Whoa, Deli!

Over the last 24 years, Zingerman's in Ann Arbor has evolved from the original four-man deli into a 450-employee enterprise including a bakehouse, a creamery, a roadhouse and the original, much-expanded deli. Co-owner Paul Saginaw took time to talk with us about the wholesome food and splendid service Zingerman's is known for.

Metro Times: What was your vision when you first opened?

Paul Saginaw: At first all we wanted was to have a really great corned beef sandwich. We wanted to have a sandwich that was so big that it was going to take two hands to pick it up and when you finally got it into your mouth and bit into it, the Russian dressing was going to run down your forearms. And we wanted to gather the finest artisan foods from around the world and have them in a store that was accessible to people. In the middle of that store we wanted to have a busy, bustling sandwich shop that was going to serve those huge sandwiches. Back in 1982 you didn't see that here. You could go to New York to great delis like the Stage or the Second Avenue deli and specialty food stores like Zabar's or Balducci's, but we wanted to combine the two. We don't have anything that anyone needs. No one in this town ever got up in the morning and said, "If I don't get a $10 sandwich, I'm going to kill myself." You make a conscious decision to visit us. We want to treat you like royalty so that you'll know that you made the right decision to come here. You may not be able to afford the finest automobiles or the finest resorts, but you can afford a quarter of a pound of the best Roquefort cheese in the world with your lunch today.

MT: Was it difficult to open the deli?

Saginaw: We went to the bank with a 12-paragraph business plan. They said that we shouldn't do it, that no deli has ever made it in Ann Arbor. And they didn't like our location; it was the bad end of town and they said nobody would ever come down there. A year after we opened they said that they wondered why nobody had ever opened a deli in Ann Arbor, that we had picked the perfect spot.

MT: Your employees are knowledgeable, friendly and courteous. How do you do it?

Saginaw: Training is a very big part of it: the willingness to put money into the training and a consistent training program. You will never get a level of service out of your staff higher than you are willing to give to your staff. That's often missed in business organizations.

For example, a manager brings in people and says, "Goddamnit, you guys better get out there and start giving good service or you're outta here." You need the job. You've got a mortgage. You've got kids in school. So you're not going to take it out on me, but it's going to come out somewhere. Where's it going to come out? It's going to come out on the customer. There has to be a well-defined vision of what great service looks like. Does that mean that the phone is answered in three rings or that you can let it ring 15 times? Does that mean that you greet people with a smile or that you are kind of subdued? You must provide a definition of great service so that they know what behaviors and what actions will be rewarded. And then you need to reward it when you see it.

Another part of it is providing classes, on-shift training and reading materials. That training must be relentless. If you want to work in our organization, you come to an orientation class. It is always given by founding partners so that you will know what is important to us. We explain that you are going to make a lot of mistakes. You are going to cost us a lot of money. That's OK. But if you are rude to a customer or rude to a fellow employee, I'm not going to let you work here.

MT: Zingerman's is a Jewish deli—

Saginaw: I prefer to think of it as a delicatessen. Deli to me is more like a meat counter in a super market. Delicatessens are an Eastern European thing. We're not a kosher deli, but we do like to have traditional Jewish dishes.

MT: Where did you learn the deli ... delicatessen business?

Saginaw: Bennett Terebelo was a partner with Ronnie Forman at the Bread Basket. My partner Ari Weinzweig and I went in there. They showed us how to cook and slice corned beef and brisket, how to double-bake the rye bread. They helped us when we first opened. Sy Ginsburg worked for Lefkofsky, our corned beef supplier. He would make the deliveries at lunchtime and then come in and make sandwiches with us and then go back to making his deliveries. One of the nice aspects of the restaurant business is that people already in the business are willing to help newcomers.


The original Zingerman's is at 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor; 734-663-3354; zingermans.com.

Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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