Zingerman's — first a deli, now a cluster of food businesses with deli still at the center — is constantly evolving, raising the bar and looking ahead
Zingerman's made a name for itself as a unique deli in downtown Ann Arbor, Mich., years ago, and it's been getting better ever since.
The company philosophy — treat staff and customers well, then good things will follow — has proved to be true. It has energized the staff, bred customer loyalty and continues to push sales up, officials told SN.
Aside from its overstuffed New York-style pastrami sandwiches and renowned corn dogs, other things make Zingerman's stand out in the industry. Notably, the customer reigns at Zingerman's.
Co-owners Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw were just out of college when they went into business together, determined to give their customers “a wonderful experience.” That has not changed.
“We live by our service guidelines,” Weinzweig said. Those guidelines are: “Find out what the customer wants. Get it for them, accurately, politely and enthusiastically. Then go the extra step.”
The promised “wonderful experience” means offering customers top-quality products, top-quality service and anything else they want, even if it means listening as they talk about their kid's new zeal for broccoli or his troubles at school.
What has changed over the ensuing years is that Zingerman's has grown. It's been expanding with new, related ventures ranging from a cafe to a consulting and training business — all while staying at home in Ann Arbor — and honing the good things the company was known for from the start.
Sales, too, have changed. They've grown each year, and so has the company's reputation. In 2004, Food & Wine magazine named Zingerman's one of the 25 Best Food Markets in the World. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the company has just enjoyed its best sales year ever, exceeding projections at just over $30 million.
Customers pay well for Zingerman's super service and top-quality products. Paying $9.50 to $14 for a sandwich and $8 for a loaf of bread leaves them undaunted. In fact, they appear to be a happy bunch.
They were particularly happy on the day SN talked to Weinzweig. It was the University of Michigan's homecoming weekend, the home team had just beat Purdue, and the store was full of visiting parents and students.
“I'm seeing many of the same faces all weekend. They were at our Roadhouse cafe last night for dinner, and now I see some of the same people at breakfast and buying other things in the deli, probably to take home,” Weinzweig said.
Zingerman's remains somewhat of an enigma in today's world, where profitability usually takes precedence.
“Our profits are not as big as people think they would be when they see our retail prices,” Weinzweig told SN. “We buy the best we can find in a category, and then there's the training and the very good service we offer. It costs a lot.”
He explained, too, that a hallmark of Zingerman's is letting customers have a taste of anything they'd like to try. Sampling and demos are an everyday thing here.
“When we break open a case of preserves, for instance, we'll open two or three jars to use for sampling. We don't sell everything we buy.”
Also, there is a tremendous amount of time that goes into seeking top products in all categories. Weinzweig and others travel worldwide looking for what they hope is the best of the best.
Ingredients that go into products made on-site are carefully chosen.
“Our corn dogs are made with Niman Ranch hot dogs and a cornmeal that comes from a South Carolina mill that uses four corn varietals, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries,” Weinzweig said.
“And our doughnuts. Everybody makes doughnuts, but not like these. We use a Dutch American recipe brought to the United States in the 17th century. They're made with molasses, buttermilk, freshly ground nutmeg and old-style brown sugar that hasn't had the flavor refined out of it.”
Weinzweig said he didn't know if the doughnuts were the best to be found, but he knows they're very good. “I don't compete with anybody but myself. We just keep trying to make things better.”
With all that goes into offering what they offer, it just costs a lot, making profits slim. For instance, the deli's net profit last year was just 3.5%.
The owners never worried about their high retails turning anyone away.
“We knew if we told people about products and let them taste them, they'd understand,” Weinzweig said.
“If you put a row of preserves for $4 alongside a row of preserves for $6, sure, they'll pick up the $4 jar. But that's not what we're about. We tell them about the product and they get to taste it and see how good it is. Over the years, they've come to trust our judgment.”
Craig Matteson, a long-time resident of Ann Arbor who describes himself as a “devotee of all things Zing,” is one of those people. He said he's always delighted with Zingerman's, as is his whole family.
“Zingerman's has always been great, but it has never been ready to settle down. We [customers] have been the beneficiaries of their striving to do things better, to get something just a bit more interesting, maybe to show us an artisanal food that we never knew existed,” Matteson told SN. “Being a customer at Zingerman's is never just about eating wonderful food. It is more about exploring the wonder of great food.”
The striving for “better yet” has always been part of the success quotient. So has creating a vision. In fact, Weinzweig said that is key. The constant evolution is crucial, but it would not happen without sitting down and outlining goals for the future.
“If you don't have a vision, you're not likely to get there,” Weinzweig said.
Several years ago, he and Saginaw wrote down their vision: a group of business partners running various self-contained but interconnected businesses under Zingerman's guidelines.
Managing partners, who are often employees, put in some of their own money.
The Bake House, which has been turning out bread that people drive miles for, was the first of the interconnected businesses that now include the Roadhouse cafe, a creamery, a mail-order business and a training center.
