The Vortex & The Snowstorm

RNTL-Snowglobe-Cover.2And what they taught us about our business and ourselves!

Who writes about the weather in January? It’s winter. White stuff falls from the sky and it’s uncomfortably cold. What’s to write about?

And then we had a crazy big snowfall. Right on its heels came this Polar Vortex phenomenon (what?). And pretty soon, and rightly so, the weather was all we were talking about.

And since I usually write about what’s on my mind in these newsletters, that’s what I decided to do. I went around Zingerman’s and asked people from various businesses and levels of the organization.

Ari Weinzweig
Co-Founder, Zingerman’s


To state the obvious, I learned that when things like that happen, it’s really hard to function. And that people who are living in hardship or on the edge have a much harder time. And if those people are trying to function in settings where they don’t have a lot of empathy and support, it becomes even more challenging.

In terms of whether I learned something about myself, not surprisingly I thought about your question in terms of managing one’s self. Like just about everyone else in the world, I have plenty of challenges that I deal with on a day to day basis and a new challenge like that can add disproportionate amounts of stress to the mix. If you’re doing the work of managing yourself on a day to day basis, and surrounding yourself with the right people in a supportive environment, then the new stress becomes somewhat easier to handle. It’s like if you get sick – which is never a good thing – but if you’re already in great shape because you exercise and eat right then the toll the illness takes on your body is easier to get through.

Oh, and I have new respect for people from Alberta.

Amy Emberling
Managing Partner, Zingerman’s Bakehouse


I learned that we have a really strong work ethic at the Bakehouse. There was no question that the work was going to go on. And despite the weather and the roads, people made it in to work. Even the late shifts. And the very early shifts. One of our night shift people left work at 1 am and didn’t get home until 7:30 am.

We had Bakehouse deliveries round the clock despite the weather. My first thought in the morning was – Is everyone okay? The first thing I did was check my phone.

At a personal level, and as a partner at the Bakehouse, the experience led me to ask myself – is that perspective (the work must go on) really the best? Are those our values? Do I really want to put the Bakehouse employees in danger?

Coming out of it, I have a huge feeling of gratitude that all of the people that work at the Bakehouse are safe. And I want to think about what we will do as a business if we face something like that in the future? It’s a large discussion but we can at least set up a system of people helping each other – giving someone a ride if they are uncomfortable driving in this weather, for example.

Anya [Boss o’ the Baristas]
& Allen [Managing Partner]
Zingerman’s Coffee Company


Anya: The intense snow and cold brought us problems that we’ve never encountered before and it was surprising how smoothly, creatively and cheaply we were able to fix things. The staff worked together, considering difficulties that would occur and pre-emptively preparing for them. This included trading shifts for people who lived further away so that they would not have to travel on unsafe roads and coming up with delivery plans if trucks couldnt fit into our loading dock. No one panicked and when trouble arose, we just made it work.

Allen: We didn’t really think twice (or even once for that matter) about whether we were going to be open or not. And it was a good thing too because I believe we provided a third place for some people that really needed one. We had some customers who camped out at the Coffee Shop all day. We learned some interesting mechanical things – s&$% behaves a lot different at those temperatures – like truck batteries and HVAC. Also, it presented us with some great opportunities – we got some languishing projects done and took some great Facebook photos!

ZingTrain Staff

I learned that:

  • I need to be more flexible. I’m a planner and crazy situations like that make all your plans somewhat pointless and that’s frustrating but in the end it all works out anyway.
  • Our clients are very dedicated. If they came in from Cleveland during a snowstorm for their ZingTrain session, how could I not make it from across town? I also appreciated how much everyone really pitches in and helps each other out at times like these. We just got together and made it all work and I really appreciate being part of an organization like that.
  • The systems we put in place are for a reason and when we encounter a challenging circumstance like the vortex, the reasoning behind our systems become clear to me.
  • We don’t do a lot of the “Not my problem” or “Not my job”. We all help each other out!

EJ Olsen
Zingerman’s Marketing

Despite being Great Lakes born and bred and with deep family roots Up North and in Canada, I am less and less tolerant of sustained bouts of “real” winter as the years pass. I find myself daydreaming of beaches and clear, blue water. Or, heck, even rainy and mid-40’s would be better than the Antarctic Hammer we endured this week. I think I’m still numb…

Mike White, Retail Manager
Zingerman’s Delicatessen


This weather has brought our typical, slow season to a very dramatic start. Plenty of things ran through my head, so-slow-we-should-send-everyone-home-but-we-need-people-to-shovel, or we-can’t-give-great-service-if-they’re-are-no-guests-to-serve, or if-every-guest-buys-a-wheel-of-parmigiano-we-still-won’t-make-plan. But that’s why I mentioned patience earlier. It could be easy to get caught up in those sort of reactions if it weren’t for patience, if it weren’t for that moment: In the midst of snow covered darkness a group of guests come in from the cold. Their first, hopeful words: are you open? A bread salesman: yes. They say, warmly: thank you.

In moments like this it’s easy to show gratitude, to know and share that feeling with our guests. When the storm stripped away what we hold so dearly, our sales and our 3-steps and our interest in food being overcome by our interest in warmth, we are left with the core of our interactions. And there, right there all along, is that gratitude.

When we are patient we will know when to act, and more importantly, why to act. In that way, I’d like to keep those moments from the storm alive throughout the slow season. And that in every interaction we know our gratitude is honest.