Ari Weinzweig and his Zingerman’s Deli … “the coolest small company in America”

January 15, 2020

Zingerman’s is a gourmet food business group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. The original business and still the flagship store is Zingerman’s Delicatessen in the town.

Starting from the original deli, Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB) has expanded to nine Ann Arbor based businesses with over 500 total employees. Each business has shared ownership between original founders Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, and the managing partners who started each business. Each business has its own organizational structure but they carry out the same standards and commit to the company’s values.

What better than for them to tell their own story:

It started with a small deli but it has obviously grown way beyond that. For nearly 30 years now our emphasis on education, flavour, tradition, and the integrity of ingredients has helped create a living culinary laboratory where customers can experience everything from corned beef and noodle kugel to estate-bottled Tuscan olive oil to terrific grits from South Carolina.

ann arbor observer september 1982 lowresFinding food is hardly all we do here. From the start, it’s been our sincere hope that Zingerman’s will always be a place where people will leave having had a rewarding and really positive experience. The kind of spot where folks who’ve never heard of hundred-year-old balsamic vinegar, Nashville hot (as in super-spicy) fried chicken, chess pie, rye, or handmade harissa can come and taste these things for themselves. An organization in which new staff members can relatively quickly become veritable experts. Whether it’s hot corned beef, home-cooked chicken broth, well-aged wheels of mountain Gruyere, or really good loaves of hearth-baked French mountain bread, we want to bring as much traditional food to as many people as we possibly can.

Given all the good press we’ve had and the number of visitors for whom we’ve become a destination, I guess it’s safe to say that Zingerman’s has become an Ann Arbor institution. Our local customers come in regularly—many every day. People who’ve moved away make return trips just for the Zingerman’s experience. Many who’ve left Michigan will still make meals out of our food by using our catalog-based mail order business or website. Others come back to take classes at BAKE!, or to learn about business approaches in our ZingTrain seminars. Our guests tell us that most anywhere they go, once they tell people they’re from Ann Arbor the odds are that the person will respond by talking about one of two landmarks: either the University of Michigan or Zingerman’s.

The initial idea

The initial idea for what started as Zingerman’s Delicatessen came up in casual conversation with my now-partner Paul Saginaw. We were probably out having a beer after work one night — Paul Saginaw was the general manager of a restaurant where I was washing dishes back in the spring of 1978. Despite the fact that any HR expert would have called us a mismatch because we occupied opposite ends of the org chart when we met, we were actually sort of a match made in the world of food business idealism. We spent many an evening discussing what we would do if we had our own place and weren’t weighed down by the less than super-high standards set by the folks for whom we were working. We talked regularly about how we could build a business that would bring potato pancakes, chicken soup, goat cheese, smoked salmon, and other very special foods to a town that really didn’t have much of that sort of thing. And of how we could do it in a way that was unique to us, something special.

In 1979 Paul left the restaurant where we worked and, along with a partner, Mike Monahan, opened a fish market inside a converted feed and seed store (Kerrytown Market & Shops) beside the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market. He and I continued to share a pretty wide range of food and business fantasies, but the one idea that stuck with us more than any other was to start a delicatessen. We’d both grown up eating Jewish food—he in Detroit, me in Chicago—and we’d been accustomed to enjoying a good corned beef sandwich when we wanted one. I’m sure we were hardly the only ones to have the idea. And for a long while, it was just that. Meanwhile, I kept on in my mainstream management position. It certainly wasn’t a bad job, but it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I was giving my all in an organization of folks with more modest visions and values of food and management.

By the time the students came back to campus in the fall of 1981, I knew I was ready to leave the corporate food world. I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but I didn’t have any kids, I didn’t owe any money, and there really wasn’t any reason I could think of to stick with a job that felt less and less rewarding with each passing day. So, without a real plan in mind, two days before my 25th birthday, I gave a couple months’ notice to the restaurant’s general manager and started preparing myself for some unknown, but hopefully exciting future.

Then, in one of those interesting coincidences, Paul came by a couple of days after I’d announced that I was leaving. Opportunity, he believed, was beckoning; a smallish, two-story, red brick building around the corner from the fish market was coming open, and he thought maybe it was time to open the deli he and I had discussed for so long. The opportunity turned out to be a pretty good birthday gift for me. We started meeting regularly to review menus, business plans, pro-forma financials, and everything else we thought might be relevant.

Deli’s are back

On March 15, 1982, a ridiculously short four-and-a-half months after Paul called to tell me the building had become available, we opened. When we let the first customer in that first morning we had just two employees on the payroll—one part-time and one full-time. We also had a lot of loyal friends who were willing to make coffee and clear tables while they waited for us to put their sandwiches together. (Two of them—Frank Carollo and Maggie Bayless—have long since moved into more prominent roles as managing partners of the Bakehouse and ZingTrain, respectively!) We had five tile-topped square tables with four seats at each, and four stainless steel stools covered in not-very-cool-looking forest green vinyl anchored into the floor at a counter that ran across the big front window.

