In 1982, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw opened Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The deli quickly became Ann Arbor’s premiere specialty foods store. As the business grew to include mail order customers across the country, Paul and Ari were presented with an opportunity to open stores nationwide and follow a traditional franchise business model. What they did instead is a great representation of the philosophies that Alabama Chanin tries to embody. Community, sustainability, and education are at the heart of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, which is made up of eight different, semi-autonomous businesses that operate as one organization. Zingerman’s has remained firmly in Ann Arbor, building successful commerce from within the community, by the community, for the community. This year the organization will have annual sales of about $46,000,000 and employs nearly 600 people.
The Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (aka, the ZCoB) includes a bakery, a coffee roaster, a creamery that makes both fresh cheese and gelato, a candy manufactory, and a James Beard award-winning restaurant. ZingTrain, Zingerman’s business training service, offers seminars that share the organization’s approach to leadership, service, open book management, visioning, etc. They offer baking classes at BAKE, their nationally recognized baking school for the home baker. Zingerman’s also runs a publishing house, which publishes several books by Ari, focused on guiding the small business owner. You can find the titles Building a Great Business and Being a Better Leader here and here. In the spirit of Alabama Chanin, the books were beautifully designed and illustrated by the Zingerman’s team, printed in Ann Arbor on recycled paper and are not available through mass market distribution.
We sat down with Ari Weinzweig to find out more about this unusual and innovative prototype for a new kind of business model.
AC: Ari, what was the impetus for taking such an unusual route to growing your business? Did it feel like a tremendous risk to go against the grain?
AW: The vision for the community of businesses came out of a year-long dialogue between me and Paul. It started in the summer of ’93, about a decade after we opened Zingerman’s Deli, when we’d essentially fulfilled our original vision. One morning, Paul sat me down out front of the deli and asked me what I wanted us to be doing ten years down the road. I had no clue, nor much of an interest in working on the answer. But he pushed me on it and we ended up spending a year planning a vision of the future that we were excited about. Our original vision for the deli was clear in that we only wanted one of them—we like unique things (like the clothing at Alabama Chanin) and so we knew we didn’t want to make copies of what we had started. But we did want to keep growing. And that led us over the course of that year to write the vision for Zingerman’s 2009—it outlined the idea of having a community of businesses, all Zingerman’s businesses, but each with its own unique specialty. All would be located in the Ann Arbor area. Each would have a managing partner (or partners) that owned part of that business and ran it day to day. And we would operate as one coherent Zingerman’s organization made up of these semi-autonomous pieces.
Was it hard to go our own way? Not really that hard, I don’t think. We’ve always gone our own way. I’ve always been averse to doing what everyone else is doing. It was harder to decide what we were going to do. We knew we didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. We were much more driven to do something special, that we felt good about, than we were to make money. But there weren’t really any models out there for us to look at. So we ended up creating our own. Fortunately, it worked out pretty well.
AC: I’ve heard many people advise against taking on a business partner because you risk compromising your vision, but you’ve built an extensive business based on collaboration. How do you manage working with so many different individuals without losing your overall vision?
AW: For us it starts with the vision. Because we don’t become partners until after we’ve agreed on a vision, it reduces the odds of that happening. The way that we define our vision (described in Part 1 of the Guide to Good Leading, Building a Great Business) results in a collaboratively created, highly detailed, emotionally engaging picture of the future that we want to go after. And because it’s in writing, and we’re likely to have worked on it together for a year or more before we open, it significantly increases the odds of the partnerships working.
It’s certainly not the only way to work. But it works for us. We like having a lot of smart people driving for greatness together. I wrote an essay on the Natural Laws of Business (in Building a Great Business) and #9 is that success means you get better problems. We far prefer the problem of having too many people going after greatness and the challenges that brings, than the one of having to do everything ourselves.
AC: I’m headed to Ann Arbor this summer for Camp Bacon, where I’ll lead an Alabama Chanin workshop and take part in what is essentially a bacon festival (and fundraiser for Southern Foodways Alliance). How did the idea for Camp Bacon come about?
AW: Well, I also wrote a book on bacon—Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon. In the book I sort of made up the idea of this great camp that we could all wish we’d gone to. About eight months after the book came out we were in a meeting, talking about the book, and Pete Garner, our marketing manager, laughingly said, “We should actually have Camp Bacon.” One thing I’ve learned over the years is that those off the cuff, not really serious comments are often great, creative ideas. So I said, “You know, you’re right, let’s do it!” And we did. This will be our 4th annual. We do it is a fundraiser for Southern Foodways Alliance and for the 4H Clubs. We have a great lineup—four or five bacon makers, a couple of bacon poets, and of course you—leading a session on sewing bacon and bacon sewing. Oh yeah, plus all the bacon you can eat! Or in your case, sew!
Find more details about Bacon camp here.
AC: After Camp Bacon, I’m planning to stay over and attend the ZingTrain seminar “Creating a Vision of Greatness,” which promises to help small business owners from a variety of industries grow their businesses to greatness over bigness and achieve their respective visions. There’s a tremendous generosity in sharing what you’ve learned through running Zingerman’s. Why share?
AW: Why not? For openers, the obvious answer is that’s what ZingTrain does—share the Zingerman’s Experience and approach to business through training. Also because people asked—we’re regularly asked about “the secrets” of what we do. The business books and the seminars are those “secrets” (which of course aren’t really secrets, anyways!). On a more intellectual or philosophical level? We believe in what we’re doing. We believe that when we share it, good things happen in the world. And we believe that all involved—all of us who are sharing and you to whom we’re teaching—will benefit.
AC: In your Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1, Building a Great Business, you write that your intimate study of anarchism lends heavily to the Zingerman’s business model. Can you tell us a little bit about how being a “lapsed anarchist” has affected the Zingerman’s organization?
AW: When I started studying history at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s, my distrust of authority, along with my fascination with obscure thinkers, drove me to spend a fair bit of time in a section of the university’s graduate library known as the Labadie Collection. Barely remembered today, Jo Labadie (pronounced, Lah-BAH-die), a Detroiter known during his lifetime as “the gentle anarchist,” donated his entire collection of political pamphlets—primarily pieces by anarchists like himself—to the U of M in 1911, creating the core of a now world-renowned collection of publications related to radical politics.
To this day, many people confuse the terms “anarchy” and “anarchism.” While the two sound similar, they aren’t the same thing. The former refers to a state of leaderless bedlam; the latter is a philosophy based on respect for the individual and freedom from the restrictions of government or external authority. Early 20th-century anarchist Alexander (Sasha) Berkman said: “I must tell you, first of all, what Anarchism is not. It is not bombs, disorder, or chaos. It is not robbery and murder. It is not a war of each against all. It is not a return to barbarism or to the wild state of man. Anarchism is the very opposite of all that.”
Anyways, about three years ago as I was working on Part 1 of Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Building a Great Business I started rereading a lot of the old anarchist’s books as preparation for a talk I was giving at the Jewish Studies department at the university here. I was shocked by the amazing parallels between a lot of what they were writing about and the way we were trying to run our business. Respect for every individual, free choice, doing the right thing for the community, the importance of doing work you believe in, the belief that every individual has something to contribute, the thought that hierarchy his rarely helpful…reading it in the context of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, I was struck by the parallels. It’s pretty powerful.
Here’s one example: in her 1910 essay, “Anarchism,” Emma Goldman wrote that anarchism “is the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual… [which is] only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist—the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.” Again, replace the words “anarchism” and “society” with “Zingerman’s” or “our organization” and her words pretty much sum up the kind of work experience we’re trying to provide here!