Written by Jan Turner Tuesday, June 26 2012
“In Zingerman's, I get the mighty reassurance that the world can't be totally bad if there's this much good food to eat.”
- Novelist Jim Harrison in Esquire
Tasty on a One-to-Five Scale? Try 11.
Ari Weinzweig looks like a Jewish hippie and thinks like a revolutionary with an excellent education.
Which doesn’t explain why his five-table deli with great chopped liver became what Inc. Magazine calls “the coolest small company in America” (“with corned beef on rye to die for”) and 500,000 fressers and noshers a year call bliss.
Weinzweig is the co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCOB), an Ann Arbor, Mich., institution that is fast gaining a worldwide reputation. Even Oprah is high on Zingerman’s: She gave their No. 97 Lisa C.’s Boisterous Brisket Sandwich on a challah bun an “11” on a one-to-five scale.
Tang, Pop Tarts and Emma Goldman
“I had no intention of opening a business,” explains Weinzweig. A kid who grew up on Kraft macaroni, Pop Tarts and Tang, Weinzweig adds, “I also wasn’t interested in food.”
It is also ironic that a basically shy student of Russian history who found inspiration in anarchists like Emma Goldman went on to graduate the University of Michigan, wash dishes and start what has become an awfully successful capitalist enterprise.
Not only that, but Weinzweig and Zingerman’s co-owner/founding partner Paul Saginaw later went on to join the likes of Julia Child and Jacques Pépin in receiving Bon Appetit’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Conversation that Became a Company
It all started in 1972 with Maude’s, an Ann Arbor, Mich., restaurant where Weinzweig washed dishes, Paul Saginaw managed, Frank Carollo baked and Maggie Bayless waitressed. As the cosmic tumblers would have it, the four were partners-to-be in Zingerman’s.
The next leg of the journey was in 1980, when Weinzweig and Saginaw began a conversation about how great it would be if Ann Arbor had a traditional Jewish deli like the ones they had grown up with in Chicago and Detroit.
The conversation became a plan, and the plan became Zingerman’s Delicatessen, which opened its doors in 1982.
A Dodgy Neighborhood and a Made-up Name
Those doors were in an odd-looking 1902 grocery building in a hard-to-find location in a not-very-good (some would say “downright dangerous”) neighborhood. But they made up for it by having practically no parking.
The Deli was five tables, four counter seats, chicken soup, corned beef, smoked fish and other traditional, full-flavored specialties. Original investment: a $20,000 second mortgage on Saginaw’s house and a $2,000 loan from Weinzweig’s grandma.
The Business that Blintzes Built
And my how that deli grew – into eight businesses. The family includes the Bakehouse, founded by Frank Carollo; the Creamery, where cheeses and Sicilian gelato are made; and the Roadhouse, which has been called an “unlikely center of a quiet food revolution” by Travel + Leisure.
Other ventures include the Candy Manufactory, home of the salty-sweet ZZang! Bar (another Oprah favorite), and Catering and Events for parties as large as 2,000. Then there is the ZingTrain training company and Zingerman’s Mail Order, which, according to food writer Ed Behr, offers “the most discriminating selection of foods that I am aware of.”
That’s quite a trajectory for a deli in a dicey neighborhood. Today, Zingerman’s is a $40 million enterprise with 500 employees, a worldwide customer base and half-a-million smiling diners annually.
“Roll Up Your Sleeves” Company Values
One measure of an extraordinary organization is how effectively it puts its values to work in the world. Zingerman’s is no exception – it’s a place where philosophy sheds its toga and puts on an apron. In addition to the obvious – a commitment to fabulous food and great service – Zingerman’s puts its values into practice through hallmark activities and programs.
Visioning: When one bricklayer was asked what he was doing, he said, “I’m laying bricks.” When a second was asked, he said, “I’m building a cathedral.” According to Weinzweig, “A great vision is inspiring… it's the cathedral everyone is coming to work every day to construct.” Creating a vision is straightforward: pick a time in the future, construct a list of “prouds” with as much detail as possible and write it down. It works for companies, departments, projects, people. Weinzweig says, “The beauty of visioning is that it allows people to create the life of their dreams.”
