Zingerman’s Roadhouse Celebrates 20 Years

Ann Arbor’s Zingerman’s Roadhouse celebrates two decades in business — here’s how the award-winning restaurant established its identity and adapted to the changing landscape.
The Spartan trailer out front was rumored to be a reference to the Michigan State Spartans. “No disrespect [to MSU]. But it had nothing to do with that at all,” Weinzweig says. // Photograph courtesy of Zingerman's Roadhouse

It all started with a cold call. In the late ’90s, Alex Young, a chef in Pittsburgh, dialed Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig. Young pitched an idea for a restaurant — an American brasserie. Weinzweig thought it needed some workshopping, but their conversations would continue.

For the next couple of years, Young regularly drove up to Ann Arbor for discussions with Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, Weinzweig’s business partner. The concept they settled on was Zingerman’s Roadhouse, a restaurant serving regional eats from around America. Young signed on as managing partner, and he moved with his family to Dexter in 2001, close to Ann Arbor and to his in-laws.

As Young planned for the new restaurant, he started working shifts at Zingerman’s Delicatessen. On the line there, he met Bob Bennett, a college student who was a couple of semesters away from a psychology degree that Bennett says he “was never going to use.” Bennett preferred the restaurant setting to the lecture hall.

“I liked the energy around it,” Bennett says. “I didn’t know a whole lot about food, but I enjoyed Zingerman’s as a company and how we treated each other.”

One day in 2003, he followed Young to the Roadhouse to prep for its grand opening. Bennett helped paint the exterior of the building, a former Bill Knapp’s restaurant. Inside, Young stained the bar ceilings and laid the zinc countertops, inspired by 1920s French establishments.

“People thought [the Roadhouse] would be like the deli when it first opened, and nobody had any idea what we were up to,” Young says. “It took a couple years to really create our own identity.”

The all-over-the-map menu included barbecue from North Carolina, lobster rolls from Maine, and gumbo from New Orleans. It was a departure from just sandwiches and baked goods.

To prepare, partners Weinzweig, Saginaw, and Young had traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, for a barbecue symposium, hosted by the Southern Foodways Alliance. The trip still holds a special significance for Weinzweig; it opened his eyes to Southern culture.

“Like everything, it’s a very complex and very fascinating history,” Weinzweig says.

Outside, contractors built a barbecue pit from a rendering Young drew on a scrap of paper. The weekend before opening, pitmaster Ed Mitchell (whom they met at the symposium) drove up to teach Young and the staff his traditional eastern North Carolina whole-hog style of barbecue, which the Roadhouse still uses today.

The restaurant became known for comfort food made with selectively sourced ingredients. Young introduced fresh produce from his home garden in 2004. The garden would expand into Zingerman’s Cornman Farms, which at one point grew over 130 varieties of vegetables and even raised small herds of pigs and cows.

Young and the restaurant would snag a James Beard Award for best chef in 2011, after being nominated the previous four years. Since then, the Roadhouse has received two additional nominations — for outstanding service in 2019 and outstanding hospitality in 2020.

“We went to Chicago, we did the red-carpet thing, we got wined and dined — I mean, it was very cool,” recalls Lisa Schultz. After starting as a server in 2004, she’d worked her way up to manager by 2013.

Another moment she remembers vividly occurred in 2017. While on maternity leave, she got a call from Weinzweig: Young was departing from Zingerman’s. For the past few years, Young had been pining to open a new restaurant, but he says he couldn’t because company policy only allowed managing partners to run one business.

“Finding out when Chef was leaving was a huge, huge shock for me,” Schultz says. “But it all worked out in the end. He was ready, and it was OK for us.”

The chef hat went to Bennett, who had been there from the beginning. He and Schultz helped steer the restaurant through the pandemic lockdowns — a time in which companywide sales dropped by half and nearly 300 Zingerman’s employees were furloughed.

“We had our regulars, who continue to lift us up,” Bennett says. “It gave us that momentum and that positive outlook in what could have been a very negative time for us.”

Today, the menu still features many of the original items, including fried chicken, mac and cheese, and house-smoked barbecued ribs that fall right off the bone. A longtime meatless favorite is the black bean and hominy burger, with green chiles fire-roasted in New Mexico and peeled in-house. Delicacies include fresh-baked biscuits and decadent donut sundaes.

Out front is the Roadshow, a 1952 vintage Spartan trailer that offers a cafe-style menu and drive-thru takeout. In warmer months, you can take your chow to the dog-friendly Roadhouse Park, a lively place to unwind with a drink or a coffee made with beans roasted by Zingerman’s Coffee Co.

The restaurant’s 220-seat dining room now regularly fills to capacity again, with Bennett and his team cranking out entrees. Last year, Schultz became managing partner. And the next generation of leaders is already being cultivated.

“One of the things I enjoy so much is seeing our staff grow in what they do, whether it’s a dishwasher who’s been here for a week or someone who’s been here for three years who just started learning a new position,” Bennett says. “We’re always building new memories.”

This story is from the December 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.