A chat with Zingerman's Ari Weinzweig

On his start in the food industry, his book series and the power of beliefs

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

Photo: Benjamin Weatherston

ANN ARBOR - Ari Weinzweig is a man of many talents, and his interests run as deep as his passion for good food.

We caught up with him on a bustling Friday morning at Zingerman's Roadhouse, which he made his office for the day, welcoming appointments one after the other.

Weinzweig is a bit of an enigma. He is an incredibly successful businessman, public speaker and author. Yet, he is deeply entrenched in the day-to-day practices of his businesses, from checking in to see if things are running smoothly to dealing directly with customers. 

You'd expect one of the heads of a business empire like Zingerman's to be, well, respectfully detached, after years of hard work had paid off. But he believes there's always room for improvement.

He shared with us many of his philosophies on business and life, which he believes are one and the same.

Take me back to 1982 when you and Paul were thinking about opening the deli – maybe you already had a full-fledged plan. Why’d you do it?

"Let’s go back further. One of my favorite authors, Rebecca Solnit, I’m paraphrasing, but she said something like, 'Asking where the story begins is like dipping a cup in the ocean.' 

"I came to Ann Arbor from Chicago, where I grew up to go to U of M and I studied Russian History, and I also studied the anarchists as part of that. A lot of our work is around visioning, which is getting clarity around a positive future that you want to go after whether it’s personally or professionally or organizationally. (After) I graduated, I really had no vision whatsoever, I only knew that I didn’t want to go home. In order to do that I needed a job, and I had driven a cab while I was in school, which was not all that fun.

Weinzweig in the 1980s (Courtesy: Zingerman's)

"So, I decided I would apply at a restaurant called Maude’s, which was here in town on Fourth and Liberty, because one of my roommates was waiting tables there. Long story short, after applying three times for various lower positions, I went there and said, 'I really want to work,' and they said, ‘Do you want to wash dishes?’ I didn’t really know anything about restaurants and I said, ‘Sure,’ and I started that night and that’s how I got into food.

"There was no lifelong dream of opening restaurants, there was no lifelong passion for cooking. My mother was a good person, but not a good cook. Nobody in my family was in business; I didn’t even know you could go into business. I just needed a job. And so I really lucked out because I really came to love food and cooking and the food business and also met great people. 

"Paul Saginaw, my partner, was the general manager of that restaurant, Frank Carollo, one of the two managing partners in our Bakehouse was a line cook, and Maggie Bayless, who’s a partner at ZingTrain, was a cocktail waitress. It’s now close on 40 years that we’ve known each other and we still like each other and we’re still working together, so I feel really, really lucky on a million levels for that.

"Frank started teaching me how to prep and cook and then I started managing kitchens. I stayed and worked for them for about four years total. Paul left about half way through that and opened Monahan’s Seafood Market in Kerrytown with Mike Monahan, which is still a fabulous fish market. He and I, we’re friends, and fall of ’81, I just kept getting to this point that, it’s not like I hated going to work and it’s not like they’re bad people or a bad company, it’s just less and less inspiring for me and I could sense more and more where they wanted to go organizationally was not where I wanted to go.

"So on Nov. 1, 1981, I gave two months notice, not really knowing what I was going to do next. And Paul, not knowing I had given notice, called me a few days later and said, ‘Hey we should go check out this building by the fish market that’s coming open.’

The early years: Weinzweig and Zingerman's Deli co-founder Paul Saginaw (Courtesy: Zingerman's)

"In Detroit, where he grew up, you could get good deli food, in Chicago you could get it, but you couldn’t get it here. So the meaningful conversation started that first week of November 1981, somehow we managed to open four and a half months later. I say it now, and it’s true, it can almost take almost four months (nowadays) to get a meeting set up when everyone’s in town and not in the middle of something else, but we went from start to open in that quick period."

What was the initial response from Ann Arborites? Did they appreciate that there was a deli in town; that there was something different?

“Obviously, there’s 100,000 people in town so they don’t all have one response in unison. I think it’s a mix. There was a high degree, as always with any business, of skepticism. Ann Arbor had 10 or 12 delis that had failed in the previous 10 or 15 years. That neighborhood used to be considered a not very good area. And you know, kind of the general wisdom, like, 'It’s a bad location,' 'There’s no parking,' 'You don’t know what you’re doing.'

