An Inside Look at Zingerman's DeliWith people trying to minimize their time out and about because of Covid-19, this company’s mail order food business has grown 100% over where it was last year.

This interview with Brad Hedeman showcases the growth and success of Zingerman’s Deli, a gourmet food business group with a zingy name headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Brad travels the globe scouting products for Zingerman’s Mail Order as well as meeting producers and learning more of the stories behind the food. He then shares those stories with customers nationwide through Mail Order’s award winning catalog. #ZingermansDeli @zingermansdeli

Who is Mr. Zingerman?

One of my favorite open secrets about Zingerman’s is there IS no Mr. Zingerman (or Mrs. for that matter)! The Deli was founded by two men, Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig. They could have called it “Saginaw’s Deli” but in Michigan there is a pretty big city called Saginaw, so that would have seemed weird. Weinzweig is too hard to pronounce, so that was out. They were going to call the place Greenberg’s Deli because they thought it sounded appropriately Jewish (both Paul and Ari are Jewish) for a New York-style Jewish Deli, but a week before they were to open they received a cease-and-desist letter from an actual Mr. Greenberg who was soon to open his OWN deli called Greenberg’s Deli. They had a few hours to come up with a name because they had to tell the neon sign maker what letters to use, so they sat down in Paul’s apartment floor with a six-pack of beer, a pencil, some paper and the phone book. Back in those days when we used phone books, the idea was you wanted to have a name at the beginning (A’s) or the end (Z’s). They wanted the deli to sound fast and fun and zany and Jewish, so they invented Zingerman’s! It was fun, Jewish, and it would be at the end of the phone book. Perfect!

Did Zingerman’s start out as a deli?

For the first ten years of its existence Zingerman’s was only a deli. That was the vision: to have a New York Style Jewish Delicatessen in this small Midwest college town where we had no tradition of such a restaurant. While Paul Saginaw always liked to say they made more money selling cigarettes than Reubens in those first couple of years (things were different in the early 80s), the deli quickly caught on and built a following. It was tiny initially, but become a bit of an industry leader in the early 90s.

Tell us about the history of Zingerman’s Delicatessen?

Well, the building itself was built back in 1902 and was originally a grocery store. When it started, it was in a “bad” part of Ann Arbor. Now Zingerman’s is smack dab in the coveted and very hip historic distract of downtown Ann Arbor, right across from our famous (over a 100 years old) farmer’s market.

How many businesses make up Zingerman’s Community of Businesses?

There are eleven businesses, currently and I hope and pray there will still be that many when Covid is over.

Can you tell us a bit about how the businesses came about?

Zingerman’s and its founders Saginaw and Weinzweig have always been driven to improve and never settle. Zingerman’s Bakehouse came about because they couldn’t find bread that they really loved for their sandwiches, so they decided to make their own. This decision was the first of many smart choices that sort of went against the grain of business at that time. The duo was faced with the need to grow and expand, but they didn’t want to get into franchising and sell out. They decided to stay in Ann Arbor, but instead of duplicating the deli, they’d use the same principles that drove the deli’s success (great food, great service, great finance) to partner with passionate people and start other food related businesses. The Bakehouse started in 1992 as a way for the deli to get better bread, but they quickly became a wholesaler to all of southeastern Michigan. 1993 is when Zingerman’s Mail Order sent its first catalog. 1994, ZingTrain opened as a way to share the secrets of our success with other folks in business, food, education, wherever! In 2001 Zingerman’s Creamery opened up. 2003 is when Zingerman’s Roadhouse and Zingerman’s Coffee Company began. Zingerman’s Candy Company, 2009. Zingerman’s Cornman Farms, 2014. Miss Kim’s opened 2016 and Zingerman’s Food Tours officially became a business in 2018 (even though they’d been operating for twenty years).

 

Can you describe the different businesses?

Zingerman’s Deli: Brick and mortar store that started it all, known for massive sandwiches and hard to find specialty foods.

Zingerman’s Bakehouse: Artisan baked breads, pastries, and more, including BAKE! their teaching kitchen where they’ve shared the secrets of Zingerman’s baking for more than 15 years.

Zingerman’s Mail Order: Folks think of us as the Deli “online” and that’s fine! We ship all over the country and have been shipping food for more than 25 years.

ZingTrain: Through seminars, workshops and one-on-one consulting, they share the secrets of Zingerman’s with other businesses.

Zingerman’s Creamery: Hand-ladled fresh cheeses and gelato.

Zingerman’s Coffee Company: Small batch coffee roasting from small farms we source from directly.

Zingerman’s Candy Company: Old-fashioned candy bars and confections reimagined (and improved) in our candy kitchen.

