20. 10. 2014 Corporate responsibility

Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman´s: The best answers come from your people

Co-owner of the popular group of companies known as Zingerman's, will take a part at the Forum on Corporate Philanthropy.

How can a student of Russian history achieve a successful business and become an owner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen?

After i graduated from University of Michigan i got a job in a local restaurant here in ann arbor washing dishes. It’s not like i had any big plans or that i dreamed of working with food. I just didn’t want to move back home to Chicago and i needed a job to make that work.   and that’s the job that i found thanks to one of my college roommates who was working there already.

Paul Saginaw, my partner, was the general manager at that restaurant. That’s how me we met. And i fell in love with the food business. Four years later paul and i opened the Deli. We had 1300 square feet (not sure what that is in meters) of space, 29 seats, 25 sandwiches on the menu, some bread from other bakeries, a little smoked fish, olive oil, salami, etc. and two employees. That was March 15, 1982.

Your business covers many different areas – you offer a variety of goodies, gastronomic tours abroad, events… you even write and sell books. How big is Zingerman’s community of customers?

Our customers . . . for our mail order which is about 20 percent of our total sales . the customers are all over the country of course. Customers for the other businesses—the majority come from the ann arbor area. It’s a town of about 100,000 people with a big university (U of Michigan). But because of the University community, the health care center here, the many high tech businesses, etc. we get many visitors from around the country and the world as well. So the answer is that we have a solid blend of locally based customers with visitors from all over the US and around the world. We even get visitors from Slovakia.

How can it be that your customers are even waiting in front of your deli store in line? In Slovakia, we remember this type of situation only from communism era, when we had shortage of bananasJ and it was sold out almost immediately.

Yes, there are lines in both scenarios. But i would guess that in our line people are mostly happy to be there and are excited to get into the store – not because we’re about to run out of everything but because they know their meal will be really delicious and they’ll have a great service experience, have fun, and learn some new things! Also here the customers have hundreds of other options of where they could go eat. We’re honored that they choose to spend their money AND their time with us.

What seems to be the most important motivation to your employees?

Ultimately of course motivation comes from within. Each person is motivated by different things. When we think about our approach to Servant Leadership that means that we work to treat staff members like customers. In which case our work is gently find out what motivates each staff member and then do our best to manage them accordingly so that we can help them motivate themselves. Some staff get excited because they love the food; some love serving; some learning; some want to work with people they really like. Others want to pursue their dreams. Some want to become partners at Zingerman’s.

All that said, i think many things are universal. I believe everyone wants to be part of something greater than themselves. Everyone wants to work on things that they believe in. everyone wants to be treated with respect and be valued for who they are. Everyone wants to learn and grow. Everyone needs to make a living. Everyone wants to be treated fairly. Everyone would like to have some voice in how the place they work is run, even if they know that they don’t have the ultimate state. Everyone wants to have hope that the future will be better than the present.

Ultimately the best answer would come from the staff!

Here are four answers I got today:

“I love working somewhere where everyone treats everyone else with respect!”

“What I love is that for the first time in my life i don’t dread going to work. Every other job I’ve had i felt like “Ugh, I don’t want to get up. It’s great to have a job where i WANT to be there.”

“Another new employee said, “Having just had so many terrible experiences and then thinking about how i would do it differently and then being in a place where those good things are all in place already is amazing. I go home happy every day from work. I’ve never been anywhere where doing your job is this much fun.”

Another said, “The biggest thing about this is being part of an organization that is respected because of the way things are done. And it’s really nice to work with people who care about other people. It’s an honor to be here.“

In the end, i believe that when we live in harmony with nature—by living the Twelve Natural Laws of Business—then we create a setting where people’s natural positive energy, creativity, intelligence and desire to do something great in a way that helps those around them will emerge, and thrive!

Henry Stewart from Happy LTD company (UK) once told us that they have a waiting list of future employees (people who want to work for his company). Is that case also for Zingerman’s?

I don’t think we have a waiting list but I like that idea!   In the food business most people aren’t taking their job here with the idea that they will keep it for life. It’s more often seen as a transitional step towards something else. This is, i believe, a bit different than in Europe.