"And we did some things then that are common now, but were quite uncommon at the time. One of which was combining serving restaurant food with selling retail items. In those days, they were two totally different industries that didn’t meet.

"We also took all the traditional Jewish stuff we’d grown up with that we’d been making, but we also had ham hocks because at that time, it was still very much still a middle class African-American neighborhood, so (it was), 'Sell to who’s in the neighborhood.' So, we had all of that in one place. A lot of that was unorthodox and then each person can pick the parts they don’t like.

"Obviously, I think it’s a great town and part of what’s been great from day one -- and what continues to this day -- is there’s so many people here who travel, who read, who are interested in other cultures, who’ve come from other cultures, and then they have a higher familiarity, whether that culture is New York, Chicago or France or Italy or West Africa. You have people coming from all over and can relate to some of the products in a really special way and it’s a really meaningful experience to be able to serve the Bakehouse’s dobos torte to someone whose grandmother was from Budapest and to see the emotional connection play out."

So when did you realize that you wanted to expand to something even bigger? When did you decide to open this Community of Businesses and Zing Train?

“That’s 1993. Paul, without any warning, kind of demanded what I wanted to be doing in 10 years and I didn’t know. Most people don’t really know."

Sounds like a marriage.

“Yeah, and, in essence, what he was asking and (in) the language we now use all the time, he was asking, ‘What’s your vision?’ But I didn’t really know, I didn’t think he really knew either, only that, in a sense, we had already fulfilled our original vision. And it’s not like I was satisfied and I didn’t feel everything could be better, because everything always needs to be better, that’s been true since we opened. That’s still true today.

Weinzweig at Camp Bacon in 2016 (Photo: Jennie Warren Photography)

"So, that led to a year of arguing and conversation and that ended with us writing -- for the first formal time -- a vision on paper, which was 'Zingerman’s 2009,' and went 15 years into the future. (We also) wrote about this Community of Businesses that would be what it is -- each business with its own unique specialty -- so you could keep the uniqueness of the deli, which has always been the core for me, philosophically, of what we were doing, yet, allow for growth and opportunity and each business would have managing partners in it who would own part of that business and be able to actualize their passion and their dreams. And to do it all in the Ann Arbor area, because for me, it’s really important to be bound to the town in which you’re doing business and to manifest the town and inform the town at the same time.” 

How involved would you say you are day-to-day, week-to-week in these businesses?

“Pretty involved.”

You tend to check in on a regular basis?

“It’s not like we fund it and check in once a year. It’s like, ‘Is the coffee tasting right?’ ‘Is the music too loud?' 'How’s the bathroom look?’ And I don’t mean there aren’t other people dealing with that, it’s part of the work. Then there’s governance of the organization, we just spent an hour yesterday going over benefits plans -- it’s important work. It’s a million things."

I’d like to talk about your books. You’re an author and you’ve written several works. This is part of the "Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading" series. You just published the fourth out of six last summer. And the latest work is the "Power of Belief in Business," that was preceded by "Building a Great Business," "Being a Better Leader" and "Managing Ourselves." It’s really interesting how you find that beliefs really connect to business. Talk a bit about the book and what was the experience writing it?

"It sounds crazy because we have a business that teaches business and leadership approaches, and we’re pretty good at it and I read a lot. So it’s not like I didn’t know beliefs existed, but the truth is I never understood and thought about the huge impact of what we believe is, and what we create and what we do. 

"The more I got into it the more it blew my mind and the more I realized how essential it was to what we were doing and trying to do. A lot of people have that belief that you’re born that way, but you’re not. It’s all learned. And so, racism is learned, anti-Semitism is learned; those are beliefs. Beliefs that people are generally good is a belief. Belief that people are out to get you is a belief. But what turns out is that 95% of the time is that they are self-fulfilling.

"So, if you believe that people are out to get you, you will act distrustingly, you’ll hide things, you’ll withdraw. What does the other person (then) believe? That you’re hiding things, that you’re going to screw them over. The inverse is where you believe that people are generally going to do the right thing and when something goes wrong it was well-intended but they fell short, you’re more open with them, you’re more trusting, you have an energetic connection with them, then they feel more grounded, they like you, they tend to do good things and you go, ‘See, I knew they were a good person.’