Zingerman’s Roadhouse: Sit-down dining with a focus on American Cuisine from all over the country (but a lot of focus on the south like barbeque).

Zingerman’s Cornman Farms: Located in the rural town next to Ann Arbor (Dexter), this event space specializes in weddings and corporate events on some of the prettiest farm land with a 150 year-old barn you’d ever wanna see.

Miss Kim’s: Though it doesn’t have Zingerman’s in the name, this is in fact a Zingerman’s business that focuses on traditional home-style Korean food in a sit down (but mostly to-go currently) atmosphere.

Zingerman’s Food Tours: curating, creating, and hosting food tours through Europe and America with small groups (12 people) and a focus on cooking classes, wine tastings, and city exploration.

How many people are employed in Zingerman’s Community of Businesses?

We have around 700 employees when we’re all up and running smoothly (probably closer to 500 at the moment due to Covid.)

I hear that the Roadhouse snagged a James Beard Award nomination in May 2020. How is business at Zingerman’s Deli and Roadhouse, with social distancing procedures because of COVID-19 put into place?

The Roadhouse opened up a lot of their outdoor space, creating dining areas on their sidewalk, underneath a large tree, and anywhere else outside where people could sit and feel comfortably safe. They seat folks inside according to our state’s guidelines, but as long as the weather is nice folks are outside.

Zingerman’s Deli has shortened their hours and is very diligent about how many people they let into the deli at a time. Of course, folks have always done to-go and pick up orders from Zingerman’s Deli, so that wasn’t something new they had to figure out, but seating is quite limited at Zingerman’s Deli because it’s only outside on their large patio (but still about half what it would usually seat) and no one is allowed to sit inside at this time. When the cold weather comes they’ll have to find a new solution. We’ve put up large tents on the Deli’s patio that lasted through the winter and were heated in past years, so my guess is we’ll find a way to do something similar this year.

You’re in charge of Marketing and Product Selection at Zingerman’s Mail Order. Have you seen an increase in orders in Zingerman’s Mail Order department since the beginning of Covid-19 shutdowns (around mid-March)?

While our sister Zingerman’s businesses have taken massive hits to their bottom line since Covid began, we (Zingerman’s Mail Order) have been incredibly busy since it all started. On average, we’re about 100% over where we were last year. It’s to the point where we have pulled back on marketing efforts and even how many catalogs we mail because the demand is so high it will be a challenge to ship all the boxes for the holiday season. So instead of advertising and taking waaaay more orders than we can process, we’re trying to manage the exposure and marketing so we don’t let anyone down.

We love your mail order catalog. Who writes it?

You’re talking to one of the three writers of the catalog! The catalog design process is led by Valerie Neff-Rasmussen, and then she tells me and Mail Order founder Maurice Frechette, what products to write about. We’ve been doing it for so long that I feel our “voice” in the catalog is pretty consistent and only I or Val or Mo can tell who wrote about what products!

For those who are trying to minimize their time out and about, what kind of mail order boxes do you recommend?

I think we all miss the feel and experience of going out…perhaps joining a friend for wine and appetizers at our favorite corner bistro. With that in mind, I highly recommend our Customer Charcuterie and Cheese boxes where you can select from a menu of salamis and spreads and cheeses and include them in the box. Grab a bottle of your favorite wine and you’ll feel like you’re in your own bistro! But most of what we ship out the door is a gift, so I recommend sending something tasty to a loved one you haven’t seen in a while.

 

Do you put together customizable boxes?

Yes! Every box can be customized and we even have “build your own” gift boxes that you can do online. DIY gifting at its tastiest!

Tell us about your mail order food clubs? How often are boxes shipped and what might be in the boxes?

Our monthly food clubs are some of our most popular gifts. We have monthly shipments of everything from bread of the month to bacon of the month to the Forbidden Foods (made up of indulgent foods we crave) to our Deli Classics to a couple of monthly clubs geared towards foodies: the Food Explorer’s and the Culinary Adventure Society. In those cases, each month is a surprise. You’re never sure what you’ll get but you know it will be delicious.

What are ZingShare boxes?

ZingShare Boxes are a weekly, local collection of foods from the Zingerman’s producers (Bakehouse, Creamery, Candy, Coffee, the restaurants) as well as local farms featuring seasonal produce. You’re never sure what each box will contain from week to week, but it benefits our local partners and customers, especially. Sadly, it’s not something we ship at Zingerman’s Mail Order.

You also ship boxes of local products. What products are in your Michigan Made, and direct from Ann Arbor, Michigan boxes?