First Zingerman's Deli Menu from 1982

Back when we opened we offered a small but meaningful selection of made-to-order deli sandwiches (25 to be exact); a solid selection of much-loved Jewish specialties like chopped liver and chicken soup; a couple of refrigerated cases filled with cured meats, traditionally made cheeses, and smoked fish. Up at the register, we stacked loaves of bread and pastries from various local bakeries. The smoked salmon, salami, corned beef, and pastrami that got us going remain pretty prominent, though we’ve added a much wider and more interesting selection of traditional kinds of pasta, jams, kinds of honey, bottles of vinegar, and other great tasting stuff from around the world.

Like every new business, we made lots of mistakes and worked hard to correct them as quickly as we could. Fortunately, we were able to make things right more often than not. Lo and behold, we actually did pretty well. I’m sure my mother was more than a bit miffed, but next to deli classics like corned beef, herring, chopped liver, rye bread, and Swiss cheese we stocked cheap cigarettes and then-neighborhood favorites like ham hocks, pork rinds, and big bunches of collard greens. In those early years, we used to let people light up in the store, and each of the tables had a black plastic ashtray on it. I clearly remember our long-time customer, Larry, sputtering with anger that he was never coming back when we decided in the late ’80s to remove the ashtrays and limit the smoking to sausage and salmon.

Start small

While what we do probably sounds huge, it’s important to note that it all started in 1300 oddly shaped (I think it’s a “rhomboid”) square feet of space. Having heard about us through food-loving friends and all the positive press we’ve received, people in other cities almost inevitably imagine the Deli to be some massive Midwestern version of Harrod’s food halls. Boy, are they surprised the first time they visit. I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve heard something along the lines of, “Wow, it’s really a lot smaller than I thought!” Which is fine with us. We never wanted to be one of the biggest, only one of the best.

historic zingermans deli building

If you come to town, you’ll still find the Deli on its original site at the intersection of Detroit and Kingsley streets, across from the Farmer’s Market and about two blocks up from the old train station. The parking is still bad, the location still hard to find, but the neighborhood is now considered a great place to live. The two-story, orange brick, main building, with its mere thousand square feet of selling space, has been in the food business its whole life: it was built as a grocery in 1902. Although our European customers can’t quite conceive of something so new being considered of historical significance, the building is on the historic register.

In 1986, when the building was practically bursting at the seams, we added an additional 700 square feet onto the main building. This gave us space to make more sandwiches and to redo much of the building’s rapidly aging infrastructure. But, this still wasn’t enough room for us to do what we wanted to do. So in 1991 we renovated the 19th-century wood-frame house next door and added an additional 60 or so seats, along with space where we could make espresso, brew pots of specialty coffees and teas, and offer a much-expanded selection of sweets. This space is now known affectionately as Zingerman’s Next Door.

It’s all kind of whacked, but somehow it works. If you get into what we do, it’s a wonderfully weird and one-of-a-kind experience. As we said in our original vision, there are many delis but there’s still only one Zingerman’s.

The Zing Train

With the founding of ZingTrain in 1994, the company began to formally share their approach to business through seminars and workshops, books and digital learning. Here are some of the themes:

Business visioning: creating a vision of greatness

When Inc. Magazine called Zingerman’s “the coolest small company in America,” they said that the “grand plan” the Zingerman’s founding partners came up with for the future of their business was “far better than anything a management-consulting firm could have devised for them.”

At Zingerman’s they call the “grand plan” a Vision. They’ve been visioning for nearly 20 years now. They use it all the time and at every scale – for really small ideas like moving the office copy machine to really large ones like where the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses will be in the year 2020. Just about every one of our staff members and partners would tell you that Visioning is the key to our unique and uniquely successful community.

Ari Weinzweig, co-founding partner of Zingerman’s and author of several books, even has a Vision for Visioning: “10 years from now, visioning is an intrinsic part of the way that thousands of progressive organizations around the world do their work … And my vision is that Ann Arbor is one of the capitals of visioning work.”

Customer service: treat your customers like royalty

Some of the best businesses in the world have come to ZingTrain to learn about and adopt (or adapt) Zingerman’s approach to customer service.  Held in Saveur magazine’s highest regard for its service, Zingerman’s has taken its national accolades into the world of training and consulting with ZingTrain.