Teaching and Learning: Zingerman’s offers staff scholarships, an internship program and in-house training. The public can take advantage of tours, tastings and make-your-own-mozzarella classes. This year’s food tours are to Sicily and Italy, next year U.S. tours will be added. BAKE! Is a teaching kitchen for home bakers, and Zingerman’s passion for the pig goes big time with Camp Bacon, the Tour de Bacon and the Bacon Ball.
Integration: “It’s all one life,” says Weinzweig. At Zingerman’s, work time isn’t down time with “real life” occurring only after the apron comes off. Work is part of the entirety of life. Weinzweig says that his work is a vehicle for doing what he likes most: teaching, learning, writing, running, and cooking. Employees also are encouraged to pursue their interests and dreams while on the job.
Inclusion: At Zingerman’s, input is solicited from all parties, from line cook to customer. Staff and management are part of one community, and reunions are held every 10 years. This year, the troops will gather to celebrate Zingerman’s 30th anniversary.
In Synch: “The only thing small about this Ann Arbor gem is its footprint,” states Maggie Bayless. Signs of working in synch with nature are everywhere at Zingerman’s, from the free-range chickens on the menu to Weinzweig’s books, which are printed in southeast Michigan on paper made from 100% post-consumer waste.
Empowerment: A jazzed staff is a beautiful thing. “We’re all leaders,” says Weinzweig. Zingerman’s is a place where line employees can create new offerings and sometimes become managing partners. Zingerman’s also uses open book finances to promote a feeling of ownership in employees. The system makes all 17 managing partners and 500 employees privy to sales stats and cost percentages.
Community Ties: Zingerman’s tends to the care and feeding of the community through the nonprofit Food Gatherers, a food rescue program it founded in 1998. The first food rescue program in Michigan and the first program of its kind to be founded by a for-profit business, Food Gatherers now collects 2 million pounds of nutritious, perishable foods each year from restaurants and hotels and redistributes it to the hungry.
It’s 4 a.m., It’s 1982, and It’s Time to Haul Buns
When Zingerman’s Deli opened its doors in 1982, Maggie Bayless was an MBA student at the University of Michigan. Every Saturday, she did the pre-dawn drive to the Detroit suburbs to get the bread for the Deli’s signature sandwiches.
Her Saturday was loading and unloading bread and cheese and working in the Deli. “It was exhausting,” Bayless remembers, but “I felt good about helping make a brand new business be successful.”
She didn’t know then that her future rested with that “brand new business.” In 1994, she says, “I opened an office in the attic at Zingerman’s and hung out my shingle, not knowing what was in store.” Now a managing partner, Bayless launched ZingTrain, a company with annual revenues of $1.3 million.
A Movable Feast: Climb Aboard ZingTrain!
Unlike the drab PowerPoints and elderly coffee of most training seminars, ZingTrain offers dynamic, interactive seminars and workshops that are heavy on new tools and creative strategies. Trainers include Bayless and ZingTrain’s other managing partner, Stas’ Kazmierski, as well as Weinzweig, Saginaw and an array of other Zingerman’s insiders. Off-site trainings are held across the country and the world, and ZingTrain also offers consulting, custom training, books and DVDs.
When trainings are on-site, participants get total immersion in the Zingerman’s experience. Programs are held “just a scone’s throw away” from Zingerman’s Bakehouse, Creamery and Coffee Company, and feature not only great meals but also lots of product sampling.
From Bayless’ vantage point, ZingTrain – and Zingerman’s overall – is in what feels like “a second start-up.” Hiring is cycling up and a build-out (with Bayless at the helm) will soon be completed.
Toward a Better Way of Leading
The lessons of 30 years of innovative organization-building at Zingerman’s are reflected in Weinzweig’s just-released “Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading, Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Being a Better Leader” (2012, Zingerman’s Press).
The book is the second in a series that began with the wildly popular “A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business,” which was named to Inc. Magazine’s Best Books for Business Owners for 2010.
