Why Business Not as Usual Works for Inc. Magazine's Coolest Small Company

This post is based on an archived interview with Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, founders of Zingerman's Delicatessen.

“I’m an anarchist and an introvert,” Ari Weinzweig.
"We have no business being in business," Paul Saginaw.

This is not what you’d expect to hear from the founders of several successful businesses. But that’s exactly how Ari and Paul described themselves during our interview. Except for the introvert part, I can relate to the underlying sense of not having any business being in business. But Ari and co-founder Paul Saginaw have created a successful community of food-related businesses (ZCoB) that completely upend the idea of business as usual.

It’s been several years but there are plenty of reasons why Inc. Magazine named Zingerman’s the coolest small company in America. After all, they’ve succeeded in building an empire without giving up what made it great in the first place.

My conversation with Ari and Paul, focused on the practical ways that they put creative thinking to work. While there is much to consider in their uncommon sense, here’s my take on the top three reasons why no-business-being-in-business is good business for them.

Pragmatic Visionaries

They started small but their vision was always big. Driven by their taste buds to bring the perfect corned beef sandwich to America’s mid-section (geographically speaking) they were practical about building a viable business that was also a vehicle for something more. Like an elasticized waistband (which you need when eating at Zingerman’s because it’s SO good), the deli expanded outward: becoming a bake house, a creamery, an online store, a management-training consultancy and more. The bottom line was an indicator not an end. They were practical and yet never lost touch with a greater sense of purpose.

Inclusive and Connected

Long before the clamor for transparency and authenticity in all things, Ari and Paul were living it. From the get-go they were as committed to their employees and the community as they were to their customers. So how do they do it?

They share financial goals and performance with employees. In fact, they have training sessions so that everyone from cooks to counter staff and coffee house baristas, can read a balance sheet and grasp what’s going on.

 They train their people. With a variety of three and five-step guidelines, Zingers (my word for Zingrman’s staff) live the goal of great customer experience. It’s a very smart use of structure as the source of freedom, allowing people to excel as their authentic selves within the Zingerman’s culture.

They provide a living wage. Ari and Paul may have started the deli because of a passion for corned beef. But from the start, their vision included creating a business that paid people a wage that would support a life: an education, a mortgage, an opportunity to advance. Their philosophy in action has strengthened and enriched the Ann Arbor community every bit as much as their many charitable programs.

Zingy! Really Truly Remarkable

Zingerman’s is a deli plus a community of other food-related businesses. But they’re also in the business of retail theatre. This applies to the online store too. The customer experience is a heady mix of yeasty, cheesy, meaty aromas with a congenial crush of people noshing, shopping, and learning about handcrafted, insanely delicious food. Their in-store graphics are great too: a little quirky, slyly funny and with just enough feeling of home made to keep it real. The online store extends the brand with the same graphic style and high quality content that will keep a foodie up long past bedtime.

When your name (Zingerman’s) becomes an adjective (Zingy) that describes the experience you deliver, you’re definitely doing something right. In fact, you can learn from Ari and Paul and their management consultancy team by signing up for a ZingTrain session. Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have any business being in business. You may be destined for something great that simply isn't business as usual.

  • Like3 Reasons Why Business Not as Usual Works for Inc. Magazine's Coolest Small Company
  • Comment
  • ShareShare 3 Reasons Why Business Not as Usual Works for Inc. Magazine's Coolest Small Company

Industrious, an Actor's Secret to Success

Several years ago, during a conversation with Guy Sanville, actor and artistic director at the Purple Rose Theatre, he repeatedly used the I-word. No, he didn’t say idiot, which I frequently mutter in reference to myself. Guy chose the word industrious to describe his work habits and those of people who are successful regardless of their profession.


You just don't hear the word industrious all that often, unless you're watching a wildlife show on the nature of beavers. Though there's nothing bad about it, industrious is not one of the top ten characteristics I'd like someone to use when describing me. Maybe that’s because I associate it with a faint-hearted kind of praise, like having a solid attendance record. (Although, Woody Allen allegedly said that 80 percent of success is just showing up.) Or maybe I simply equate industrious with an unvarying machine-like regimen.

Industrious as a Framework for Success

And yet, industrious is the word that Guy chose to describe his approach to the craft of acting. Which makes sense because the development of craft, the essential skills and techniques that are fundamental to all endeavors, does take work. A lot of work. But industrious doesn’t happen all willy-nilly. It demands a certain structure, a framework for accomplishment. Creating, whether it’s a character, a play or a new theory of the cosmos is work. But industrious, when applied to work you love, is not at all formalistic. It’s rigorous, not regimented. It’s structured but never static. It’s practiced repeatedly but is not mind-numbingly repetitious. 

Industrious and Creative

Industriousness and creativity are not mutually exclusive. They’re just different sides of the same coin. It’s that dynamic-tension-thing of apparent opposites coming together to produce work that lives rather than toiling away to work for a living.

Industrious people continually refine their craft. They are engaged in such a way that what works is something more than working. In our commitment to craft, we catch an occasional glimpse of art: the ephemeral and transcendent feeling of being completely connected to something greater than our singular selves. Whether you call it inspiration, art or transcendence, it is the pursuit of this elevated state that drives the industrious practice of a craft.

As Guy reminded me, acting is about doing. Industrious people get things done without a zombie-mind way of working. Hmm. Industrious is sounding better and better, a worthy New Year’s resolution to produce work that both lives and makes us a living.