Corned Beef on Rye to the Rescue

If you enjoy good food—food that raises your cholesterol and lowers your life expectancy—you have much to mourn in the disappearance of America’s Jewish delicatessens. According to food writer Ted Merwin, just 15 of them remained in New York City by 2015, down from around 1,500 in the 1930s. The delis, which served as gathering places for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, closed up as the communities they served moved to the suburbs and tastes shifted to General Tso and pad thai instead.

This trend was well underway when Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw borrowed $20,000 in 1982 and opened Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The two hoped to preserve the old deli tradition and provide quality food, from lox to latkes, to a midsized college town at the edge of the Detroit suburbs. Four decades on, Zingerman’s is a billion-dollar brand and has become an “entrepreneurial superstar,” Washington Post columnist Micheline Maynard writes in Satisfaction Guaranteed, which documents the business’s triumph within a disappearing craft.

Part of Zingerman’s success, of course, is that people (this author included) line up around the block to buy the deli’s $20 sandwiches. From the very beginning, Weinzweig and Saginaw focused on making first-class reubens, so they sought help from Sy Ginsberg, a major meat supplier for Detroit-area delis. Even though the method produces a smaller yield, Ginsberg pushed the duo to simmer their brisket for four hours—rather than the standard two—to produce a tender corned beef. He also advised they use double-baked and hand-sliced rye bread. “That gives you the crunch on the crust and brings out the flavor of the bread. Those are the two most important things—corned beef and bread,” says Ginsberg.

While the deli’s reuben has since garnered Zingerman’s national recognition—Oprah, the once-great shaper of American taste, rated it an 11 out of 5—Saginaw and Weinzweig had no deli experience when they opened. “I grew up on Kraft macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, and Cheetos,” says Weinzweig, who met Saginaw while working as a dishwasher after graduating from the University of Michigan with a Russian history degree. “I was sort of the failure of the family.”

Despite Weinzweig and Saginaw’s inexperience, Zingerman’s quickly became a go-to purveyor of Jewish specialty foods as well as artisanal goods, stocking imported olive oil and balsamic vinegar before many grocers had either. The deli also sourced everything from English cheddar cheeses to Wisconsin’s Applewood smoked bacon, Spanish cured pork tenderloin, Portuguese sardines, and Florida’s Tupelo honey. For many of these products, Weinzweig traveled abroad or across the country to meet the producers, generating trust as a curator among customers who wanted to spend a little more money to get small batch, premium foods—many products a customer in southeastern Michigan would otherwise never encounter.

“Good food is for everyone,” Weinzweig explains. “You don’t have to have been born French or be an insufferable food snob to discern the difference between a well-made farmhouse cheese and a bland, rubbery factory version that bears the same name.” (While Maynard finds much to admire in Zingerman’s procurement of hard-to-find specialty foods, she’s written elsewhere that Americans confronting empty store shelves amid widespread supply chain shortages should “consciously lower expectations” after having been “pampered and catered to for decades.”)

While local customers looked to Zingerman’s for its food curation, the deli developed a reputation in the restaurant world for its business philosophy—a blend of its exceptional-food-for-the-common-man ethos with a crunchy anarchism, which Weinzweig says is less about firebombing police cars and more about having a “positive belief in human dignity.”

It’s Zingerman’s commitment to localism, however, that has coincidentally transformed the corner deli into a national foodseller. With a strong brand, Zingerman’s by the early ’90s was looking for ways to grow, but Weinzweig worried that franchising the deli would only create simulacra of the original: “Everything would be present, but the vibrancy, the authenticity, the vibe are all missing.”

Instead, Weinzweig and Saginaw decided to expand their operations in Ann Arbor, starting a network of Zingerman’s “cottage industries,” including a bakehouse, creamery, and coffee roaster, that could supply each other high quality foods while branching out to unexplored markets. For the deli, it meant greater control over the quality of its perishable items, including cream cheeses and pastries, which were previously supplied by third-party vendors.

The real star of the Zingerman’s show, though, is the mail order business, which since 1993 has allowed the company to bring its curated food products to a national audience, sending its cartoon-filled 50-page catalogs to two million addresses across the country. The wittily written catalogs feature an even share of Zingerman’s products and goods from other foodsellers, much like the deli itself, and sell everything from cheese and pastry gift boxes to reuben sandwich kits and “Bacon Club” subscriptions—long before mail order and delivery food services like Goldbelly took off in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Zingerman’s has deepened its commitment to its hometown, its national customers have become its largest source of revenue, with mail order raking in $27 million last year, five times the earnings of the deli. Perhaps copying its success, Zingerman’s big city competitor, Katz’s Delicatessen, started its own mail order operation in 2017—24 years after Zingerman’s.

Although the deli is no longer the breadwinner, Maynard writes that it remains the “center of the Zingerman’s universe”—the soul of the enterprise with its black-and-white checkered floor and stacks of crusty breads, cases of cheese, and ceiling-high shelves of vinegar and olive oil.

Even so, anyone who has visited the deli since the beginning of the pandemic knows the vibrancy, the authenticity, and the vibe are all missing. For much of the last two years, the deli has been carryout only, requiring customers to order ahead and pick up their food from a tent erected outside what has effectively become another closed, Jewish deli. “If we never had a line again [customers who wait patiently outside to order sandwiches], that would make me super happy,” explains a misanthropic managing partner at the deli. “We’re way, way more profitable at this level of volume without in-person ordering.”

Still, there is some hope for fans who don’t want to order sandwiches on their iPhones: Saginaw and Weinzweig have already fought off attempts to shut down the deli, overruling the same managing partner when he wanted to cease operations as COVID first started to spread in Michigan. And, after all, it’s the devoted Zingerman’s fans who have lined up outside the deli for nearly 40 years who have made Ann Arbor a “food Mecca,” in the words of James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya.

How long can zombie COVID restrictions survive in food Mecca? Even Saudi Arabia has opened up the holy Kaaba to pilgrims. With any luck, the line will soon be back at Zingerman’s—but of course, no rush on the four-hour-simmered corned beef.

Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built a Corner Deli Into a Global Food Community
by Micheline Maynard
Scribner, 256 pp., $27.99

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