That said, many people end up staying here for many years, even decades, doften far longer than they anticipated when they took the job. We definitely have great people who seek out employment here. I just got an email yesterday from a woman with about ten years of really good restaurant experience who wants to move here from a town three hours away to work with us.

When interviewing a potential employee, what characteristics she/he needs to possess and what criteria she/he needs to meet in order to succeed and enter your company?

There are many things of course. Certainly skill and experience in a job is important. But other things are actually even more important. Here are a few:

  • Values alignment. It’s critical that the applicant shares our values.
  • Energy – it’s very important that the applicant brings positive energy to work with them every day.
  • Drive to learn – if people don’t like to learn, this is not a good place for them to work.
  • Desire to lead
  • We also use our “smile rule” – if they don’t smile when they come from the first interview, we don’t hire them.
  • We also do trial shifts for candidates that seem like a good fit. That means they come in and work for four, six, eight hours . . . we pay them for it. and they’re on the floor working with a trainer. It’s a chance for them to see if they really like the job and a chance for us to see if we believe they’re a good fit. People say things in the interview but when they’re on the floor we can see them in action.

What do you like the most? Eating, experimenting with new dishes or writing books?

I like all of it! I also like helping others to learn and eat well. Finding great food, and connecting that food with staff and customers. Travel. Teaching. Laughing. Doing the little things too – greeting guests, clearing tables, talking about our products. I like pouring water at the Roadhouse in the evening. Today i sat with the 20 people who work at the Coffee Co. working on their five year vision.

No matter what i do I work hard to appreciate every small thing—the joy is usually, for me found in the little things! And i think the more one actively seeks the positives, the joy, the more good things one finds!

What achievement are you proud of the most?

I’m much more focused on the little things that the big things. The big awards and articles are nice but i’m more excited by far by the little things. The six year old who chose the Roadhouse as the place to have their birthday dinner. The 80-year old woman who grew up in Hungary and has tears in her eyes when she tastes the Dobos Torta from the Bakehouse. The staff member who sudddently starts to really get it and then starts learning and growing at an amazing rate. Or when people have written a vision and starts to come true.

And of course the food always gets me going. When i taste an amazing piece of cheese or a truly fabulous olive oil or piece of chocolate. Or bread from the Bakehouse or a great espresso or a bite of the handmade candy bar from the Candy Manufactory. I’ll be excited when we get our first Slovakian items (that i learn about on this trip) into our offerings too!

What is your favorite type of music?

Music, good question! I like a lot of alternative music (not surprising right?) A lot of singer songwriters. A lot of traditional folk music. I think that creating a great organization is an artistic act in the same way that writing music or writing books or painting is artistic. Specifically .. . will Oldham, be good tanyas, iron and wine, nick drake.

What influenced your lifestyle and the way you manage your company? Who actually manages your company – you or your employees?

Ultimately everyone here manages the business. We ask everyone in the organization to take responsibility for leadership, regardless of what their day to day duties might be. And we’re actually teaching everyone here how to run a business from the minute they begin their work. Clearly Paul and i started the whole thing and the managing partners of each business lead in theirs. But our systems and our culture encourage – imperfectly of course – everyone to step up! And different people step up and lead in different settings.

Slovaks have reputation of hardworking people. Therefore, one of the most discussed issues in our country nowadays is work-life balance. Do you face the same issue in your company?

Work life balance is regularly discussed in the US as well. Here’s my take, excerpted from zingerman’s guide to good leading, part 2; a lapsed anarchist’s approach to being a better leader, from the essay Ten Tenets of Anarcho-Capitalism.

I’d like to return for a moment to the thoughts of Wendell Berry, whom I quoted in the introduction to this book. As you may recall, it was from a letter he’d written to the editor of The Progressive, responding to an article advocating reducing the workweek to thirty hours in order to preserve jobs and make sure that people enjoyed a “proper” chance to appreciate “life.” Berry is one of the country’s great writers, an eloquent advocate for traditional, sustainable agriculture, and an all-around insightful and interesting guy. While he made many good points, one is particularly relevant to this tenet. “Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as ‘less work, more life’ or ‘work-life balance’ as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.”

