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The Philosophy Behind Zingerman’s Deli

Co-founder took cues from Russian Anarchists in crafting business empire

Jeffrey Veidlinger
August 06, 2014
(Steve Pepple)
(Steve Pepple)

It takes chutzpah for a Jewish-style deli to distribute a recipe for red braided pork belly that starts with the ingredients “two tablespoons of kosher salt.” Maybe it’s the same type of chutzpah it takes to start a book on business organization by quoting the American-Jewish Anarchist Emma Goldman. Yet somehow, Ari Weinzweig, who together with Paul Saginaw founded Ann Arbor’s Zingerman’s Deli in 1982, is able to manage both. Today, the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses has expanded well beyond the original deli to include a diverse range of high quality eateries and food producers, as well as a business-training institute (ZingTrain) and an independent press. Weinzweig’s own business philosophy and personal biography draw from two of the most paradigmatic Jewish philosophies of the last century—Zionism and Anarchism.

Weinzweig was brought up in a family of ardent Zionists—Avrum “Izzy” Weinzweig, the stepfather who formally adopted Ari as a child, helped smuggle anti-aircraft weaponry to the nascent State of Israel and fought in Israel’s War of Independence as a “Volunteer from Outside the Land.” Ari’s mother, Lila Weinzweig, lived on a kibbutz in 1949 and shared her husband’s passion for Israel.

As a student at the University of Michigan, where he studied Russian history, Ari Weinzweig was drawn to Anarchism and revolutionary politics: “I don’t really understand the nation state,” he told me, “I don’t understand the bond to a politically artificial creation.” Although he spent a year as a student at Hebrew University, he remembers mostly the classes taught by former Soviet dissidents. “Reading all that stuff just resonated in terms of freeing oneself from social pressures, walking one’s own way,” he explained.

Weinzweig continues to spend his spare time on the 8th floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library at University of Michigan, where the reading room for the Joseph A. Labadie Collection of social protest movements and marginalized political communities is held. “I’ve always been drawn to the outsiders in history,” he told me, “to all the people who lost.” Weinzweig has written and published three volumes on his business philosophy, Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, all with the subtitle “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach,” and regularly holds trainings in which he draws business principles from Anarchist philosophy.

When we first met, Weinzweig was sitting in the back corner of Zingerman’s Next Door, the coffee shop adjacent to the original deli in Ann Arbor’s historic Kerrytown district. Sitting behind a stack of books on mindfulness and an open MacBook, he looked indistinguishable from any one of the middle-aged professors grading papers in the coffee shop that morning. As we talked, he would pause to greet by name each of the employees who walked by, and many of the customers as well. I had read the third volume of Weinzweig’s leadership series prior to my first meeting with him, but Weinzweig was eager to provide me with his full oeuvre before we met again. I returned a few days later to pick up the books, which were waiting for me at the counter with dozens of cash register receipts sticking out of the pages, marking the passages that Weinzweig wanted to be sure I read. On some of the receipts, he had scribbled commentary to his own text.

Weinzweig explained how the company opens its books to all its employees and was in the process of bringing employee voices—and votes—into the boardroom. This type of organizational model is influenced by the worker cooperatives favored by many Anarchists. Early in the introduction to the first volume of his leadership series, Weinzweig quotes Max Baginski, a close associate of Emma Goldman’s, who argued at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress that organizations are composed of “self-conscious and intelligent persons” and that the “true function of an organization lies in personal development and growth.”

Elsewhere, Weinzweig cites approvingly from Emma Goldman, who in 1911 railed against the “brainless, incompetent automatons who turn out enormous quantities of things,” and who had replaced “the worker who once took pride in the thoroughness and quality of his work.” But perhaps it is Petr Kropotkin, the “Anarchist Prince” best known for his daring escape from a tsarist prison, who most inspires the Zingerman’s way. In addition to working for the overthrow of the Russian tsar, Kropotkin spearheaded a local food movement, part of which he outlined in his 1906 treatise, The Conquest of Bread.

Weinzweig adds to the Anarchist credo that it’s also okay to make a profit. Many business gurus would take the profit motive as a given, but Weinzweig feels he needs to justify it with another Anarchist prooftext: an 1892 pamphlet he discovered in the Labadie Collection by Benjamin Tucker. Tucker broke with many radical theorists of his time when he argued that personal liberty is good, but it’s better when you also have “material prosperity.” Weinzweig likes the term “anarcho-capitalism” to describe what he calls “how to make money without getting hung up on hierarchy.”

With more than $50 million in annual sales, profit remains an important part of Zingerman’s, but not at the expense of their employees. Co-owner Paul Saginaw traveled to Washington in January to lobby for raising the national minimum wage and recently received a Champions of Change award from the White House for his advocacy. When President Obama came to Ann Arbor in April to talk about the minimum wage, he pointedly stopped by the deli for a Reuben sandwich.

On the night of his sensational escape from prison, while the tsarist police were desperately searching underground hideouts for him, Kropotkin took a leisurely meal at Donon, one of St. Petersburg’s finest restaurants, before being spirited out of the country. If he lived in Ann Arbor, I imagine, Kropotkin would have chosen to enjoy his last meal at Zingerman’s.

Jeffrey Veidlinger is Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author, most recently, of In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust.