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New book details the rise of Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor

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Courtesy
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Micheline Maynard

An Ann Arbor institution known for gourmet meats, breads, sweets and savory treats is about to turn 40 years old, and a new book marks the occasion by telling the story of Zingerman’s.

Walking into Zingerman’s Next Door, the coffee and pastries place adjacent to the famous Zingerman’s Deli, is a treat to the senses.

It’s cozy, warm, and it’s indicative of the attention to detail Zingerman’s pays to everything it does.

It all started in 1982 when a couple of guys working at an Ann Arbor restaurant called Maude’s, both University of Michigan graduates, decided to replicate the big Jewish sandwiches and deli side dishes of their youth at a new place together. With money from Ari Weinzweig’s grandmother and a second mortgage on Paul Saginaw’s house, Zingerman’s Deli was born.

Author Micheline Maynard tells the story in Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built A Corner Deli Into a Global Food Community, out Tuesday.

Maynard says everybody at Zingerman’s is amused when somebody claims to have known Mr. Zingerman. There never was a Zingerman. She explains that the partners were going to call their deli Greenberg’s until learning that somebody in Lansing already had the rights to that name.

“So, they decided, 'Well, what would make us stand out?,'” Maynard said. “And they looked at the alphabet and they said, ‘Why not a name with a Z?’, and that was how they came up with Zingerman’s.”

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Scott Pohl
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WKAR
Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor. Zingerman's Next Door is on the right.

Maynard’s book is more than a history of the business. Small business owners can use it as a how-to book for how hard work and relationship building with your staff and customers can produce great success.

Maynard says Zingerman’s is now a $70-million dollar business with more than a dozen satellite companies. When you buy a sandwich at Zingerman’s, they made the corned beef and the bread. That bread is also toasted at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse and Zingerman’s Coffee Company, and sold to businesses across the region and to mail order customers everywhere.

An Ann Arbor resident herself, Maynard is a long-time customer and student in Zingerman’s culinary classes. She wrote about the deli’s 25th anniversary for the New York Times 15 years ago. They know her well at Zingerman’s, and there’s a level of trust that led the company to cooperate for her book. In the early stages of the project in March of 2020, Maynard found herself in a meeting with co-founder Ari Weinzweig.

“Ari came to the meeting and he was lower than I had ever seen him and he said, ‘This is the worst day of my life, I just had to lay off 300 people.’ And that, of course, was when Gov. Whitmer announced the stay-at-home order, and food businesses were hit extremely hard by it.”

The company’s managing partners discussed whether they should go on, but they ultimately were talked out of closing. The path they chose helped Zingerman’s weather the storm.

“Carryout and delivery business was only about 8% of their business,” Maynard added. “Now, more than 80% of orders at the deli are placed in advance. You can still come and eat here now that things have loosened up a little bit, but both the deli and the bake house and all the other businesses had to learn to pivot and create new business models to deal with all the restrictions of the pandemic.”

Revenue recovered quickly, down only a couple million dollars for 2020. This year, Zingerman’s expects to return to revenues seen in 2019.

The Zingerman’s philosophy is described by Maynard as a three-legged stool of good food, good service, and good finances. They don’t target a specific profit margin. They justify prices that seem high by touting outstanding quality and service, along with that guarantee.

"Someone who walks up to you in the bread department, for example, you might be there just to buy one bagel, but that person can tell you the ingredients in every single loaf of bread," Maynard said. "Every croissant, every bagel, every coffee cake, and they’re there ready to answer your questions, as long as it takes.”

As Weinzwieg and Saginaw age, it’s worth wondering about the future of Zingerman’s. Maynard says they want to become more sustainable in coming years, and the partners ultimately want to share ownership with others. One possibility is to sell at-risk shares to the public some day, but Maynard thinks an outright sale of the company isn’t likely.

“Well, never say never,” she said. “But during the pandemic, actually, there were some financiers who reached out to Zingerman’s and basically said, 'If you need a line of credit, we will loan you whatever it takes,' and I’ve had people tell me that this is probably a billion-dollar brand.”

A billion dollars? For the name on a little corner deli in Ann Arbor? By the end of Satisfaction Guaranteed, you may think that anything is possible at Zingerman’s.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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