Corn Beef on Rye With a Side of Business Vision

Mark Sagor


Corn Beef with a side of business vision

In 1982, Zingerman’s Deli served their first magnificent overstuffed sandwich in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The founders, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, were united by their dream of the perfect corn beef on rye. That year was my (lucky) 13th year in Ann Arbor and I just couldn’t get enough of their insanely addictive food. I left Ann Arbor in 1983, which was a favorable development for my cardiovascular system, but I never miss an opportunity return to Zingerman’s and renew my love affair with their food.

What makes Zingerman’s truly remarkable is that their business vision is just as extraordinary as their pastrami.  We are not used to thinking about delicatessens as hotbeds of business innovation and strategy but Zingerman’s shatters that stereotype. Their employees are engaged, motivated and constantly thinking about ways to improve their products and their services. They have created an entrepreneurial environment in which good ideas can become businesses and the employees who have those good ideas can become owners.

How? What’s their secret sauce?

Zingerman’s is a place driven by the desire to learn and to teach. Whether it’s learning how to make better bread for their sandwiches, or learning how to be a more responsible member of their community, or learning how they can have more fun while getting their work done Zingerman’s has a culture which prizes problem-solving and learning above all. They aren’t just making and serving great food, they are figuring out how to make great food even better.

Listen to one of their employees:

“Working here has never felt like a job to me…….I’m constantly learning about managing, about food and about myself” 

Zingerman’s secret sauce is a business environment that supports constant employee learning. When the guy slicing corn beef is also thinking about how to make the business better something special is happening. When management makes it a business imperative to listen to what the corn beef slicer has to say about tactics and strategy that something special is reinforced and becomes the foundation of a dynamic organizational culture.

Weinzweig and Saginaw have created a business that thrives on making every employee a problem-solver. If you are a server at Zingerman’s, you are also a problem-solver. Each employee is empowered to figure out ways to make the business better and problem-solving employees are the most engaged, happy and productive employees. For more on this, please take a look at this post, Warning: Vegging Out Can be Very Stressful, featured on this blog earlier this year. 

Can you expand the discussion of how to improve your business beyond the management team to include all of your employees? A quick trip to Ann Arbor will convince you that the results could be very tasty.