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Welcome to my blog on company culture! I’m traveling the country visiting companies with great workplace cultures and writing about them. Why? Find out here.

Julia Kortberg


Zingerman's:  There is No Hierarchy of Human Beings

Zingerman's: There is No Hierarchy of Human Beings

photo courtesy of Zingerman’s


Founded: Zingerman’s Delicatessen was founded on March 15th, 1982 by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw in Ann Arbor, MI. For a more detailed timeline of Zingerman’s history read here

Employees: 700+ |  Revenue: $65M

Community of Businesses: Zingerman’s is a community of twelve  businesses (ZCoB), all intentionally located in the Ann Arbor area. While they share the Zingerman’s brand and experience, each business operates as its own entity and is managed by a ZCoB managing partner. In total, the ZCoB has 18 active managing partners. Their path to partnership is an incredible example of intra- and entrepreneurship and is a great way to retain and promote leaders within the organization.


We share the Zingerman’s experience

Selling food that makes you happy

Giving service that makes you smile

In passionate pursuit of our mission

Showing love and care in all our actions

To enrich as many lives as we possibly can

Guiding Principles: Great food. Great Service. A Great Place to Shop and Eat. Solid Profits. A Great Place to Work where You Really Can Make a Difference. Strong Relationships. A Place to Learn. An Active Part of Our Community.

Community: One of Zingerman’s guiding principles is to be an active part of their community. Most of their corporate donations goes to Food Gatherers, an independent nonprofit food rescue program and food bank that they founded in 1988. They also do an annual Camp Bacon fundraiser where the proceeds are donated to the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, MS and 4H in Washtenaw County, MI.

Zingerman’s also takes great care of their internal community. They provide team members access to a community chest fund to meet employees’ emergency financial needs and an employee assistance program (EAP) for both team members and their families.


Zingerman’s has a special place in my heart.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, went to high school right next door to Zingerman’s Deli, and eventually decided to work at Zingerman’s Roadhouse my senior year of high school, where I met my best friend and college roommate. After graduating from the University of Michigan, I worked for the Small Giants Community, where I later learned that Zingerman’s was featured as the “Coolest Small Company in America” and the first organization to be featured in Bo Burlingham’s book, Small Giants. So as you can imagine, including them in the Touring with Purpose journey felt right to me.  And I have to say ––all bias aside –– they are one of the most impressive organizations I’ve visited, yet.

While visiting, I had the opportunity to attend a “Welcome to the ZCoB” class led by Co-Founder, Ari Weinzweig, and meet with the following team members: Amy Emberling, Co-Managing Partner of the Bakehouse, Kelsie Caplis, HR Generalist, Jeffrey Ochs, Production Warehouse Manager and Maggie Bayless, Founder and Co-Managing Partner of ZingTrain. Here are some of my main takeaways that make Zingerman’s a great place to work:


  1. There is No Hierarchy of Human Beings: Treating Employees as People First

Since the beginning, Co-Founders Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw cared about people. “Early on, we didn’t have the formal structures, or explicit convos about values and beliefs, but they were happening,” said Amy Emberling, Co-Managing Partner of the Bakehouse. “In the beginning, our values were the values of Paul, Ari, Maggie, and Frank. We didn’t formalize the values, but they were very much lived.”  Zingerman’s mission statement and guiding principles weren’t created until almost 11 years into business in 1993.

Back in the early 90’s, Amy recalls how these values were lived out while working with Frank Carollo, then Managing Partner and Founder of the Bakehouse. She shared how at the end of every shift, he would shake co-workers’ hands to thank them for their work. He would also ask team members if he would see them again tomorrow, letting them know that he was looking forward to working with them again.

Now, 26 years later, Amy continues the tradition of shaking team members’ hands and thanking them when she hands out paychecks every other Friday. Even though most people have direct deposit, it’s the thought that counts.

“People can never receive enough warmth.” -- Amy Emberling, Co-Managing Partner of the Bakehouse

It’s exactly this belief – that people – not employees – can never receive enough warmth that makes Zingerman’s a great place to work. They treat team members as individuals and are conscious of the little things that show compassion and care. Because it’s the little things––like shaking hands and sharing thanks–– that matter most to team members, which has been a recurring theme in the Touring with Purpose journey.

Amy is very conscious of the little things: “The first thing I do in the morning is say hello to every person. I check in. I ask how they’re doing…. My door is always open and I seek people out if they don’t come to talk.” She also values “all-hands-on-deck” teamwork. “One team member told me when I was working in the Bakehouse– ‘Wow, when you said it was all hands-on deck, I didn’t realize it meant for you too,’” said Amy.  

Amy enjoys the opportunity to work in the business alongside her team members because it creates stronger relationships and keeps her in touch with the business.

