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Monday, 28 May 2012 19:18

Q&A: Ari Weinzweig, co-founder, Zingerman's Deli

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Q&A: Ari Weinzweig, co-founder, Zingerman's Deli PHOTO: Joe Boomgaard
A Former cab driver who studied anarchism in Russian history at the University of Michigan, Ari Weinzweig never considered starting a business and really had no interest in the food industry. But Zingerman's Deli — the beginning of the "Community of Businesses" that he and Paul Saginaw went on to create — remains an Ann Arbor institution. The pair's success and Zingerman's extraordinary customer service model have created a legacy that transcends the Kerrytown neighborhood where the deli is based. Weinzweig was in Grand Rapids mid-May for the recent Business Alliance for Local Living Economies conference.



How did you get into the food business?

I had graduated and knew that I didn't want to go home (to Chicago). One of my roommates was waiting tables at a restaurant downtown, and it seemed like a good place to work, so I went in there looking for a job. I was hoping to wait tables, but they didn't need anybody. After four weeks, I really needed a job and the only thing they had was washing dishes, so I took it.
You didn't really plan to get into the restaurant business, then.

I had no particular interest in food and no desire to be in business in the least. Business, in my experience, was mostly bad. I just really got lucky because I stumbled into the work that I really love.

What do you look for in employees?

Mostly, we look for people who share our values, which includes working hard and learning and giving of themselves to the customer and the community and each other. I believe that when you live the natural laws of business, you create good work. When you create good work, people are excited about what they're doing and they feel like what they're doing matters, and they feel cared about. They feel like they have a chance to grow and live a life that is fulfilling and enriching. They believe in what they're doing.

The whole idea behind Zingerman's was always to have just one location, but there came a point in your history when you at least investigated going down a different path. Why?

It had been clear that we wouldn't grow beyond where we were, but (Paul), for whatever reason — and more power to him — decided to think about it anyway. We spent a year trying to answer his question of where we would be in 10 years, and we wrote a vision for 15 years out, which became known as Zingerman's 2009.

Describe that vision?

It was an outline that we would create this community of businesses, all located in the Ann Arbor area, operating as one organization, but with these semiautonomous pieces within it. Each would have its own unique specialty so that way we remain true to our intent to have only one deli. Each had a managing partner or partners in it so there was literally hands-on ownership in each business.

Didn't people counsel you to avoid bringing on more partners?

Generally, anything that we have done people have counseled us (not to do).

If that's the case, where do you turn for advice?

Listen to your gut and a few people whose views you really trust.

Why not just branch out?

I don't like copies. If you gave me $20 million right now, I just wouldn't do it because I wouldn't go to work in it. We want to try to create greatness. We just didn't think that was going to happen by having multiple copies of the same thing.

Does Zingerman's value failure?

Literally, you fail every day, every hour. People market ... the big failures, but the reality is those were made up of lots of small failures. It's hard to fail, for me, but it's good learning. I've learned that it's just part of life. You can't succeed at every single thing.

Can people learn entrepreneurship or do they just have it in their nature?

I think anybody can learn pretty much anything. I never have thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I just think of myself as going to work and having a really good job that I like.

Where does Zingerman's go from here?

We want to make our world better, which deals with environmental issues and diversity issues, making the lives better of everyone we interact with. (Zingerman's 2020 Vision) talks about radically improving our food and our service and our finance. It talks about having fun, about creating opportunity and giving responsibility to everyone in the organization.

Where is driving increased profits in that plan?

Radically improving our finances is in there. If you're not profitable, you can't really be in business. It's more what you do with the profit. We need to be profitable to be sustainable, but we do look at it in a holistic way. We want the people that work in the business to do well, we want the community to do well, and we want the suppliers to do well. If everybody's doing well, it's all going to go up together.

Anything you'd do differently?

A million things, but here we are.

Interview conducted and condensed by Joe Boomgaard.


Read 3630 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 August 2012 16:41

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