Weinzweig speaks at a ZingTrain event (Courtesy: Zingerman's)

"So, as simplistic as it sounds, it’s actually going on all day long. You lived in Israel. The whole Middle East construct is really two opposite beliefs going at each other and no one’s willing to change their beliefs. So, they will self-fulfill into continuing the conflict. And I’m not saying there’s not merit to all perspectives, it’s just somebody has to stop the belief in order to get to a new belief. We’re all in this together. Let’s try to take a deep breath and figure out a solution where everyone can come out ahead. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do here, as imperfectly as we do it."

Do you have the other two topics for the next two books in mind?

“I’m working on a food book, which is a collection of food essays because I have 30 years of writing food essays, so I’ve been trying to work that into my routine and get that going. It's really a chance to show people a historical construct because, with the benefit of history, I realized that I wrote about olive oil 25 years ago, but the American understanding of olive oil has come a really long way, the marketplace has come a long way, so we’re putting that together now. Then after that, go back to the 'Guide to Good Leading,' probably the next one (will be) on open book management, which is a whole other discussion and probably a (book) on governance after that."

I want to talk about your employees. You have over 700 employees working in your various businesses. My personal impression, coming in to your businesses ... it’s a different vibe. People seem happy to come to work, happy to make your day a little better. Is there really something to that? Do you have a specific method of hiring that you think is different from other businesses?

"We do, but I don’t think the hiring is really what it’s about. I think it’s more about how people get treated and how they participate in the business. There’s an essay in part one in the 'Guide to Good Leading' on the '12 Natural Laws of Business,' it’s my very strong belief that all healthy organizations, whether it’s a news organization, academic, brownie troupe or basketball team, all of the ones that are thriving are doing great things and living in harmony with nature.

"I think that when they don’t live in harmony with nature, then they violate human nature. And when you violate human nature, you create what I’ve come to call an 'energy crisis' in the workplace, which is the opposite of what you’re seeing here in our imperfect workplace, which is disengagement, apathy, people hate going to work, they tolerate it because they need to make a living but they don’t care, they don’t feel cared about, they're not that passionate about what they do, they don’t have any say in what they do.

"And that energy crisis is endemic, it’s international. It’s not only in the U.S., it’s everywhere.
I believe that those people are just as good as the people who work here; just as talented and just as capable. It’s just they’re in a setting that they’re not cared for, where they’re not allowed to use their ability, where no one’s interested in their ability and then they disengage as a self-protection. We do have hiring techniques, we have a whole hiring seminar called ‘Working with Zing,’ and I think they’re good techniques, but I think it’s ultimately more important what we do with people after we hire them than who we hire."

You’re super busy.

“Everybody’s busy.”

I feel like you’re way busier than most. And between managing and overseeing all of these businesses, you write. So what do you do in your free time? Do you have free time?

"The way I look at it, all of your time is free time because one chooses what one does and you don’t have to go to work, you don’t have to go home, you don’t have to spend time with your kids. My time is full, but it’s by choice. I run every day. I have four books sitting with us on the table here. The third book on 'Managing Ourselves,' I really have the belief that it’s all one life. So it’s not, ‘Here’s life, and here’s work.' It’s all woven together. I think it’s all put together and it’s really about mindfully choosing.

"When you choose to do something your energy is totally different. And I think that’s part of what you do in the workplace -- for better or for worse -- is that most people don’t own the decision to really own their work and go for greatness in their work. They feel forced by society, by their life, by their family. And when you feel forced, it’s like they’re prisoners and it’s not a lot of fun. 

"I think when you create a healthy setting, whether it’s at home, you’re in it by choice. I realized the hard way: I don’t have to be nice to anybody. It’s my choice. I don’t have to read. It’s my choice. I don’t have to get up early. It’s my choice. I choose those things because the outcomes I want to get to will be more likely to be achieved if I do those things.

"If we don’t treat the staff well and with dignity, then we’re not going to give good service. And if we don’t give good service, we’re going to be out of business. I don’t want to go out of business!"

Can I challenge you to vision Zingerman’s over the next 20 years?

"In 2007, we wrote the vision for 2020, which is in the back of the first business book. But now it’s almost here again. We’ve started the never-easy-but-important conversations around what’s the next vision. So we’re working on 2030. And we use a consensus model for decision making at the partner level so it’s not a quick conversation. Even with me and Paul it was a year, and now we have 20 something people."

Final question, Ari. This is an important one. What is your favorite sandwich at the deli?

"Well, I’d probably still say the #1 -- which is corned beef and chopped liver and Russian dressing. Although the Montreal smoked meat’s really good right now, so you could substitute that for the corned beef."


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