Ari Weinzweig, who founded Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, almost three decades ago, got his start studying Russian history and working as a dishwasher. A self-proclaimed “introvert and anarchist,” now he’s a hero to food lovers and a serious business mogul; the popularity of Zingerman's Deli, founded in 1982, allowed Weinzweig to open a number of food-related enterprises. The Zingerman's Community of Businesses, as the parent company is known, now includes a catering arm, a coffee company, a bakery, a creamery, a mail-order operation, and a staff-training consultancy, among others. The success of the company has been noted by Fortune, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He’s even writing a book about it: The Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading.
His other books have been about olive oil, vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and bacon. Weinzweig also wrote the more broadly focused Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service. Weinzweig is an expert on both artisanal candy and on running a thriving business born from his ideals.
Zingerman’s began 28 years ago when Weinzweig gave notice at a seafood restaurant in Ann Arbor. At that restaurant, he started as a dishwasher, then moved up to prepping food. Soon, he was running the kitchen. Four months later, “magically,” he says, he opened Zingerman’s just across the street with only a cook, a waitress, and the general manager from the seafood restaurant.
Zingerman’s is a deli in Ann Arbor—a deli to be reckoned with. You can find gigantic corned beef sandwiches, an expansive array of cheeses and estate-bottled olive oils, smoked fish, and coffee. “It’s a unique place, not a chain, not a replica of anywhere in New York or Chicago or L.A.," Weinzweig says. Zingerman’s is deeply rooted to its city and to its neighborhood.
You might expect someone with a proven business model like Weinzweig's to take it elsewhere, expanding across the country or the world. But Zingerman’s, for him, is synonymous with Ann Arbor. “We chose to create what we call the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses”—a collection of Zingerman’s businesses, each with its own food specialty, all in Ann Arbor. “We like the community, we don’t like replication," Weinzweig says. "Businesses lose their soul and become uninteresting.”
Zingerman's Coffee Company sources and roasts coffee; Zingerman's Creamery makes fresh cream cheese and chocolate balsamic strawberry gelato; Zingerman's Bakehouse bakes wedding cakes and Jewish rye. Zingerman’s Mail Order ships chestnut honey, raw milk taleggio, and 30-year-old balsamic across the country and around the world.
ZingTrain shares Zingerman’s lessons and ideas with organizations from around the world. They give workshops and seminars to teach companies about training, service, merchandising, specialty foods, open-book finance, and staff management.
“What started with two partners, two staff members, and two loans—$20,000 from the bank and $2,000 more, interest free, from my grandmother—has grown steadily but sustainably to where we now support a staff of 500 and show annual sales of more than $35,000,000," Weinzweig says. Yet fundamentally, it’s the same. It’s what Weinzweig believes in: a place “where people could get incredible food and great service.” And, of course, a “great place for people to work.”
The books are open to Ari’s 500 employees. Zingerman’s hosts training sessions so that everyone from cooks to baristas can read a balance sheet and grasp what’s going on. Transparency and authenticity are not empty words at Zingerman’s. Zingerman's staff gets thorough training, a stake in the company, and a living wage.
Weinzweig says he believes in building and running business “based on what you want and believe in, not on other people.” When he makes decisions, he says considers “how we want to work, what we believe in, what we’re passionate about.”
When it comes to growing his business, Weinzweig focuses on designing a future he wants to be a part of. He believes in visioning. In the 1990s Zingerman's outlined a dream for 20 years down the road: “What we want to happen, not how to get there.” Weinzweig says he knows what success looks like and first looks for where he wants to go. Next, he worries how to get there. And this stategy seems to work: It’s amazing, he says, how close the vision for Zingerman’s 20 years ago resembles the reality today.
What’s next? A vision for 2030, which stems from the vision of today: great food, great service, great people, and a great environment. And Weinzweig will keep doing his thing, which means writing his books and essays, “lots of tasting, tracking down great food, contributing to the community, providing plenty of training classes, leadership work at all levels—all the way through clearing tables and emptying the trash"
And of course, as Weinzweig does his thing, we can do ours—namely eating and learning about all the great products he discovers as his business prospers.
Image Courtesy of Zingerman's.