Great service is a cornerstone of Zingerman’s success. Zingerman’s has earned its reputation for great service by intentionally creating an organizational culture that nurtures great service and by teaching each and every one of its employees the recipes that the organization has developed for great service – namely the 3 steps to giving great service and the 5 steps to effectively handling customer complaints.

Open book management: bringing finance to the frontline

Open Book Management is a radical approach to running a business, Open Book management is about empowering every single employee in your business with the tools, education and data they need to act (and take responsibility) like owners.

The Denison’s 2010 survey said that:

  • Companies that use Open Book Management consistently rank in the top 10% of all companies surveyed.
  • Zingerman’s was in the top 10% amongst companies that practiced Open Book.

Open Book is not a spectator sport – it’s not just about showing people all the numbers.

Transparency is great but this is about actually taking charge, not just taking time to look at some financial spreadsheets that management was nice enough to share with you. Open Book is about everyone participating in running the business – it’s about people understanding how the whole organization works and their role in it, it’s about accountability, collaboration, and taking initiative. It’s about looking forward and working together to win.

It’s more fun, it’s more interesting, and the bottom line is it just plain works.

Leadership development: how to grow your management skill

You get 494 million hits when you Google the phrase “Leadership.” It drops to a significantly more manageable 128 million when you change the phrase to “Leadership Development.” A good few of them probably have something worth learning or adopting.

Ultimately though, you become aware that what you choose to adopt and disregard is based on your answer to the question: What kind of leader do I want to be? What kind of leaders do we want in our organization?

At Zingerman’s, over the course of over 30 years of growing and thriving, they’ve created a clear vision of what our idea of great Leadership is. It’s based on Robert Greenleaf’s idea of Servant Leadership. The basic belief of Servant Leadership is that we, as leaders, are here – first and foremost – to serve our organizations. We’ve also developed a teachable and effective system for it. And we think it works. Here’s why:

Elaine Steig, Zingerman’s Service Steward, 2012 says this: “It is a true gift to be a leader within Zingerman’s Community of Businesses; to have the freedom to be a true leader and be true to yourself. Not that there isn’t pressure, but the pressure is largely self-imposed to live up to the expectations we have set for ourselves and our organization. In my 25-plus-year career, I have never felt more appreciated, engaged, challenged, and rewarded.”

Training and systems: Great performance through clear expectations and training

Zingerman’s are big believers in systems. Consequently, and not surprisingly, they’re also big believers in training, because effective training is how we teach all of our staff what our systems are. Being a food business, we sometimes call our systems recipes. They have recipes for giving great service, recipes for creating organizational change, recipes for great performance reviews, recipes for effective on-shift training, we even have a recipe for how to create a great recipe! They call it Bottom-Line Training and they believe in it deeply enough to have trademarked the phrase!

Here’s an excerpt from the Zingerman’s Staff Guide:

Systems: Our systems are set up in order to help deliver the most effective bottom line results possible while staying true to our Guiding Principles. In choosing to work here, we make a commitment to work according to those systems, or to work constructively to change and improve them.

The 2-day seminars they teach are a distillation of some of our most effective systems from Service to the entire Employment Experience. And in the Bottom-Line Training seminar they teach you how to design effective systems of your own, that serve your bottom lines.

An Anarchist’s Refreshing Approach to Running a Business

Here’s an extract from a recent Forbes article on Ari:

Ari Weinzweig believes aspiring leaders should never sacrifice their core beliefs in order to achieve success. On the contrary, they should embrace and celebrate these beliefs, then use them to ignite their organizations.

After all, how can entrepreneurs expect to make an impact if they simply trudge down the same path blazed many times before? Not only has it already been done—it’s also missing authenticity. Ari believes there’s a better way to do business, and that’s by being yourself—completely.

The co-owner and co-founder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, Ari is also the author of books including the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading series and the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating, a contributor to magazines like Fine Cooking and Food and Wine, a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Bon Appetit, a mentor, a noted speaker and so much more.

However, a quick conversation proves Ari’s success has never gone to his head. Casually peppering his words with profound insights from his favorite anarchist authors or leadership lessons, Ari’s perspective is refreshingly honest, down to earth and transparent. He’s also proof that running a business your own way can work—we just need to be courageous enough to defy the status quo.

“Most of us continue to do every day what we’ve been trained to do,” Ari says, “until one day, we realize there’s another way to do it.”

Ari didn’t always have entrepreneurial ambition. In fact, after graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Ari just wanted to pay the bills so he could avoid moving home to Chicago. That’s what led him to take a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant.

As he learned the inner-workings of the food industry, Ari started making his way up the ladder, eventually landing a managerial position. He also met Paul Saginaw, who would later become Ari’s partner at Zingerman’s.

For several years, Paul and Ari traded ideas about someday opening up a place of their own. Then, after space in a historic building opened up, they decided to grasp the opportunity.

