The city's best-known sandwich maker on his unlikely path from history major to deli owner.
When you ask somewhat what they know about Ann Arbor, Michigan, the two most common answers are the University of Michigan and Zingerman’s.
Ari Weinzweig co-founded Zingerman’s in 1982 with a group of friends. They started with its eponymous deli, known for authentic, pricey sandwiches, and built a foodie empire with a bakery, coffee business, training program, mail order operation and more. Everything is located in Ann Arbor, the only place where Weinzweig and his partners want to be.
You’re not a Michigan native. How did you get here?
I grew up in Chicago I came up to Ann Arbor, as so many people did to go to the University of Michigan. I was a Russian history major and had a particular interest in the anarchists. I graduated in 1978 with my BA in history, not really knowing what I was going to do.
I mostly knew I didn’t want to go home. I knew so many people from the Chicago suburbs who would leave, and then they’d go back and live with their parents and essentially recreate the life that they had before. I was adamant I wasn’t going to do that.
And you backed into the restaurant business.
One of my friends was waiting tables at a downtown restaurant named Maude’s. I applied for a job as a waiter, and they didn’t need any waiters, and I applied as a busboy and they didn’t call me back for that, either. After about a month, I was running out of money, and I called and said, “Have you got anything?”
They said, “Well, do you want to wash dishes?” I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to want to wash dishes so I said sure, and I stumbled into a line of work that I really love.
What appealed to you about Ann Arbor?
Ann Arbor, other than the weather, is a great place. This is small town life, but it’s highly cultured and interactive small town life. The size of the town is great for me. I still love Chicago but I only have to get on the Kennedy Expressway and I’m done. As long as you avoid driving near Michigan Stadium during a game, the reality is that I can go from one end of the town to the other in 15 minutes.
The cultural component is huge. You have the Michigan Theater bringing art films, you have music at the Ark and the Blind Pig. You have all the museums. You have two universities worth of programs. I can go eight blocks and listen to whatever world dignitary I want.
Why did you think a New York-style deli would catch hold?
If you do something really well, which in our industry comes down to really great food and really great service and provide a good place to work and keep track of your money, you’ll succeed. You have a clientele that’s interested and engaged. They want to learn. They travel and they like to eat.
You have a large number of people who have lived other places. They grew up somewhere else, and they spent years in Paris or Argentina. We bring in Hungarian bacon, and a guy will come in from Hungary and he hasn’t seen it in 20 years. Those are things that are less likely to happen in Topeka or Carbondale, Ill.
Despite all this fame, you’ve had tussles with the city about expanding the deli.
[Laughs] The town is very engaged, with highly educated and opinionated people. They’re good to sell specialty foods to, and it also means they have opinions about the way things should work. That’s the way it is.
We’ve tried a number of times, and this last time [partners Paul Saginaw and Grace Singleton] had enough fortitude for four years of getting permission. The truth is, I’d say most businesses would have taken the money from Saline (a nearby town) or a mall or a developer and gone there and said, ‘forget it.’
I like the community and I don’t like the idea of not being able to know the people I work with and sell to.
But you could be a much bigger name someplace else. Do you ever feel isolated?
One of the things that contributes to the quality of life for me is that although we’re in this smaller town, we have access to this international airport that allows us to go almost anywhere direct. Our friends who live in Madison or Chapel Hill, they don’t have that. It adds almost four hours onto any trip. It’s 20 minutes from my house. I get on the plane and I wake up in Amsterdam.
So, you’re satisfied in Ann Arbor.
I get to travel, and Paul and I have created a job we want to go to work at, why would I go anyplace else? I want to learn, teach, read, bring great food to people, write, and enjoy what I’m doing. And that’s what I get to do every day. People are always, saying, "You could" and I say, "I don’t wanna."
Photo credit: Micheline Maynard