All Articles Leadership Inspiration A conversation with Zingerman’s Ari Weinzweig

A conversation with Zingerman’s Ari Weinzweig

5 min read


Ari Weinzweig co-founded Zingerman’s Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan. Today, the company is an Ann Arbor institution, and Weinzweig has branched out into a number of other businesses. We approached him recently to learn more about his leadership philosophy and his approach to innovation.

Describe your leadership philosophy.

There are many elements to it, but above and beyond all else, it’s centered around Servant Leadership. It’s the philosophy we learned from reading the work of Robert Greenleaf. The approach is based on the belief that our responsibility as leaders, first and foremost, is to serve the organization, not the other way around. One key element of it here is that it means that we—the leaders—view the staff as our customers. We need to give them great service every day to the people who work in our organization. The service that the staff gives to our front line customers will never be better than the service we give to them.

When you’re looking to hire, how do you decide if someone is right for your team?

There’s a wealth of ways to explore an applicant’s potential in the organization. But the most important issue for us is really values alignment. Obviously people need to be able to do the specific work at hand—baking, making sandwiches, marketing, etc. But the most important thing is do they share our values? Are they eager to learn, to work collaboratively, to give amazing service to everyone they interact with, to bring positive energy to work every day, etc.?

What is the biggest challenge your business is facing this year?

I think they’re pretty much the same challenges as every other year really. To continue to improve in every area of our work—to make our food better, our service better, to improve the quality of our workplace, to continue to develop our financial health, to live our values effectively every day. It’s hard to do but that’s the work.

Describe your approach to innovation.

I don’t think we have one actually. It’s interesting because we have highly developed approaches in writing and woven into our training work for almost everything else—we have “recipes” for giving great service, handling complaints, doing visioning, setting up training, tasting food, order accuracy, great finance, etc. Because the way we work—our food, our approach to organizational life, etc—is so different than the way others work, over the last few years we’ve had a fair few requests through ZingTrain (our training and consulting business) for me to present on our approach to innovation.

At first I was a bit stumped, feeling badly because we didn’t have a formal system for innovation. But after reflecting on the subject for a bit, I realized that innovation for us is just what we do. It’s so much part of everyone’s work here every day that we don’t need any formal “program” or policy on innovation and improvement is implicit in every “recipe” we have, in every process, and in everyone’s day to day activity. Everyone here is learning to lead, to run a sustainable business, to improve the quality of what we do.

For us, I think innovation is basically like showing up for work—you just get here and, in essence, it’s just part of what you do all day, just like smiling and greeting customers, checking quality, going the extra mile for coworkers, etc. In fact, I almost can’t imagine working without it. My belief is that most people are innovative and creative. I just think that they’re put into organizational settings in which they’re trained to turn their creativity off and do what they’re told to do. It’s a big loss for the country.

Outside of your own industry, whose work do you admire most?

I’ve already mentioned Robert Greenleaf. Peter Drucker and Edgar Schein also wrote some extremely helpful and insightful books about leadership. Brenda Ueland’s book on writing from 1938—“If You Want to Write”—was hugely inspiring. I’m also learning a lot from a number of the 19th and early 20th century anarchists. Emma Goldman had some pretty powerful things to say. Honestly I admire pretty much everyone who goes into whatever they do—parenting, business, sports, bussing tables, shining shoes, music, art—trying to do great things every day, and do it in a way that’s caring, kind and contributing positively to those around them.

If a recent college grad came to you and said he wanted to start his own business, what advice would you give him?

Without question I’d tell him—or her—to start by writing a vision of greatness. Visioning is a huge piece of what we do here at Zingerman’s. The vision is a picture of what success will look when you get to where you’re going at a particular point in the future. It’s got a good bit of detail—it’s a rich picture of what that future looks like, with plenty of detail about how big your business is, what you’re known for, what the people who work in it think about their jobs, how the community views you. It’s hugely helpful to do a personal piece as well—getting clear about how you feel about your work, what sort of work you do, how much money you make, how much you work, etc. is really valuable to know before you start.

There are no “right” or “wrong” visions—but if you’re not clear on where you’re going it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to get to where you want be. A vision is not the same as a strategic plan. We do those too. But the vision is where you’re going; the strategic plan is how you’re going to get there.