I recently returned from a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a mid-sized city of around 120,000 residents. There I met the co-founder of Zingerman’s, a deli business that has ballooned into a huge enterprise of nine businesses that together take in $46 million in annual revenues—and is still growing. Ari Weinzweig started Zingerman’s Deli in 1982 with a partner, Paul Saginaw. “All they wanted,” their website says, “was a great corned beef sandwich and an organization with soul.” Slowly, in response to seeing a need for ancillary goods and services, they added on other local businesses around Ann Arbor—a bakery, catering service, mail order, creamery, restaurant, candy shop, coffee bar, and a training institute.
What I found so inspiring about the Zingerman’s family of businesses is the fact that it’s based on Ari’s deep love for the Ann Arbor community. Like many who live there, Ari attended University of Michigan, fell in the love with the city, and decided to stay. He ventured into the business world with some very basic principles that built the foundation for his success.
These simple principles can apply not only to running a business but also to living life with meaning and purpose. In a nutshell, Zingerman’s is founded on the belief that enriching lives is the essence of what makes a community happy and healthy. Enrichment can come from providing delicious food, and it can come from putting people to work in meaningful jobs. Zingerman’s now employs 600 people in its various enterprises, and each one becomes an active part of the Zingerman family.
I’m reading Ari’s book called A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business, and it’s so revelatory. He has a deep commitment to doing what’s right. Part of the mission statement for Zingerman’s is “to show love and care in all our actions.” So simple, but so powerful. If business people everywhere—if everyone everywhere—subscribed to this belief, so many of the world’s problems would evaporate. Sure, it’s pie-in-the-sky thinking, but I believe, as Thoreau, Gandhi, and other sages have taught us, each of us individually can perpetrate this kind of thinking through our actions.
Part of Zingerman’s success is its commitment to buying local. I found this philosophy in a number of businesses I visited in Ann Arbor: local businesses buying from other local businesses. Even more inspiring, I found a sense of nurturing and encouragement among business owners. “How can we help each other?” seems to be their mantra. I found this so refreshing—and so absent from our region.
Why is it so hard for people here to embrace the concept of community? I know, I know: the transient military population is one answer. But even they can take time to look for local businesses and patronize them—if they understand how important it is. We all want to live in a great community; some would argue we already do. But as I’ve traveled around and visited other cities and towns, I’ve seen such passion, such a sense of commitment from entrepreneurs in other places that I just don’t find here.
There’s talk of starting a “Think Local First” movement here in Tidewater. I would say it’s about time. As for the future, I think Millennials will play an important role in developing a sense of community in our region. In the meantime, we can do our part by patronizing small businesses, getting to know the owners, and starting a dialogue about what would make this community a better place to live.
I think Zingerman’s mission—“to show love and care in all our actions”—is a good place to start.