Food by VICE

How Zingerman's Turned Anarchy and Corned Beef into a $60 Million Business

Zingerman's has been called “the coolest small company in America.” And what fuels the cool? Anarchy

by Tom Perkins
Oct 16 2016, 9:00pm
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All photos courtesy of Zingerman's.

In 1982, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw co-founded Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After making its name in the Rueben trade at the outset, the company has since grown to become Zingerman's Community of Businesses, which now pulls in over $60 million annually. Managing partners run each "semi-autonomous" business, including Zingerman's Roadhouse, Creamery, Coffee Company, Bakehouse, Candy Manufactory, Catering, ZingTrain, Cornman Farms, and Mail Order.

Yet even as Zingerman's expands, it's still regarded as an ethical producer and model of a progressive business that keeps its values intact. Its customer base is growing and loyal; Mario Batali, Oprah, and Barack Obama have offered their endorsements; and Inc. called it "the coolest small company in America."

So what fuels the cool? Anarchy. Or, more precisely, anarchistic principles. Weinzweig, who studied anarchism and Russian history at the University of Michigan, never set out to build a small food empire. However, the background in anarchism proved more valuable than a run through culinary school ever could. Since the start, he unconsciously applied many anarchistic principles and ideas into the management and development of Zingerman's culture.

Today, those principles are more deliberately worked into the equation, and Weinzweig discusses them in his series of business books. The most recent installment, A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach To The Power of Beliefs In Business, was released in August. We spoke with Weinzweig about anarchy, treating people right, and success in food.

MUNCHIES: You describe yourself as a "lapsed" anarchist. Tell me what that means and how anarchism fits in with developing Zingerman's. Ari Weinzweig: I'm less and less lapsed as the years go by. I studied it in school so when I started to get into restaurant management, I tried leaving everyone alone in this nice but somewhat naïve belief that if you left everyone alone, then they would just do the right thing. That didn't work, so for years I would just say I was a lapsed anarchist because I still believed it, but didn't practice it.

Then, seven years ago, I was working on part one of the business book, and I got asked to speak at (the U-M) Jewish Studies department … but when I got to six weeks out, I was like, "Man, these guys know who the anarchists are and I haven't looked at any of these books in forever." So I got out all my old books, and started to re-read and two things kind of blew me away. One, how much of the spirit and philosophy that's in the books we had implemented without calling it that or thinking of it that way. And two, how much of what the anarchists were writing about is now discussed as "progressive business," and the parallels were shocking.

There's all this writing about building the individual's spirit, free choice, and the organization helping to develop people who are a part of it—all this stuff is now common to discussion in progressive business circles that the anarchists were writing about 100 years ago.

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People seem to think that you can't be an anarchist and a capitalist restaurant owner—they are mutually exclusive. You say they aren't. Can you explain that? A lot people have a misconception that anarchism is about chaos and violence. There were violent anarchists, but there were violent Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans. There are violent people in all walks of life, but for me, it's actually about a positive belief in human dignity and creativity, and the belief that every individual matters, and the disbelief in the value of hierarchy, which I think is unnatural. So in hindsight, I can see where those beliefs influenced us because from day one we never thought we were better than anyone else and we still don't. It's true when we hire a dishwasher today and it was true when we hired an employee in 1982.

How do you apply those principles to running Zingerman's? We need to be providing amazing service and food so people want to come back to us, and we like the idea of going out and re-earning our credibility every day. For me that's what the free market stuff is, but it doesn't have to be done to the detriment of other people. It can really be win-win-win. We want people who work at Zingerman's to do better and make more money. We want vendors to well, the community to do well, customers to do well, and the hope is that everyone benefits from the presence of the organization.

[There's] the old business model that you have to destroy the competition and grab everything for yourself. When you do that, that reinforces the belief in everyone else that they have to grab everything for themselves. But if you approach business with spirit of generosity, then you have the belief that the more you share, the better it goes for everyone. When you share with others, they share back, then everyone comes out ahead. Looking back, we've been doing that.

And that has made Zingerman's more successful? We started with me and Paul, then we added managing partners—18,19 of those—then two years ago we added staff partners. We use a consensus model for decision making, so we added three staff people to the partnership group who have the same say as Paul and I ...and there's also about 240 employee-owners. Plus we pay gain sharing to businesses when they're possible …and we try to be supportive of the community.

Do you worry that food quality will suffer as you grow? I think food quality can go down if you don't grow, but the idea of having managing partners in place, having a good system in place, having a strong culture and doing a lot of training, I believe it can actually get better. If you look back at our history, when we started the Bakehouse, it drastically improved the bread we were getting, which means all the sandwiches got better. When we started the Creamery, all the sudden we had this this handmade cream cheese circa 1900 instead of commercial stuff. When we started ZingTrain, all the training got better, so the idea is that each piece is contributing qualitatively to the other. And when you have a managing partner on site, the hope is you have someone passionate about that product.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.