakehouse is one among several of the company’s smaller businesses. Home of pastries, bread, and cakes, the Bakehouse is definitely a place to visit. In 1992, Saginaw, Weinzweig, and Frank Carollo opened the Bakehouse. The founders continuously worked to improve the quality and flavor of their food and decided to bake their own bread. What started as a small bakery with eight employees and one customer (Zingerman’s Delicatessen) has now drastically expanded. Today, the bakery employees 150 people, 70 of them being bakers, and serves about 80 non-Zingerman’s customers, including other restaurants and specialty food stores in southeastern Michigan.
For 363 days a year, the Bakehouse stands committed to its mission: “the relentless pursuit of being the best bakey we can imagine.” Everything is fresh, hand-crafted, and time-honored. The ingredients are the best of the best, including organic wheat flour from Michigan, sweet cream butter from Wisconsin, and bourbon vanilla extract from Madagascar. A large emphasis is placed on using locally grown or produced ingredients and establishing lasting relationships with local farmers, millers, and producers. The food process is an exact science for the Bakehouse, remaining independent of preservatives or artificial flavorings. Rather than relying on extra yeast, frozen dough, or pre-made fillings to speed up the baking process, bakers are dedicated to taking the time necessary to produce the best possible product.
Beyond the food, one thing that makes Zingerman’s one-of-a-kind is the extraordinary staff. The staff effortlessly upholds their “great food, great service, and great finance” mantra by constructing a friendly environment and producing delicious food. Everyone who works with Zingerman’s, whether at the Delicatessen, Bakehouse, or elsewhere, is a lover of food and dedicated to their craft. Part of Zingerman’s uniqueness hails from their Open Book Management practice. With this style of management, each employee is invited to a discussion on how best to run the business. This improves the flow of communication among staff and allows everyone to make a positive contribution.
Part of the unparalleled atmosphere Zingerman’s creates can be accredited to all of the art work throughout the building, something that should not go unnoticed. The deli’s merchandising team hand-paints posters and all of the shelf signs, bringing personality to the space. Nick Jaroch, the longest-serving painter in the shop, and a part-time fill-in person are the two full-time painters for the deli. Between the two of them, they produce about 20 to 30 pieces a month, ranging from monthly special signs to upcoming events posters. While Zingerman’s is known for their food, their art work is also a huge part of their character.
Every student, visitor, and resident knows the name. Even former President Barack Obama knows the name. Zingerman’s has provided and will continue to provide a special service to the Ann Arbor community. With a perfect combination of the compelling art, friendly staff, and delicious food, it’s no wonder the line is out the door in sub-zero temperatures.