At Zingerman’s Delicatessen, “the love of food started from day one”
If you live in Washtenaw County, chances are you’ve heard of Zingerman’s Delicatessen. But what about their other businesses and growth outside of downtown Ann Arbor?
Writer Micheline Maynard joined Stateside to discuss how the original deli that opened in 1982 has become a Michigan staple. This is also the subject of her new book, Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman's Built a Corner Deli into a Global Food Community.
Maynard’s book was initially meant to catalog the business and founders’ history, but when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a stay at home order in March 2020, that plan changed. Coincidentally, that happened the same day Maynard met the Zingerman’s founders, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, for the first time. Incorporating the change, Maynard told the story of how Zingerman’s survived the COVID-19 pandemic, as well.
But first, she had to explain its origins. Maynard emphasized how embedded Zingerman’s is in the Ann Arbor community and, though it has grown and spread significantly in recent decades, it remains centered in southeast Michigan. In addition to the deli, they also operate a training program, a Korean restaurant in Kerrytown and a catering and events company, among other things.
“I think of Zingerman’s as being a little bit like the University of Michigan is now,” Maynard said. “Because when I was growing up, there was Central Campus and North Campus, but if you drive around Ann Arbor now you’ll see a little bit of the University of Michigan in almost every corner of Ann Arbor. Zingerman’s is kind of like that, [as well].”
Something that has helped in this growth, according to Maynard, is Weinzweig and Saginaw’s commitment to their particular business model and quality. Lines of customers waiting to order used to go out the door, but each sandwich was made to order and custom service was paramount.
“That was really something that was a hallmark of Zingerman’s from the start,” Maynard said. “They didn’t want to bang out sandwiches on a conveyor belt, they wanted to craft the food that they were offering.”
These kinds of crowds were impossible to draw during the pandemic, forcing the restaurant that had to lay off 300 employees to focus on pickup, grab-and-go service. But Maynard makes clear the classic feel of Zingerman’s is still there.
“It’s kind of like the modern world came to Zingerman’s, but they’re trying to keep a lot of the traditional approach that they used to have,” she said.
Something that hasn’t changed during the pandemic, Maynard says, is their ongoing commitment to philanthropy. Weinzweig and Saginaw founded Food Gatherers, an organization that collects unsold or used food from restaurants and delivers it to community distributors for those facing food insecurity. Now, they have an upcoming fundraiser with Habitat for Humanity.
“It’s been a very generous company and it’s probably one of the reasons their income, their profits, are not as high as everyone thinks they should be charging 18 or 20 dollars for a sandwich,” Maynard said.