“Being a Better Leader” is a collection of essays that could be called…well, eclectic. It has sections on managing by pouring water and raising the energy bar, plus “A Second Look at Sustainable Business” and a recipe for noodle kugel.
Chef/author Mario Batali says the new book is “written in the key of smarts” and teaches “how to properly lead your team for fun and profit.” Keith Ewing of Humble Hogs calls the book, “Espresso shots of intelligence, vision and heart. This book legitimizes so much for those of us who are trying to live before dying.”
Why “Lapsed Anarchist”?
Weinzweig emphasizes that “anarchy” (leaderless bedlam) and “anarchism” are often confused. Anarchism, he asserts, “is actually about a very positive perception of humanity, based on the belief that people want to do the right thing and — if unobstructed by self-serving, authoritarian structures — usually will.”
He adds that the “lapsed” part refers to his own journey from believing that authoritarian structures (like the workplace) are always bad to believing that a healthy workplace can do a great deal of good.
Night of the Working Dead
They shamble, they moan, they want to go home. It’s “Attack of the Working Dead”!
The working dead are the victims of what Weinzweig calls “the energy crisis in the workplace.” And, they are everywhere. They are watching the clock right now in malls, fast food places, government offices and anywhere where you see employees afflicted by “apathy, lack of focus and drive.”
Can the working dead rise from the grave? The good news, according to Weinzweig is “Yes! If you put them in an organization that has a vision, and the employees know what it is…if the organization serves the employees well, they perk up,” explains Weinzweig. “And if the employees believe in the product and believe in what they are doing, they have more fun. Most people, put into a healthy setting, will do good work.”
Creating a New Way to Work
“What we’re doing (at Zingerman’s) is creating a new way to work,” says Weinzweig. “We are working to create ‘good work’ that helps people be great and do good.”
Central to the idea of good work are Weinzweig’s 12 Natural Laws of Business, which include “If You Want the Staff to Give Great Service to Customers You Have to Give Great Service to the Staff,” “Whatever Your Strengths Are, They Will Likely Lead to Your Weaknesses” and “It Takes a Lot Longer to Make Something Great than People Think It Does.”
Good work, as practiced at Zingerman’s, also draws heavily on Robert Greenleaf’s book “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness” (1977, Paulist Press). “I can’t stress enough the import of drilling ourselves on servant leadership,” Weinzweig maintains. “When in doubt, give more service to the staff, the customers, the organization and the community. Try it for a week or two – it’s amazing how much difference a service focus can make.”
While servant leadership may sound like hearts-flowers-and-marshmallow-fluff, bringing servant leadership into the workplace is not for ninnies. It takes guts and humility. But it is also “the fastest way to transform an organization,” states Weinzweig.
Work You Care About in a Workplace that Cares About You
As Weinzweig puts it in “Being a Better Leader,” “Good work is about positive energy – feeling it and building it. Good work is about doing something you believe in, work that you care about in a workplace that cares about you.” He adds that good work is also endlessly sustainable – you may go home tired, but you don’t go home spiritually exhausted.
“At its upper reaches, good work can be one of the most rewarding things one ever engages in.”
Art by Ian Nagy
More about passionate people with a love for food, serving their customers and expanding their brands:
Felicia Hatcher took inspiration from being laid off from her previous job and a bad experience after chasing an ice cream truck to create Feverish Gourmet Popsicles and Ice Cream.
Delia Champion went from being a waitress to making her dreams a reality with the creation of two successful brands, The Flying Biscuit and The Sausage Stand. Both are based in the heart of Atlanta.
See how her daughter's battle with sleep apnea led Andrea Hall to launch her growing business -- CamiCakes. Pineapple toasted coconut and sweet potato are just a few of the many daring flavors offered at the cupcake bakery.
Jan Turner lives and writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. For more than 20 years her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, USA Today Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor as well as on wire services in the United States and abroad. Turner has written on subjects ranging from leadership and business culture to diversity awareness and faith-based organizations, and she has a nonfiction book underway. Turner has an advanced degree in intercultural communication and has traveled solo on many continents, exploring cultures from Ladahk and Sumatra to Malawi and Turkey, seeing first-hand the contributions and resilience of women.