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How Zingerman's endured 40 years in the restaurant business — including a pandemic

The pandemic forced countless beloved eateries to close their doors over the last two years.

But many others have managed to weather the storm, including Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The iconic business — which first opened in 1982 as a traditional Jewish deli and food shop — celebrates 40 years on March 15.

Exactly two years before this remarkable anniversary, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms. Yet Zingerman’s is still going strong when so many other food businesses are gone.

Zingerman’s secret weapon is their mail-order business, which accounts for 40% of annual revenue, says Micheline Maynard, author of “Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built A Corner Deli Into A Global Food Community.”

“Everybody wanted comfort food, and they turned to the Zingerman’s and ordered lots and lots of things from the mail order catalog,” she says. “And that was really what kept them going, at least for the first part of the pandemic.”

The pandemic empowered businesses to innovate. Zingerman’s changed their product lineup, added items to the menu and launched curbside service, Maynard says.

“They set up outdoor seating areas, literally a park out in front of one of their restaurants,” she says, “and essentially were allowed to do whatever they thought could support the Zingerman’s brand.”

The innovation efforts follow the open-book management system at Zingerman’s, where everyone in the organization participates in running the business and makes substantial decisions. For example, dishwashers in the kitchen noticed people weren’t eating all their fries at one point, so the restaurant made changes.

One waitress Maynard spoke to at Zingerman’s Roadhouse came up with the idea for a daily breakfast special to get more customers in the door. After she met with the cooks and managers, Zingerman’s rolled out a blue plate special for breakfast and later lunch.

“Now, when you go into Zingerman’s Roadhouse, you see these big blue plates with that day’s special written up on the wall,” Maynard says.

Two years ago to the day, Maynard met with Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig.

“[Weinzweig] came to the meeting and said, ‘This is the worst day of my life. I’ve just had to lay off 300 people,’ ” she says.

Before the pandemic, the iconic deli on Detroit Street always had “the line” outside. People would line up out the front door and around the corner, she says. But the line ended when the deli had to shut down indoor dining and turn to delivery and pickup.

“At the beginning, they didn’t have a place for people to eat,” she says. “So people would come and get their sandwiches and sit right on the curb and use their wrappings as placemats.”

Zingerman’s $70 million in revenue dropped to $45 million overnight — but the changes the business made it only $2 million short for the first fiscal year of the pandemic, Maynard says.

Maynard draws a parallel between Zingerman’s and the University of Michigan. There’s a building owned by the university around every corner in Ann Arbor — and Zingerman’s feels similar with its original deli, a Korean restaurant called Miss Kim, the Roadhouse and an event space downtown.

“The interesting thing is they really didn’t grow for the first 10 years,” she says. “But what was happening was their approach was being copied and there was kind of a nasty lawsuit about it. And they decided that if people were going to pick out the things that made Zingerman’s Zingerman’s, that they had better expand so that nobody could copy it all in one fell swoop.”

Everyone asks Maynard about her favorite sandwich at Zingerman’s. But for her, the best thing on the menu is the ZCobb Salad — so big she can get two meals out of it.

Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Zingerman’s founders Paul Saginaw (left) and Ari Weinzweig back in 1982. (Courtesy)
Zingerman’s founders Paul Saginaw (left) and Ari Weinzweig back in 1982. (Courtesy)