For years I have heard about this oasis of all things delicious in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A Deli, no less, in the historic district on the north end of downtown on Detroit Street.
It's an old Victorian brick, with a neon sign in the window and lots of crazy sign writing with a line out the door wrapped around the side of the building, especially on Saturdays. It's bumper to bumper inside, not just with people, but with cheese cases, stuffed with some of the most delectable and rare cheeses one can find this side of Europe. There's a bread station filled to the gills with maybe 10 types of fresh bread or more with someone there to slice a taste for you. A swinging deli with proper pumpernickel to sandwich one's pastrami, offers and suggests of the best drinks to go with, such as true cream soda and ginger ale. Walls of truly hand-picked extra virgin olive oil labels, fabulous balsamic vinegars, and someone there to help you decide what to taste and what to choose. There are spices, marmalades, crackers, cookies, coffee cakes, etc. etc. Knowing what I know, it was like visiting a museum of the best food products in the world and I was hungry. I was told by people in the know to call my order in, in order to get it faster. I did just that and within minutes I was paying for my sandwich, while someone not only recommended what I should drink with it, but went and got it and popped the top for me with an old fashioned bottle opener. Zingerman's Deli. The only deli in the world that has as much interest in it's customer as the customer has in it.
My sandwich was handed to me in a recycled bag with the Zingerman script all over it. I unfolded more paper, reading almost like a bottle of Dr. Bronner's soap, from the sandwich. Something to the tune of, "we go to all ends of the earth to bring this highly intelligent sandwich to your lips," or something to that nature. And that's how I felt. Like someone cared, understood that I want to eat well-prepared, delicious, unadulterated food. My experience was exaggeratedly good, psychedelic alnmost. Big flavor. Just the right combo of fixings, accompanied by the perfect pickle crunch and washed down with a real vanilla and cane sugar cream soda.
Do you know how I know when something is good? I feel nourished. I don't feel overly-full. I feel...satiated. I wandered to the cafe next door to find something else equally fun to eat. After all, I considered myself on a culinary adventure. I wanted more. I didn't need more, but I wanted it. I was sensually fed just by looking at the beautiful chocolates, appreciating the texture of the coconutty macaroons and the smell of the just-roasted espresso of choice.
I had already been hanging around the ZCOB [Zingerman's Community of Businesses] for a few days. Instead of duplicating their deli success, the owners decided to empower their own hardworking, inspired and trained managers to come up with good ideas and take them forward under the Zing label. True to form and quality, this now includes a full-on artisan bakehouse, gelato, creamery, conscious coffee roasting, catering, candy shop and, last but not least, food tours. (Thank god there's mail order.)
But it doesn't stop there. Now Zingerman's has an all-American restaurant called The Roadhouse, serving "the best of" from around the country. My father's fried catfish recipe is on the menu, as well as the best grits I have ever eaten (from Anson Mills). It was love at first bite. Tears came to my eyes as I registered that unmistaken real corn flavor that I so loved at my grandmother's table.
Ari Weinsweig, founder and owner of Zingerman's since 1982 along with Paul Saginaw, knows good food. We have known each other upwards of 10-12 years, mostly meeting in Italy at SlowFood events or trips sponsored by Old Ways Preservation and Trust. We would walk the aisles tasting cheeses, olive oils, whatever we deemed worthy. He has also brought a group of people to Tuscany and visited my program with one of his food tours. The purpose of my trip to Ann Arbor was to talk about just that. What sort of trips could we collaborate on? I must say, I get very excited about working with people with such big ideas. It's a successful model, this Zing Train. I sat in on a planning and vision meeting that our friends in Washington could learn a thing or two from. Ari and Paul have bold ideas and opinions, along with the various managers that have the courage to listen to each other and work things through to the best end. This kind of communication keeps the mission of giving great service in all their venues creed.
Sitting with Ari one morning over coffee in the Cafe', he spoke to everyone by name mostly and pinching the cheeks of babes..
young and younger. He'd make a great politician. At one point, he yelled out, 'how ya doin Clay? Anything I can do for ya?' I turned around and he was talking not to a customer, but an employee. If your boss is asking you how you are, then how can you not ask the customer with genuine concern, how he or she is? A product of good parenting..or shall we say management. He shuffled through every code red and green sheet, finding out who was happy and who was not and why. Greens by far outweighed the reds. The reds only really pinkish. No concern was left unturned.
I came away thinking that this was a huge domestic culinary adventure for anyone wishing to see locally what can be done with a food passion. Many things sold here are no doubt imported. Ideas being some of them. Knowing how to make good gelato, good cheese, or good bread is learned from the old world. Yet, how could they be delicious and true if not using local milk or made on the spot with the freshest first-quality ingredients? Zingerman's has a vision of goodness. Ari's book, A Guide to Good Eating gives sensible information around the simple facts. Eat good fresh food. Not unlike Michael Pollen's new line, "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food".
Zingaro is the Italian word for 'gypsy'. The plural is zingari. I couldn't help but put two and two together. Zing + Ari = a band of gypsies, but in the truest sense of the word. The band of gypsies there at Zingerman's is one solid group of cultural creatives. Anyone interested in visiting should high-tail it there before they morph into new intelligent life forms. Stay tuned if you are interested in joining a band of Zingaris on the road to rich and exotic food cultures around the world. It's guaranteed to be a Zing fest.