Zingerman's: Not Your Grandfather's Deli

In 1982, Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig opened Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich. After 26 years, they have built an empire called Zingerman's Community of Businesses that Inc. magazine called "The Coolest Small Company in America." On Friday, Oprah Winfrey rated a sandwich from Zingerman's an amazing 11 out of 5.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

First Daughter Jenna Bush and Henry Hager said I do yesterday at a private ceremony on the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas. WEEKEND EDITION essayist Diane Roberts wanted a White House wedding. In a moment she'll explain why they fuel the engine of capitalism.

First, a heads up. Our next guests appeared on Oprah this past Friday. WEEKEND EDITION food essayist Bonny Wolf has been to Michigan and back with a story to tell about Zingerman's Deli. In 1982 Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig opened their deli in a red brick building in Ann Arbor, Michigan so they can get a decent corned beef sandwich. After 26 years, they have built an empire called Zingerman's Community of Businesses that Inc. magazine called the coolest small company in America.

BONNY WOLF: This is not your grandfather's deli. Yes, Zingerman's has corned beef, pastrami and chopped liver, but they also carry estate-bottled olive oil, farmhouse cheeses, varietal vinegars, grits from South Carolina and chocolate bars from Madagascar.

In Ann Arbor, Zingerman's is to food what the University of Michigan is to education. After a successful first decade, it was time to grow. Another Ann Arbor institution, Borders Books, grew out of Ann Arbor. Zingerman's had a different idea. Co-founder Ari Weinzweig.

Mr. ARI WEINZWEIG (Co-Founder, Zingerman's Deli): There was sort of a challenge that if you don't replicate how do you grow? So we came up with a vision that outlined this community businesses where we would have a series of different Zingerman's businesses but all here in the Ann Arbor area, each with its own unique specialty, operating as one organization but with these sort of autonomous pieces within it and each with managing partner or partners in it that had a financial stake invested and a passion for running it.

WOLF: The first new Zingerman's was a bakery. It runs 24 hours a day turning out traditionally made breads. Esquire magazine singled out Zingerman's firm loaf in it best sandwich feature.

Mr. WEINZWEIG: Right now I'm actually very high on what we call the roadhouse bread. It's actually historical roots. It was the bread of New England in the 18th and 19th century. It was then called Rye Indian bread, and it's in pretty much every New England cookbook from that era. It's a mix rye wheat and cornmeal and it's got a little molasses in it, which historically used to come up in abundance from the West Indies with the rum. And it's a fantastic bread.

But I also love the farm bread, I love the French mountain break we do, which is organic germ restored. And I like them in the really big loaves. We do it in a two-kilo traditional loaf, which is great.

WOLF: That's more than four pounds of bread. Now, in addition to the deli and bakery, there is Zingerman's creamery where local milk is used to make fresh cheese, old-fashioned cream cheese and gelato. Try the pistachio. Zingerman's mail order brings in close to 30 percent of their business.

Zingerman's Coffee Company is a wholesale roaster and Zingerman's Roadhouse is a full service restaurant serving regional American food. Did I mention Zingerman's Catering.

Since by 2007 they had already accomplished everything in their 2009 vision, they don't do strategic planning, they do visioning. They've begun work on Zingerman's 2020 vision. What's left to do? Ari Weinzweig.

Mr. WEINZWEIG: Anything to do with food, you could pick a cuisine. We could have that restaurant...

WOLF: They encourage employees to come up with good ideas and start a Zingerman's business. And all employees know the bottom line, since Zingerman's posts its sales figures on big dry erase boards weekly. This year they project $34 million in sales.

Weinzweig expects there will be 12 to 18 interrelated Zingerman's businesses at 2020. As of today, there is interest in a traditional Mexican restaurant, food publishing, traditional brewing, organic farming and a spice shop. But the 2020 Vision is about more than new business, says Weinzweig, who wears black jeans, black T-shirt and earrings and looks more like an old hippie than a CEO.

Mr. WEINZWEIG: The sustainable farmer always leaves the soil in as good or better condition as when he or she started the work. And so the lead of the 2020 Vision is really our commitment to do that, not just for the soil but everything and everybody that we interact with. So that when people work there, that they leave employment here, whether it's short or long-term, better for the experience that as a customer you leave better for the experience that the people that we buy from are better for having sold to us that the community is better authorized for having been here.

And then, of course, all the environmental and food issues as well. And then, you know, it goes through a whole range of things from having fun to continuing to radically improve our food quality and our service quality and to have an educational resource, et cetera.

WOLF: Whatever they do, Ari Weinzweig says they won't stop having fun.

Mr. WEINZWEIG: Fun is in our guiding principles and it's in the 2020 Vision. Life is short, and even when times are hard, which they have been and I'm sure will be again, you know, it's important to enjoy the people and the food and the customers and everything that we get to be around them. I mean, I feel very fortunate to be around such a great group of people and to work with such great products.

WOLF: For NPR News, this is Bonny Wolf.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.