From 'deli guy' to business guru, Ari Weinzweig spreads the 'lapsed anarchist' gospel of Zingerman's success

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Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“So, you knew Ari Weinzweig when he was just a deli guy?” Cheryl Beth, president of CEO Think Tank, asks me.

Well, it’s true I first came to know of Weinzweig when I was a hungry young Wolverine, exploring his magical touch with Georgia Reubens and J.J.’s Pastrami specials when I was at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. And Zingerman’s Delicatessen, which Weinzweig cofounded with partner Paul Saginaw in 1982, remains one of America’s great delis. But Zingerman’s, which is also a market for exceptional ingredients, has always been so much more, becoming a pioneering force in the specialty foods industry that has now grown into 10 separate businesses, including a bake house, a coffee roaster, a creamery, other restaurants, and a business training center (ZingTrain), with a total of 700 employees and $65 million in annual sales. Weinzweig, recently named by Inc. Magazine as one of the “World’s Top 10 CEO’s,” is also a prolific writer who’s published numerous books, and whose “lapsed anarchist” perspective on life, food, and business inspire superlatives from colleagues, to say the least.

“Ari is to company culture and specialty foods as Gandhi is to Hinduism,” says Bill Mignucci Jr., president of Di Bruno Bros. “I can honestly say my visit to Ann Arbor transformed how my cousins and I approached managing Di Bruno Bros.”

No wonder both Cheryl Beth and Mignucci wanted to host Weinzweig this week for events. His Friday training session at CEO Think Tank is already sold out. But tickets remain for a Thursday evening Zingerman’s cheese tasting at Di Bruno’s Rittenhouse Square, where he’ll also talk about the fourth book in his Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading Series: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business. I caught up with Weinzweig for a preview and to cover some essentials, with wisdom about America’s food evolution, the power of positivity, and the regional wonders of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

A lot has happened in the food world since you opened in 1982. What strikes you as the biggest change?

Well, good food is now commonly available, in a good way. Extra-virgin olive oil was unheard of in this country 35 years ago. You could only get two goat cheeses – Montrachet and Bouchon. Now, there’s goat cheese in every moderately upscale grocery store. Even 10 years ago, you couldn’t get ‘Njduja – the Calbarian sausage — and now there’s a place in Chicago that makes it, La Quercia in Iowa, and a half dozen other people making it … I’ve always said that Americans put up with a lot of really bad food for a long time, but once we decided we were going to make a change, we did it a lot faster. There were only maybe 25 people making artisan cheese in America when we opened. Now, we can’t even come close to selling them all. You’ve got Anson Mills doing great things with grains. Great chocolate makers. American olive oil and vinegars, cured hams …

Many Americans these days take that bounty for granted. How did you persuade the public to embrace products that were both unfamiliar and more expensive? How important were in-store tastings, which are things you helped innovate? 

We were just trying to do what we do now – serve really traditional delicious food and work our butts off to help people see why it’s good. We’ve always had the belief that people could tell the difference, which runs counter to what some people still believe. We also quickly realized that the better the food, generally, the more it costs. Well-made food in the long run is going to cost more. But the customer would pay more if they understood the difference and they could taste the difference, and you can’t communicate everything verbally.

Do you worry that the sudden ubiquity of specialty foods has a negative flip side? Will pressure to lower prices, with Amazon now owning Whole Foods, negatively impact artisan producers and water down people’s perception of quality?

One of my “12 Natural Laws of Business” is that success means you get better problems, and I prefer the problem of more people eating better food with the risk of diluting quality at the highest levels to the problem of everyone eating industrial food … As for Amazon, if you try to compete with them on their own terms, you lose. We need to provide a more rewarding experience for the guest. We don’t just sell one cheddar, we sell 12. Our job as retailers is to get people to taste and notice the difference. It’s not like there’s something bad about you if you buy your Parmigiano at Kroger’s. It’s just not going to be the same.

What products are you most excited about now?

We’ve been doing a lot of work with black pepper … We’re now getting access to real farm-to-table pepper from Kerala in Southern India. It’s a much higher quality, it costs us more, but we’ve invested that money to improve the flavor of our food. Also, we spent a good year visiting a bunch of dairies [in Italy] for our Parmigiano project. It changed my beliefs about Parmigiano, which varies greatly. The public believes that there’s one cheese out here, but it’s like saying all cabernet is the same. We now have the chance to offer a more delicate, sweet, and mellow Parmigiano like Valserena to use with lettuces, or a bolder mountain cheese like Borgotaro that would be a good match for meat sauces.

You’ve been successful with a business approach that empowers employees to think like owners and that takes cues from anarchist philosophies to “get out of hierarchal thinking.” Is it hard to maintain such an optimistic outlook?

If you want to create a lasting meaningful, generative, and peaceful existence, it can only come from positive beliefs. When you’re doing good work and are surrounded by people who are caring and kind,  you’re energized … It’s my belief that everyone’s a creative, intelligent being – and not based on heirarchical value. It’s like there’s solar power but you don’t take it. The energy is present in all those people, but organizational leaders are too often operating in violation of human nature – and depleting it instead of enhancing it … I believe that when you argue against negative beliefs, you’re falling into their game. If you create a campaign to stop people from eating bad food, it’s not going to succeed because it’s negative. But if you create a  positive place that’s serving delicious food where people are surrounded by positive people with good energy, they want to go back. If you lecture them like a parent, they’ll either argue with you, retreat into themselves, or feel embarrassment – but rarely do they change what they eat.  It is so much more effective to say, “Here, take a taste – what do you think?”

Meet and taste cheese with Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s  6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, upstairs at Di Bruno Bros. Rittenhouse Square, 1720 Chestnut St. Tickets $20 at dibrunobros.ticketleap.com.