In 1982, Ari and Paul opened the doors of Zingerman’s Deli with two employees. With a steadfast commitment to extraordinary ingredients, a strong tie to the local community and a creative-minded culture, Zingerman’s was instantly a resounding success.

Since then, Zingerman’s expanded not by replicating the deli, but by integrating their mission and guiding principles into entirely new local businesses including a coffee house, bake shop, catering company, training center, creamery and more. They named it the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.

Over 35 years and 700 employees later, the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses continues to thrive and currently boasts over $65 million in annual revenue.

Ari Weinzweig loves anarchy. He’s spent countless hours browsing the University of Michigan’s Joseph A. Labadie Collection of anarchist literature—one of the nation’s largest—and applies his gained wisdom to his life and his business practices.

But don’t confuse his brand of anarchic ideology with any preconceived notions involving chaos, destruction or tearing down the government. Instead, his brand of anarchy is about all about equality, community and refusing to “follow the rule because it’s the rule … I don’t think anybody really likes being told what to do,” says Ari.

Still, when it comes to the corporate world, aspiring entrepreneurs often conform quickly to expectations, as if giving up their past ideals is the necessary price of achieving success. Ari wholeheartedly rejects this mindset for himself, for others and for his organization.

“[There’s] this weird incongruity between like, it’s good to be a free thinker and you should make your own decisions—but not that one,” says Ari. “It’s no different [at Zingerman’s]. We want people to develop, grow and pursue their dreams.”

He supports his employees’ individual freedom, even if that means openly discussing a future path that leads away from the company. “Sometimes their dream is to leave, which I’m okay with,” he says. “It’s not necessarily what I wanted—but ultimately it is what I wanted.”

“What you believe alters what you see or experience,” says Ari. From personal relationships to corporate leadership, our beliefs influence everything in our lives. What we believe not only affects our own choices, but the actions and emotions of everyone around us. Positive beliefs create positive outcomes, while negative beliefs create the exact opposite.

For example, if an anxious new hire believes their manager dislikes her—and the manager’s neutral or negative attitude does little to convince her otherwise—the new hire will assume the lack of positive feedback means those assumptions are correct.

Maybe there’s validity behind the new hire’s concerns. Maybe there’s none. Either way, she’s going to internalize those feelings. Those feelings will manifest as action. As the stress mounts, her demeanor flounders and work suffers. Whether or not the manager actually had negative feelings becomes irrelevant, since the new hire’s reaction hinders her performance regardless.

Ari calls this a self-fulfilling belief cycle.

“The self-fulfilling belief cycle is just what it sounds like,” Ari says. “We self-fulfill into creating much of our reality. I’m not saying we create all the problems, but a lot of the things that are going on in our lives start with our own beliefs, not with other people’s behaviors.

“Part of that is realizing that we all filter information based on what we believe. We filter out all the information that doesn’t support our beliefs … or you actually go seek out information that supports our beliefs.”

Sure, positive thinking on the new hire’s part could’ve changed the cycle. But if the manager instilled more positivity, everything would’ve changed as well. After all, isn’t it the leader’s role to inspire?

Let’s be the leaders that set our people up for success. By confidently believing in them, they’ll believe in themselves as well.

The Creativity of Better Businesses

“If people looked at their lives and their organizations like they were creating art, they would start to notice a lot more. They would probably be a lot more mindful of what they do.”  

There’s a divide between the arts and the corporate world. Many leaders believe in the already defined structures that keep companies running, and think that creativity is a skill best reserved for the weekends.

But what if thinking so rigidly keeps us from seeing the whole picture? By following the same rules and same routines, are we too hyper-focused on getting things done instead of doing them better? What if creativity is what makes a good business great?

Ari believes all business leaders can learn from artists. That’s not to say all CEOs should necessarily sign up for painting classes. Instead, think about your organization as an elaborate song with countless tiny, yet essential, parts. If one note is flat, the piece falters. If every note is flat, the song turns into a disaster.

“A painting isn’t this instantaneous creation. It’s an enormous amount of work over an extended period of time. A song doesn’t just doesn’t emerge finished … they’re still paying enormous attention to what all of those little things are.”

“People who go into [business] only for the money rarely create great art,” says Ari, and it’s usually true. Leaders need to tap into the joy of building something for the love of it—not just for status or wealth. And wouldn’t leadership be more interesting—and more fun—if tasks were treated as creative exercises, rather than just obligations waiting to be checked off a list?

The best creatives trust their instincts and they trust themselves. “My strong belief is that everybody in their hearts [knows what] what they want,” says Ari. It’s a mentality he holds as dearly today as he did as a young anarchist in 1982, and it’s not going anywhere.