We certainly do ship a lot of local products…especially when you consider all the Zingerman’s businesses are very local! Baked goods from Zingerman’s Bakehouse make up a large percentage of our “made in Michigan” type of products, but there are plenty more from producers all throughout “the mitten” as well as the Midwest in general. Probably too many to name, but folks like American Spoon (Petoskey) and Koeze (Grand Rapids) are popular Michigan brands that we proudly feature.

Your bread is legendary. Considered by many “to be some of the finest bread made anywhere”—which partly explains why you mail so much. What makes your bread some of the finest? Do you hand-make all of your own breads?

The biggest secret to the quality and flavor of our bread is time. We allow the bread to rise without pressuring it or heating it up or doing any of the “efficiency” fixes larger commercial bakers might do. For instance, our farm bread takes about 18 hours to make…that’s from flour to loaf. Some breads take even longer. In comparison, a more industrial baker might take two hours to go from flour to loaf. Time is money, after all!

Our bread also doesn’t contain any fillers or preservatives so the crust is the natural preservative. Our loaves can get crusty and hard, but they can be revived easily in the oven. And yes: all of this work is done by hand by litany of passionate bread bakers working around the clock, 363 days a year.

The Bread Box at Zingerman’s Deli (Credit Emma Boonstra)

 

Do you have a Bread Box that’s shipped regularly? If so, how are breads kept fresh during shipping?

We have many different bread boxes that ship all year long (as a matter of fact, bread is sort of what we built our business on). The bread bags we ship them in allow the loaf to breathe and not get soft during transit, but that’s all they get. Because their crust is their natural preservative, that’s all the loaf needs. Upon arrival, folks either freeze the loaf and use it later, revive it and enjoy it right away, or even slice it and store the sliced loaf in the freezer, careful to only pull out a slice at a time.

In May 2020, Food and Wine Magazine named you as one of the 100 Best Bakeries in the country. Why do you think Zingerman’s Bakehouse was selected as one of the top 100?

Zingerman’s Bakehouse continues to be at the top of everyone’s “best bakeries” list because we do all the little things that take time and energy (and thus money) because we know it will lead to a better product. And they’re never satisfied with the status quo. They’re constantly trying to figure out how to make an old standard taste better or what sorts of new trends could find a home on their shelves. Lately the biggest flavor improvement has come from milling our own flours in-house. Working with local farmers who raise the exact grains Zingerman’s Bakehouse wants, we are milling hundreds of pounds of flour a day on our own granite mills. The flavor improvement is huge, but the volume is still small. We go through thousands of pounds of flour a day between our breads and pastries, so hundreds of pounds isn’t sufficient, but we’re working on it! And that’s why we’re so highly regarded.

What about people who want to take a baking or cooking class? Can they still do that virtually? Are you offering private classes?

Yes! All the Zingerman’s businesses have been offering online classes (virtual learning, if you will) since right after Covid took hold. The response has been overwhelming and the experiences have really been special.

 

Can you tell us about Creamery and your fabulous cheeses? How many different cheeses do you sell? What are your top 5 best-selling cheeses?

Zingerman’s Creamery makes around twenty different fresh cheeses and spreads at its facility, but the most popular by far is their Pimento Cheese spread. If you’re in the south, you’ve likely seen pimento cheese around and it’s been a huge hit for us as well! After that our cream cheese and fresh goat cheeses are the most popular that they make at Zingerman’s Creamery.

I wish some of those cheeses were the most popular that I sold, but for me at Zingerman’s Mail Order, the usual suspects are the most popular cheeses: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Comte, Gruyere, Cheddar, Manchego…the big hitters. And of course, all of those cheeses come from Europe, not our little creamery.

You’re growing your own coffee trees in Brazil for Zingerman’s Coffee Company. Can you tell us about that and about your Coffee Club?

Zingerman’s Coffee Company has partnered with Daterra Estates in Brazil to cultivate a micro-lot of select coffee trees that we want to roast. Having specific beans that no one else has is one way to differentiate you in the coffee-roasting world, so micro-lots and these very small volume productions are one way we do that. Our coffee of the month club features a different bean from around the coffee-producing world every month. A nice way to travel the world with flavor!

Tell us about your culinary tours. In normal times, where do you go? Who leads the tours? Since 2020 is a bust, do you have tours planned for 2021?

Kristie Brablec is the managing partner and lead tour leader for Zingerman’s Food Tours, though she partners with local guides and chefs for the actual food tours (she’s not multilingual after all!). We have tours that go to Tuscany, Piedmont, Hungary, Israel, Champagne, Basque region, northern Africa…basically anywhere that makes delicious food, we probably have a connection and we introduce as many friends to it as possible!

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