The Meaning of T-Shirts

*From time to time, we share the writing of our friends and co-workers on this site. Today’s guest post comes from Zingerman’s Deli staffer Maddie LaKind. 

On a recent shift at Zingerman’s Deli, a co-worker approached me with an odd expression on her face. Eyes widened and head cocked to the side, I could tell something had caught her attention, but what?

“Where did you get that shirt?” she asked conveying a slight bit of envy as she examined my t-shirt—a camouflage shirt printed with a goofy cartoon red-nosed reindeer balancing baked goods in its antlers. The large Zingerman’s Bakehouse logo splayed across the back suggested that this particular shirt was a holiday-themed model that debuted at the bakery some years ago.

reindeer shirt

Reindeer from holidays past

Casually, I replied, “I actually snagged it out of a bag of old work shirts that was left behind in the break room.

With a slightly disappointed note in her voice she said, “It’s a great shirt,” before heading back to work.

As I walked away from the interaction, I felt a wave of déjà vu rush over me. I’ve had this same conversation before, but with me on the inquisitive end. Suddenly, images of Zingerman’s shirts that I’ve admired among my fellow employees over the years came flooding back to me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me explain:

Every Zingerman’s business has a similar dress code consisting of a simple t-shirt that must say Zingerman’s on it in some form or another. Yes, the Roadhouse servers and chefs have their own uniforms, and ZingTrain employees tend to err on the side of casual office attire, but otherwise t-shirts are the most widely-utilized articles of clothing in the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.

Given Zingerman’s 31+ years of existence, you can imagine the range of stories that accompany such a wardrobe. To make it easy, I’ve organized Zingerman’s t-shirt stories into general categories that I’ve observed over the years—mind you this is an abridged list.

  • There are the basic purchased shirts, bought at various Zingerman’s businesses (“I bought this shirt while out to dinner at the Roadhouse the other night.”)
  • There are the earned shirts, given as a prize or thank you for doing something within the company (“I received my shirt whilst volunteering at Grillin’ for Food Gatherers.”)
  • There are the nostalgic shirts, gifts or heirlooms from fellow employees (“This shirt got passed down from Chase, who left and then passed it down to Julie, who left and then passed it down to me.”)
  • There are the found shirts, stumbled upon at non-Zingerman’s shops (“I saw this shirt while sifting through a rack at Value World.”)
  • Lastly, a notable category, the homemade shirts that embody the creative talents of employees (“I designed this shirt myself”)
t-shirt stack

The History of Zingerman’s, rendered in t-shirts

Given this complex work attire culture, I began to think about what makes a certain Zingerman’s t-shirt so intriguing or worthy of the awe and admiration I noted earlier. Why do employees care, or even pay attention? Sure, graphics and visual appeal play a big role. Comfort definitely gets calculated in there, as do rarity and exclusivity.

But, what I’ve realized is that like all of the products that fill the shelves of the Deli, the dishes that make up the menu at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse, or the notable coffees, cheeses, and breads that emerge from Zingerman’s businesses, the real draw of these shirts is the stories surrounding them. Whether dripping in Zingerman’s signature ‘muno’ font, emblazoned with quirky illustrations, or simply promoting a tasting or event, the shirts serve as tiny relics of times passed and memories had. Symbols of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and where we want to go.

For a piece of clothing as inherently simple as a t-shirt, I’d say that’s a pretty cool thing.