Business, Leadership, ZCoBbers

Things Fall Apart (But They Never Leave My Heart)*


Over the 38 years we’ve been in business, I’ve worried about, talked through, and planned for hundreds of strange scenarios. I’m a planner, and here at Zingerman’s we’ve been forecasting and budgeting and organizing for probably 30 years now. But, as Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” 

I don’t think anyone I know in the food world has ever thought about preparing for a pandemic. Having talked to dozens of colleagues around the country, we all seem to be struggling to answer the same questions: How do we deal with unexpectedly having to lay off dozens/hundreds/thousands of people that we’ve worked with for years? Are we providing better community service by staying open? Or by closing? Can we figure out what the 900 pages of the CARES Act mean? How long will this go on? If it doesn’t end for a year, how do we handle that? If it does end, what will happen next? Just writing down the questions, I can see why I—and probably most of us—have felt overwhelmed, pretty much daily, for the last few weeks. 

On Tuesday, March 11, we had a fundraising dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse—the closing event in our 5th Annual “Jelly Bean Jump Up” campaign to raise money for SafeHouse Center, the local shelter for victims of domestic abuse. It was a great event. We sold out the 60 or so seats, and it capped a month of fundraising that far exceeded our goal of $30,000. The next morning, Wednesday, March 12, is probably a day that will live in infamy in at least the food world for a few decades. Almost every restaurant in the country felt a shock that I can only equate to the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. For some, like those in Seattle, it started a bit earlier. For others, a little later. But basically, one day things were relatively fine—we were dealing with not being able to hire enough people, performance issues, food-cost challenges, getting ready to roll out some new products . . . the usual. The next day we were addressing problems most of us had never even thought of. 

It’s only been just over four weeks, but it seems like four years. Who would imagine that we’d already have adjusted our sales expectations down so much that what we’re now celebrating as a “good day” a month ago would have passed for a so-so Monday lunch? 

As a history major, two thoughts play around in my head. One is that it’s generally said that no war with a foreign power has ever been fought on American soil. The Civil War, of course, was a conflict between American citizens. And small acts of violence that haven’t historically been classed as “wars” have been happening to folks on the short end of the social stick every day for centuries. While we’ve all read articles about the horror of war in northern Syria, of bombs dropping on Bosnian cities, or about farmers trying to make a living growing almonds in war-torn Afghanistan, most of us who’ve lived our lives in the U.S. are fortunate to have never experienced that daily fear and vulnerability firsthand. This situation feels, as best I can imagine, a small fraction of what that might be like. Yes, there were “storm clouds” on the horizon for a while as stories came in from China and Italy about the virus. But, one hopes and believes that, of course, that “won’t happen here.” And, yet, it did. One day things were fine; the next day . . . they were more messed up than most of us could have imagined. 

I haven’t lived through one so I’m not sure the analogy is accurate, but this does feel sort of like what I imagine living through a war would be. Life, as we knew it for years, has been drastically altered. Stable “successful” organizations all over the country were suddenly, sadly, laying people off. The health care system is overwhelmed. When I read about and talk to health care workers, it sounds like stories of working at the front in a war zone—not enough people, not enough supplies, choices to be made about who lives and who dies. As in a foreign invasion, we struggle to know who might be an “enemy” agent. We’ve started eyeing everyone we see on the street as a potential “saboteur” who could be carrying the infection. “Curfews” have been imposed. We don’t know how long this will go on for. We don’t really know what to do. The craziness of the restaurant world that we all love and have learned to live with, the variability in pretty much everything we’ve all worked with and actually kind of enjoy . . . now seems stable and calm compared to this world where the Coronavirus is calling the shots and we hope and pray that we, our colleagues, and our businesses can survive. In the food business, we’ve always worried about food safety and worked with the knowledge that we carry our customers’ lives in our hands. But this is at a whole new level. I certainly never imagined I was going to go through something like this in the course of my lifetime. And yet, here we are. I try to imagine what it must have been like to own a community-focused restaurant in Paris in 1940. Some came out on the other side, some didn’t. How did they survive? What can we learn from them? 

The other piece of history in my mind is that, while none of us have been through this before, humanity has, and many times over. Annalee Newitz wrote a great piece in The New York Times recently about the history of the bubonic plague in 1666 in London. It was the worst plague since the Black Death had struck back in 1348. London lost over 15% of its population over the course of a year. Roughly 100,000 died in London; 750,000 died in England overall. Newitz’s article reminded me of what I already knew: history always repeats. The description of what was happening in London in 1666 when the plague struck all now sounds eerily familiar, equally serious, and at least as difficult. The similarities are striking. (On a light note, Newitz shared that Samuel Pepys buried a wheel of “Parmazan” cheese in his backyard when the city was evacuated.) The good, long term, learning from Newitz’s article is that, as we know, the world did keep going when the plague receded. While it was a horrible year, and things didn’t just return to normal quickly, clearly, England did recover. The plague did go away. And there were restaurants still operating at the end of it. 

Throughout our own history of Zingerman’s, we have worked through massive inflation, the tragic upheaval of 9/11, the instability of the recession of 2009 . . . In all of those cases, looking back, I can see that we survived—through the fear and uncertainty—by staying true to our values, taking good care of our customers, communicating caringly with our crew, staying in touch with vendors, and maintaining quality. We continued to talk things through collaboratively, to work cooperatively, to stay as grounded and centered as we could under the circumstances. If I’d gone to med school like my grandmother wanted me to, I might be trying to save lives in a hospital or doing research in a lab to find a vaccine or a cure to end this crisis. Unfortunately, I have nothing to contribute to either of those. So, I’ll continue to work to keep our community and our organization as healthy as possible. Try to figure out creative and caring ways through the darkness. Try to listen and be empathic and share struggles as best I can. I’ll continue to call colleagues all over the country, hoping that someone else who’s smarter has come up with some great solutions. And then keep my fingers crossed, think positive thoughts, rub my rabbit’s feet, and, as with all long walks through darkness, hope like hell we can get through to the other side together. 

Here at Zingerman’s, we’re still doing takeout and delivery from our three restaurants—sales are running at about a third or a bit more of what we’d normally be doing. Our Bakehouse isn’t down quite that much thanks to wholesale sales to supermarkets and to our Mail Order. Wholesale is hanging in there at our artisan Creamery, Candy, and Coffee businesses. Our training business, ZingTrain, is, of course, decimated. The bright note for us is that our Mail Order is very busy. And that we’re still being kind and collaborative and cooking and delivering good food. For now at least, for us, and for so many others, that’s our new normal. That fundraiser on the evening of March 11 seems like lightyears ago. Eventually, like WWII and like the Plague, this will start to end. Every day I wait to hear good news. At some point, there will be some. When it does come, we can say something along the lines of what Winston Churchill said as the British turned the tide of a very long war by defeating the Germans in Egypt in 1942. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” 

Whatever happens, I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with so many great people both here in our own organization and in the food community across the country and around the world. To have bought, sold, served, and eaten so much good food, to have had a positive impact on so many people’s lives. I’m not ready to give up yet. As one of our line cooks shared from her work at a previous job, on really rough shifts they used to say to each other, “See you on the other side!” 


*The title is taken from the 1981 song, “Things Fall Apart,” by the artist Cristina, released a few months before we opened the Deli. It was on regular play around my house back in those days. Sadly Cristina passed away, on April 1, from Coronavirus. The lyrics of the song are shockingly poignant for the present situation.