Weinzweig and Saginaw also determined early on that even though it would expand, the company would stay in Ann Arbor, would not franchise anything out and would not duplicate anything.
“For instance, we have only one deli, one bakery. If we had two or 17 of those [concepts, Zingerman's] would no longer be unique.”
An open financial book and a stated vision help make staff feel comfortable and secure, and do wonders for morale on the front lines, employees told SN.
From the first, the owners were dedicated to treating their staff right. That's where good customer service starts, Weinzweig said. “The service the staff gives the customer will never be better than the service we give the staff.”
As word got around that Zingerman's is a good place to work, the company has pulled some of its best staff members from the corporate world.
For example, Gauri Thergaonkar, the company's retail deli manager, has a graduate degree in mechanical engineering and worked as a mechanical engineer at nearby Ford Motor Co. for 10 years before throwing in the corporate towel and accepting her position at Zingerman's. In doing so, she took a two-thirds cut in salary, but she said she's never had any regrets.
“I like the way Ari and Paul run Zingerman's,” Thergaonkar said. “For instance, the whole business is set up to support the front-line staff. They're very aware they're the ones serving the customers, making the sales.”
Thergaonkar added that she's inspired by the owners' general philosophy — that one should leave a place better than they found it.
Food industry sources told SN that the talent and skill of the staff is one of the most impressive things about Zingerman's.
“Zingerman's probably has some of the best-educated employees of any retailer in the country,” said consultant Howard Solganik, president of Culinary Resources, Dayton, Ohio, who works with supermarkets.
Another Zingerman's employee, Ann Agler, office manager at ZingTrain, the company's consulting/teaching business, also came from the corporate world. She had worked at Roadway Express.
“When I started to work here, it took me a while to get used to being treated so well by the owners and managers,” Agler said. “Everybody here, from top to bottom, walks the talk.”
ZingTrain seminars in leadership, customer service and other facets of doing business are attended by a wide range of people from outside the company.
“There's an NBC producer signed up for one of our seminars next week,” Agler said.
Indeed, the seminars attract people from all over the United States, representing a wide range of businesses, some of them supermarket chains and independents. Other people just make sure they go to Zingerman's to pick up favorite foods whenever they're near Ann Arbor.
Solganik told SN he detours out of his way just about anytime he's within an hour and a half of Ann Arbor just to go to Zingerman's.
“They offer the best of class of the basics,” Solganik said. “You won't find pheasant under glass or duck à l'orange, but they have the best corn dog I've ever eaten.”
Some former residents say they look forward to visiting Zingerman's whenever they're back in the area.
“For many years, when living in Lansing, and teaching at MSU, I searched and connected with a few stores that carried their breads, and on occasion made the trip to Ann Arbor,” said Jack Allen, professor, food marketing, Michigan State University, East Lansing. “[They have] the best bread I've experienced as a consumer in the United States.”
Another fan of Zingerman's bread, Neil Stern, senior partner, McMillan Doolittle, Chicago, also had good things to say about the business itself.
“At heart, they maintain the spirit of a great, small independent: unique products and outstanding service,” Stern said. “They have resisted the temptation to expand — and possibly lose the magic — while still proving you can get big. A good example of expanding by differentiation.”
Whoever Mr. Zingerman is, Zingerman's was not named after him — or Mrs. Zingerman.
Indeed, the name is made up.
“When we talked about opening a business back in the fall of '81, we wanted a name that would convey the sense of a good local deli, something that would sound ‘Jewish’ and offer anyone who heard it the sense that this was a real delicatessen,” said co-owner Ari Weinzweig in a humorous statement he offers to anyone who asks about the name.
“Since we're both Jewish, you might think, why not use one of our names? But mine is not easily pronounced, and [co-owner] Paul's name [Saginaw] sounds anything but Jewish. That's an Indian tribe after which the Michigan city was named. So we decided to name our deli after one of our customers, Hannah Greenberg.”
The young business partners had a green neon sign made for the window and had newspaper ads ready to run to announce the impending opening of “Greenberg's Delicatessen.”
About 10 days before opening, Weinzweig received a phone call from a man asking for Mr. Greenberg. When Weinzweig explained there was no Mr. Greenberg, the caller identified himself as Mr. Greenberg and said, “That's my name and you can't use it.”
“Turns out that he [Greenberg] had registered the name “Greenberg's Delicatessen” with the state office in Lansing a few weeks before we had decided to use it. He planned to open his deli in the Detroit suburbs in the spring,” Weinzweig explained.
Slightly daunted, Weinzweig and Saginaw retreated to Saginaw's house to think hard about a name. They decided they wanted it to begin with an “A” or a “Z” so it could be easily located in the Yellow Pages of the phone book.
They finally came up with Zingerman's.
“It sounded Jewish enough, and, as everyone now says, it has ‘zing,’ so that was it.”