Book Review: A History of Zingerman’s Could Use More Nosh

’Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built a Corner Deli into a Global Food Community’ is wonky with a side of tasty
Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built a Corner Deli into a Global Food Community cover image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

I remember the moment when saying “Let’s go to Zingerman’s” got confusing. It was simple back in 1989 when, as a University of Michigan freshman, I was led by a resident assistant along with my hallmates on our maiden pilgrimage to the deli. Growing up in small, rural Brighton, I’d never even met anyone Jewish before, so I’d known bubkes about babka. The experience was a revelation.

The tricky part came later, in the 2000s. I’d be scheduling an interview, when the person would suggest meeting for coffee at Zingerman’s, and I’d have to ask, “Roadhouse? Bakehouse? Next Door?”

Yes, the tiny deli with a big reputation has, over the years, evolved into a local conglomerate known as the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. If Ann Arborites feel like it’s Zingerman’s town and they’re just living in it, there’s good reason for that, as Micheline Maynard explains in Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built a Corner Deli into a Global Food Community.

Ironically, Maynard tells us, the COVID-19 pandemic that forced us to stay home more has expanded Zingerman’s reach in at least one way: mail order. Zingerman’s Mail Order co-founder Mo Frechette says, “We were taking between 100 and 200 percent more orders” in the first months following the March 2020 shutdown. While mail order scrambled to keep up with skyrocketing demand, though, other parts of ZCoB — Zingerman’s Delicatessen, ZingTrain (the business training arm), catering, and more — languished, forcing the managing partners to adapt.

Satisfaction Guaranteed’s final section focuses on how each business under the Zingerman’s umbrella has weathered the pandemic. This lends the book a greater sense of urgency than it might otherwise have but also points to a fascinating truth: Zingerman’s survived this economic rough patch precisely because it opted to grow in numerous directions in the 1990s, rather than cloning the deli into a franchise. Zingerman’s diversity is now its saving grace.

The bulk of the book, however, covers the history and unconventional evolution of Zingerman’s since the deli’s founding in 1982. Paul Saginaw, who’d managed an Ann Arbor restaurant called Maude’s, had hired U-M Russian studies student Ari Weinzweig in the 1970s, and the two men discovered a shared passion for Jewish deli food that was hard to come by locally back then.

After seizing upon a 1902 building, where the deli still dishes out the knishes, they considered calling their place Greenberg’s but found the name was already in use by a business in Lansing. “So they scoured a phone book,” Maynard explains, “but rather than start with A, at the top of the alphabet, they decided to choose a name starting with Z, thinking that it would stand out.”

In the early days, Saginaw and Weinzweig made pre-dawn trips to a Detroit suburbs bakery to get the best bread for their sandwiches, but as the deli took off they wondered: Why don’t we make great bread for ourselves? And pastries? And cheese and coffee and candy?

This drive to keep exploring new specialties — while staying local and consistently employing Zingerman’s business principles such as “open-book management,” under which employees are informed about the company’s financial well-being, and “servant leadership,” which teaches managers to treat employees as well as they treat customers — sets the conglomerate apart.

In the end though, Satisfaction Guaranteed will be of interest mostly to business owners and entrepreneurs who are looking to get the nitty gritty on how Saginaw and Weinzweig built and grew Zingerman’s with integrity and how they’re navigating the pandemic.

Mere foodies will be left unnourished by the book’s deep dive into Zingerman’s business principles — up to and including minutiae like what is found in a new trainee’s “passport.” And while Maynard explores some moments of indigestion along Zingerman’s road to culinary superstardom — specifically, a lawsuit with rival local deli Amer’s and a failed book promotion tie-in — hearing about additional missteps would balance out what feels too often like a protracted fan letter.

In reference to Zingerman’s customers, for instance, Maynard writes, at the book’s conclusion, “During the pandemic, they considered the company a link to a life they temporarily could not lead, even if the baked goods cost tens of dollars more than a babka or a coffeecake elsewhere. That’s the kind of loyalty businesses crave — and which steers them through challenges.”

The author doth kvell too much.

This story is part of the March 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition