I never expected Mario Batali to change my life. But he did.
That might sound overly dramatic, but it’s kind of true. About 15 years ago, when I was still a junior reporter, I scored an interview with Molto Mario. To give you a sense of how times have changed, it was for a column about what websites celebrities liked to visit. The web was still a novelty—and one that we were all just getting used to.
Batali rattled off in quick succession his favorite online destinations. Included in his short list was a place called Zingerman’s. Every year he ordered cakes from the site as holiday gifts for his friends and family.
I had no idea what Zingerman’s was or what it sold, but if Batali thought enough of its stuff to give it as presents that was good enough for me.
After a quick search on Yahoo (it was 2002 after all) I found the company’s site. I soon learned that it was an Ann Arbor, Michigan, staple feeding generations of students at the local university and countless others through its mail order business.
The company’s catalog featured bright folksy illustrations and pithy descriptions that clearly somebody who loves their job wrote. It was like if New York’s Zabar’s had been taken over by Ben and Jerry.
It didn’t take long before I was ordering fortifying boxes of brownie bites for expecting parents, Reuben sandwich kits and bread loafs for holiday gifts, and comforting baskets and coffee cakes for grieving friends and family. While I normally pride myself on my gift-giving skills, Zingerman’s made it too easy. To be honest, it felt like cheating. All it took was a few minutes to find an item that would surely be a hit. I even carefully curate a stack of old catalogs that I am perennially promising my wife I’ll throw out but rarely do.
But I’m hardly alone in my allegiance to the site. Zingerman’s is one of those rare companies that’s not only able to succeed but actually transcends just selling sandwiches, cakes and brownies. Satisfying not just the stomach but perhaps nourishing the soul. And since its founding more than 35 years ago, it has also turned into a huge business made up of ten independently run divisions that employ 700 people and brings in $62 million in sales a year.
But back in 1982 when it opened the mission was a lot less grand.
“We had very modest expectations,” admits Paul Saginaw, Zingerman’s co-founder. “Our vision was very modest at the beginning, like let’s stay alive. Let’s stay open.”
He took out a second mortgage on his house to raise $20,000 and his partner Ari Weinzweig borrowed $2,000 from his grandmother. With the money and four months of planning they opened the deli in March of 1982 in a 1,300-square-foot space and hired two employees. To put that in some perspective, “$20,000 won’t even get you through the permitting process these days but that allowed us to open a restaurant,” points out Saginaw.
But the prospects for their success were down right grim. “The general wisdom was that we were doomed to fail,” remembers Weinzweig. “Ann Arbor had a dozen delis close in the previous decade.”
That’s not to mention that in the early 1980s the prime lending rate was 18-percent and there wasn’t a lot of parking around the deli’s location.
The duo, however, was undeterred. Was Saginaw ever afraid of losing his home? “That certainly didn’t scare me,” he says. “I came from little and if I lost everything it didn’t really matter.”
There was also the small fact that while both Weinzweig and Saginaw grew up eating deli and had worked in restaurants and fish markets for years, neither had any experience making corned beef. Of course, the measuring stick of any deli is the quality of its corned beef sandwiches and the pair knew that they were in trouble. They fortunately found a mentor and instructor in Sy Ginsberg, who had run a deli in Michigan and became their meat purveyor. (They still work with him today.) He taught them the art of making and slicing corned beef as well as brisket. Thank God, he did. The meat is, of course, the star ingredient in Zingerman’s famed Reuben, which is the deli’s signature sandwich.
There were a few other things working in the pair’s favor. The food movement was slowly picking up steam with celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck rising in popularity. “Right around then food was starting to occupy a larger portion of the public’s conciseness,” says Saginaw. That trend certainly helped Zingerman’s expand into a broader array of specialty food items from around the globe. And that’s not to mention that “we are in a college town, one of the largest public universities,” says Saginaw, “and so we had people from all over the world and we also had people that traveled a lot.”
It also didn’t hurt that Zingerman’s original core offering has universal appeal. “A sandwich is accessible to everybody,” says Saginaw. “You don’t have to explain what it is.”
So much so, that as students and locals who had developed a fondness for the establishment’s dishes began moving away, they started calling and asking if Zingerman’s could send them their favorites. That was the start of the mail order business. The catalog debuted in 1993 complete with its homespun aesthetic. “When we started, we didn’t have any money and now it’s hard to remember but in those days food photography was super expensive and it was a lot cheaper to draw,” says Weinzweig. “Now it’s the other way. Your eight-year-old could take the food photos and we pay a lot of money for people to illustrate everything by hand but it became what we do. So, it really just started out of practicality. And, of course, everybody told us you can’t sell food out of a catalog without photos but it doesn’t seem to have proven to be true.” This year, he says the mail order business will do about $16 million in sales.
Over the years, Weinzweig and Saginaw decided to expand the Zingerman’s brand into a number of related businesses run by partners, including a bake shop, a candy manufacturer and even a corporate training company. In addition to being based in Ann Arbor all of these ventures share the same mission of providing a good product and a good place to work.
“While you’re not going to get wealthy, you can have a good life, you can have a good business and you’re going to eat really, really well,” says Saginaw of the specialty food industry. “You’d be a glutton if were asking for more.”