That last line still makes me laugh even though I’ve read it about eighty-eight times now. Where did the idea come from that there was something called “work” and something else called “life,” and that the one only started when we clocked out from the other? The way I’ve long seen it—and Wendell Berry pretty clearly concurs—we work at all aspects of our life, and we’re alive at work. In the end, it really is all one life. Berry pokes appropriate fun at the writer of the original article, pointing out “ . . . the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.”

In fact, good work is a significant contributor to a high-quality life. No matter how few or how many hours you spend at work, playing golf, gambling, or getting a college degree, the point is, it’s all one life. Work doesn’t have to be something you do to just to get by. Sure, we work in part to pay the bills. But to Mr. Berry’s beautifully stated point, good work is about far more than that. Good work, I would posit, is something we do to help develop ourselves, and something we do to help the world and those around us. As Gustav Landauer wrote, “What we have to do is but to re-discover what lies hidden in us, what is inalienably ours, that what our true and better selves are called for to represent; namely the binding and unifying tie, the true and full life of the human spirit. To live in a wrong way is to live a life of death.” By contrast, choosing (see Tenet 3 above) to enjoy it, to bring positive energy into all areas of existence, is a much more rewarding way to go.

I feel very fortunate to have found good work the way I have—I know that many people haven’t. I work hard to enjoy what I have, and also to help others create and live in ways that work for them. That, I think, is a big part of my job. Call it a calling, call it “good work,” call it vocation, or, if you want, a “vacation.” That’s actually what I’ve started to say. Work, to me, is a vacation. If a vacation is about doing what you want to do, and not “having to go to work,” well, heck, that’s what I do every day. Bringing all the elements of our lives into one holistic, sustainable construct is well in synch with anarchist approaches. The anarchists, Murray Bookchin wrote in Remaking Society, “saw no contradictions between material well being and a well-ordered society, between substantive equality and freedom, or between sensuousness, play, and work.” I’m in on all counts.

Visioning the Artful Life You Want

Perhaps one of the ways we help bring this tenth Tenet to life is by teaching personal visioning classes for our staff. Larry Lippitt, son of Ron Lippitt, the man who developed the approach to visioning we use here everyday, wrote in Preferred Futuring that, “Freedom . . . means being able to actively and consciously participate in the creation of your own future. If your future is decided by others you really are not free . . . there is a relationship between freedom and our willingness to determine what our future will be.” Literally, by teaching visioning we’re helping everyone here to come clear on their long-term dreams and desires. Once they know where they’re going, how their work and family and passions fit together, creating a congruent, rich, and rewarding life is well within their grasp. The message, and the belief behind it and the real-life experience all around it—is that we can all make tomorrow the tomorrow we want. As anarchist and longtime student of the American West, C.E.S. Wood, wrote, “Without Vision life is mere existence.” And, Wood went on, “Vision is no empty dream, no floating cobweb. It is man’s vital force.” Or to quote Gustav Landauer, “Humans have the capacity to freely and independently create a life that is their own.” The more we help everyone here understand that, through visioning, they can create the life of their dreams—one that includes family, work, hobbies, sports, art, or anything else that they’re drawn to—the more they can bring congruency to all they do. Which in turn improves their energy, makes life more enjoyable and work more effective—in the end, we all win.

Why did you decide to come to Slovakia? What message do you plan to share with Slovaks?

I’m honored that you’ve asked me to come. We’d already interacted over your interest in the business books. And it seems clear that the Pontis Foundation is doing very important and meaningful work in the community both in Slovakia and with NGOs around the world that help people in need.

We read that you are interested especially in Hungarian cuisine?

We’ve spent the last few years working to bring the baking and cooking of Hungary back to Zingerman’s Bakehouse, and now I’m hoping to learn some traditional Slovak dishes that we can teach our customers about as well.

Do you have a meal, which you would like to taste in Slovakia?

Our work at Zingerman’s is always about traditional and full flavored food. And i’m very much looking forward to learning about—and eating—traditional Slovakian fare! For me it’s always about the old style of food, usually the cooking of the country side. It’s not about haute cuisine, but rather the food people eat every day, at the markets, or at home for special occasions.  

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