A Brief History of Zing

As we at Zingerman’s celebrate our 30th anniversary this month, great memories and great enthusiasm for the future abound. As a tribute to all of the people (both those who have worked with us and those who have been our guests) and food that have made Zingerman’s what it is, here is a brief bit of history, followed by some of our most popular foods over the years.

Opening Day, 1982

I’m a history major, but I can hardly remember details of Opening Day. We really had no idea what to expect, and we were relieved just to make it through that first day. I know that it was Monday, March 15th, 1982. I remember brewing pots of coffee in the old Bunn-O-Matic Pourover machine we had, bussing tables, and making Reubens and the #13 (Sherman’s Sure Choice). Chopped liver, potato salad, coleslaw, Russian dressing, chicken salad and other staples were definitely on our prep list.

A few minutes after 8:30 that evening, we breathed a sigh of collective relief and locked up for the first time. After cleaning up, we headed home. I fell asleep, face down on my living room floor and then woke up a few hours later to do it again. I don’t sleep on the floor anymore, but we’ve more or less repeated that cycle ever since.

Flash forward to 2012. Have we “made it?”

I’m often asked when I “knew” that we were going to make it. I’ve actually never looked at it that way. Paul and I still go to work every day looking to improve everything we do, to deliver great food, great service and a great place to work. Of course, I have a different sense of time now than I did then, when getting through the week was an accomplishment. Many of you, I know, were there that first week‐it’s an honor so many people have stuck with us for this long. For those of you who weren’t there, here’s a bit of history.

That was then…

Back then, we had 4 tables, 25 seats, and 4 more at the front counter. We drove to Detroit to pick up the bread every morning. We opened at 7 and closed, 6 days a week, at 8:30. We decided to close earlier on Sundays to get an evening off. We quickly realized that was a mistake, because the dorms didn’t serve food Sunday evenings. Back then people lived on the second floor of the Deli; what is now our office space was a very nice apartment. Outside there were two lonely picnic tables. The black wooden bench out front of the Deli was there, though at the time it was painted green. It’s hard to imagine now but in the interest of bringing in enough business to survive, we sold cigarettes, gallons of milk, and the newspaper.

…This is now.

Today, we’re a bit more than half way through building an addition to the Deli and renovating the original space. It is, I hope, another example of our commitment to the Kerrytown neighborhood. Back in ’82, people warned us that it was dangerous at night and customers wouldn’t come after dark. Kerrytown is now one of the nicest neighborhoods in town and people regularly come down at night to go to the Deli, the Kerrytown Concert House or one of the other nearby restaurants.

There have been so many larger-scale positive changes too. Local produce is available every weekend at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, and we’ve started a second local Farmer’s Market in the parking lot of what used to be Bill Knapp’s but is now Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Every supermarket in the city sells goat cheese, and national chain restaurants sell cappuccinos. Back in ’82, it was hard to imagine local produce, goat cheese, or espresso drinks being widely available.

And, yet some things, fortunately, have stayed the same. We still open at 7 and serve favorites like corned beef, bagels with cream cheese, brownies, and coffee all day. I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to do what I do, to serve so many staff and customers, to support so many great suppliers, and to have made Ann Arbor a slightly more rewarding place to live and visit. A thousand thanks to everyone who’s bought anything from us or worked with us, who’s been patient with us on football Saturdays, or who has stuck with us through our shortfalls and encouraged us to keep getting better. It’s been a pretty incredible three decades. I look forward to the next three with great enthusiasm.