Alumni, Ari's Top 5, Business, Deli, Zingerman's History

Where’d You Get the Name?

Zingerman's Deli in the early days

Cheese on sale at the Deli in their early days

Everyone asks us this question. The short answer is, we made it up. The long answer goes like this:

When we first started talking about opening the business back in fall of ’81 we wanted a name that would convey the sense of a good local deli something that would sound “Jewish,” and offer anyone who heard it the sense that this was a real delicatessen. In theory I suppose that, since we’re both Jewish, we might have opted to use either my last name or Paul’s. But, unfortunately neither of our last names were of any value in this area. Mine is unpronounceable—not a great way to go into business. Paul’s last name is Saginaw, an anglicized version of “Sagin Or,” which is Hebrew for “seer of light.” In Michigan “Saginaw” is anything but “Jewish.” Instead, the name is immediately associated with either the city of the same name, a mid-sized industrial town north of Detroit, or the Indian tribe after which the city was named. Nobody hears Saginaw and thinks “corned beef sandwich.”

Instead, we decided to name the Deli after Hannah Greenberg, a regular at the fish market. As Paul describes her, she was an elderly Jewish woman, no more than four foot ten inches tall and about 95 pounds, with an assortment of pink curlers seemingly permanently attached to her head. She used to stop by the market every Saturday to pick up some smoked chubs. Each week, almost like clockwork, she’d complain about how bad the chubs had been the previous week with lines like, “Oy, you almost killed me with all the bone… Give me two more.”  

Getting ready to open, we had a neon Greenberg’s sign—green of course—made up for the front window.  We designed our first print ad to run in the local paper announcing the impending opening of Greenberg’s Delicatessen. And then about ten days before we were due to open —which would put us in the first week of March 1982—the phone rang.

I answered politely, “Good afternoon, Greenberg’s, can I help you?”

A sort of rude, pushy-sounding guy on the other end demanded, “Let me talk to Mr. Greenberg.”

“There is no Mr. Greenberg,” I answered honestly.

Not put off in the least, he pushed ahead: “Well where’d ya get the name then?”
“Do you like it?” I asked all too innocently.

“Yeah I like it,” he shot back. “It’s mine and you can’t use it.”

I distinctly remember getting one of those sort of really sick, sinking feelings.  

Turns out Mr. Greenberg had registered the name “Greenberg’s Delicatessen” with the state office up in Lansing a few weeks before we’d decided to use it. He was planning to open in the Detroit suburbs sometime in the spring. We pleaded, reasoned, and begged him to let us use it. After all, we weren’t going to open any other stores—just the one in Ann Arbor a good thirty miles from where he was. We were nice guys, we assured him. And we certainly wouldn’t give him any grief. But he was adamant. He was on his way to national fame and franchising. Greenberg’s was his name and there was no way in hell he was gonna let us use it.

Frustrated and, probably a little flipped out, we retreated to Paul’s house to figure out what to do. We’d already run the Greenberg’s ad in the paper. We already had the neon sign for the window. And now, a week before we were supposed to open, we were suddenly nameless. We sat on the floor of Paul’s living room, drank a couple of beers and tested out hundreds of different names. After a few hours, we still didn’t have one but we had at least decided that we wanted to go with a name that either began with an “A” or a “Z” so that the store would be easy to find in alphabetical lists and in the Yellow Pages. Finally, we opted for Zingerman’s. It sounded Jewish enough. And, as everyone now says with a chuckle, it had “zing.”

One thing we still weren’t sure about was whether we should spell it the European way, with two “n’s” or with one. Paul called his grandfather to ask his opinion. Didn’t take him but a second to decide: “with one ‘n’, of course, so it’ll be easier for them to write the checks.” Paul’s grandfather was a very wise man.

The story culminated in sandwich #1—Who’s Greenberg Anyways; your choice of corned beef or pastrami along with homemade chopped liver, Russian dressing, and lettuce on double baked Jewish rye from the Bakehouse. All these years later, it’s still my favorite sandwich.  

Another Wonderful Greenberg

Hannah Greenberg, it turns out, was not the only great Greenberg. Although we didn’t know him at the time, Hugh Greenberg would have been worthy of the same name as well. Hugh passed away in October of 2013—I’m pretty sure I must have met him on one of his many visits to the Deli but I know about him directly now only because of the wonderful words shared by his friends and family. Hugh clearly was a very positive figure in the community, a caring entrepreneur and a nice guy. He was one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Detroit, founder of three different successful businesses. One writer referred to him as “a giant of a leader.” Another said, “he was a giant in his service to goodness.” Next time you order a Who’s Greenberg Anyways, maybe hold half of the sandwich up and raise a “toast” to Hugh’s generous soul.