Zingerman’s Alumni Carolyn Manney: Back in the Day


When I was seventeen years old I worked at a bagel shop in a shopping center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was 1996, I was a senior in high school, I’d already been working since I was fourteen, or really, since I was seven if you count all the years of forced labor babysitting if you’re Catholic and a girl.

This bagel shop was a dingy place with no personality. The floors were beige, the walls were beige, the tables – nineties Formica – probably beige. We microwaved eggs in plastic half pint containers and made strawberry cream cheese “from scratch” by adding no brand strawberry jelly to plain cream cheese.

The owners, a husband who wore the same pair of high waisted acid washed jeans everyday with a big leather patch on the waistband that said TOUGH MOTHER JEANS, and a wife who told me on my second day that “I’d better scrape every last bit of strawberry cream cheese out of the bowl or it was coming out of my paycheck,” did not like me very much.

I can hardly blame them. I was seventeen, sarcastic, the youngest in a family of four, much older, very opinionated siblings, and parents as well. I had also grown up in a Catholic hippie cult which gave me the super human power to see right through people’s bullshit. But being so young, I didn’t yet know how to wield such a power.

I was taken into the back office one day, told to sit in the chair, the owners both pacing around me, fuming. I can’t remember the whole conversation, or why I was even in trouble. It was probably for a multitude of reasons, the boiling point being their exasperation with how to deal with someone like me, someone who was observant in ways they wished I wouldn’t be, but who was also a hard worker, and who everyone liked working with. This pattern would continue at other jobs well into my thirties.

The part I do remember though was all the boxes of pens. At one point they were yelling at me about my attitude, about how I always talk about how there are “never any pens at the register.” I was confused by this example of my bad attitude, because, it was a fact, there were never any pens at the register. Everyone who worked there talked about it because it was super annoying. “Where do all the pens go? I thought we just brought a box up here yesterday. How do they keep disappearing? Should we put one on a string?” These are the things you talk about when you’re in high school, bored, working at a bagel shop.

The wife starting pulling boxes of pens out of the office supply cabinet in front of me, “See, we have pens! Lots and lots of pens!”, she shouted at my face. I sat there, perplexed, with a mound of ballpoint pen boxes on my lap. I didn’t really know what was going on, the whole thing seemed irrational, but I figured, as my therapist mother would say, it probably had to do with some deeper issues they were dealing with. Or perhaps, they’re just crazy.

The next day I went to Zingerman’s, applied for a job, got the job, and gave my notice to the husband and wife.

It was the first time I’d ever felt real satisfaction, putting in my notice, like I was smarter than an adult. “I’m giving you my two weeks, I’m going to work at Zingerman’s,” I told the owners three days after the pen incident. We don’t want your two weeks, they told me. Even better, I said, and started in customer service at the deli the very next day.

I can’t tell you exactly why I decided to work at Zingerman’s. I didn’t come from a family that loved food. We ate food so that we wouldn’t die, but it didn’t go much deeper than that. But we had our moments, and my parents, being from New Jersey, liked the bread and we’d get it sometimes for special occasions. So I knew I liked the place. But the simplest answer, most likely, was that Zingerman’s was cool. The people working there had tattoos and dyed hair, it was loud and busy, it seemed eccentric. I was seventeen years old and wanted to be part of that.

I can now look back at my two years working in the deli and see why, to this day, Zingerman’s is still the best job I’ve ever had. Good people, good food, good energy, the days flew by. I knew what was expected of me, I was well trained, and most importantly, I found myself wanting to do a really good job, not because I wanted someone to tell me I was great, but because it felt good.

But at the time, I just knew I liked going to work. I liked the people. I had fun. So much so that even when I went to college at Michigan State, I’d come down and work football Saturday’s, winter break, spring break, summer break. Until my junior year when I decided it was time to finally, reluctantly admit I lived in East Lansing, and I got a job at a coffee shop where the walls were covered in framed photos of Weimaraner dogs dressed as humans.

At Zingerman’s I was encouraged to be myself, a revelation for most teenagers, especially at work. Most mangers look at you and roll their eyes and mutter under their breath about how annoying teenagers are and that they make the worst employees. I sentiment I cannot deny I’ve felt myself over the years. At Zingerman’s I was allowed to take care of situations without having to get a manager. Someone’s pissed they had to wait in line too long, give them a smile and a free brownie and send them on their way. People love free shit. One time I asked a guy what I could do to make a situation better, he said, “give me that whole cheesecake,” pointing to the dessert case. So I did. And he kept coming back, probably bringing in dozens of new customers over the years, because I know if someone told me they got a free cheesecake with a smile even when they were most likely acting like a dick, I’d want to check that place out.

Rarely was there an issue with my aforementioned attitude, partly because we were allowed to admit that customers acted crazy sometimes. The customer is not always right, we were taught, music to my ears. Most people just want to feel like they’re being heard, to have someone listen to them even when they’re acting irrational.

And so you, the teenager, listen like a therapist, in the middle of a bustling Jewish deli, about why their day is ruined because they had to stand in line so long. You smile sweetly, nod your head, I understand how this must be hard for you, you say, here, eat this brownie, you’ll feel better. And then, just shy of a pat on the head and a nap time, it’s all over, and everyone is happy again. And without knowing when it started happening, you realize you’re finally learning how to wield your power.