Beyond the Bakehouse, it’s easy to see how “the little things” matter most throughout the ZCoB. The fact that founders Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw take the time to teach the 2-hour long “Welcome to the ZCoB” course, where they cover an introduction to the history, organization, philosophy and guiding principles of the ZCoB to all new team members, shows their commitment to their organization and how much they value team members. They also tell team members how much they value them. In fact, during the “Welcome to the ZCoB” course, Ari shared with everyone, “I’ve been here 36 years. I don’t know what it’s like to be here 3 years... There’s a lot of insight that’s getting wasted, a well thought out comment from you at our Partner’s Group meeting will likely go further than anything from one of the partners.”

Like Amy working alongside team members in the Bakehouse, you can also often find Ari pouring water and serving bread to customers at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, alongside bussers and servers. “There is no hierarchy of human beings,” said Ari.

Welcome to the ZCoB course

Welcome to the ZCoB course

2. From the Founders: Take the Time to Share Culture with New Team Members

Given the fact that Zingerman’s is a 700 person organization in a high turnover industry, I found  it extremely impressive that founders Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw take the time to personally share Zingerman’s history, organization, philosophy, and guiding principles with new team members. While visiting, I was lucky enough to attend the “Welcome to the ZCoB” course alongside 12 other ZCoB team members taught by as Ari.

“This is one of the last things I’ll give up. This is about where we come from and where we are going.” – Ari Weinzweig

The class kicked off with introductions around the room. The diverse backgrounds of the 12-people sitting in the room were impressive: a former accountant from GM, a former software developer from an IT company, a former sales rep at Marriott Hotels, and a handful of recent college graduates from the University of Michigan and Kenyon College. Everyone seemed “overqualified” for a role in the food industry and at the same time, excited to be there.

Following the introductions, Ari went over the Zingerman’s training compact, a staple of every course and of Zingerman’s general management philosophy.

Zingerman's Training Compact

Contrary to the “meet me halfway” belief, the training compact puts the ownership 100% on the team member to take responsibility for their learning and 100% on the trainer to fulfill their training responsibilities. This learning philosophy is a staple of their 73+ University of Zingerman’s (U of Z) courses where team members can learn at their own pace (more on this later).

“One of the most radical things we’ve done is put people in charge of their own life and growth.” – Ari Weinzweig.

With the training compact in mind, we covered the following agenda items over the course of two hours:

  • INTRO: An introduction to the history, organization, philosophy, and guiding principles of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB)

  • GOAL: To give you an overview of the ZCoB


Here is the complete agenda if you’re interested.

It’s an impressive amount of organizational information to cover in two hours and it wasn’t the least bit boring. There were no formal presentations or fancy charts. Instead, it was a casual sit down, as if we were among friends, snacking on warm biscuits and fresh preserves, and listening to Ari share openly and honestly about Zingerman’s beginnings and how they got to where they are today.

It was incredibly clarifying to learn about why Zingerman’s does what they do, how they do things, where they are going and how individual team members fit into this greater vision of the company. It left me (even though I don’t work there) feeling like I’m a part of something much bigger than my own individual work. As one team member shared at the end of the class, “I really enjoyed learning why we do what we do.”

In addition to learning the why, it was powerful to hear about the personal and company struggles from Ari himself. Throughout the course, we talked a lot about life’s journey and the meaningful lessons we learn along the way: creating and owning happiness, establishing boundaries, trusting intuition, following values, appreciating a moment and striving for better, managing energy (more on this momentarily), and how these lessons apply to work as well.

“You can’t make others happy, it’s an internal choice. We can’t make you happy, but we can give you an opportunity to make a difference.” – Ari Weinzweig

Ari humanized his life journey in a way that is consistent with his statement that there is no hierarchy of human beings. Hearing this vulnerability firsthand had an impact on team members. As one team member shared at the end of the course, “This feels like a very safe place to work.”

The cheese counter at Zingerman’s Deli (Credit: Emma Boonstra).

The cheese counter at Zingerman’s Deli (Credit: Emma Boonstra).

3. Encouraging Work Life Harmony & Better Energy in the Workplace

Zingerman’s strives to be a place where team members can bring their whole selves to work. In other words, a place where team members can be their authentic selves and let-go of their “work personas.”

“I’m not big on work life balance because it implies that you aren’t the same person all day… you already are who you are and there are ways to be authentic and respectful at the same time.” – Ari Weinzweig

This of course, starts at the top with leaders being their authentic selves at work and ensuring that the organization is both a physically and psychologically safe place to work. Beyond this, another major component of bringing your whole self to work, is treating employees as human beings and caring for them in the totality of their lives.

A wonderful example of this is Zingerman’s Community Chest-- a donation-based program that team members can apply to if they are in financially challenging situations. Jeff Ochs, Production Warehouse Manager at Zingerman’s Coffee Company recalls how moved he was to receive financial support for his apartment after applying to the Community Chest program when he first started working at the Deli nine years ago. “After working at the Deli for only two months, the company invested in me not just as an employee, but as a human being,” said Jeff. “They helped me pay rent for an apartment that I couldn’t afford for a couple months. It touched me on a very human level.”

Jeff recalls thinking he would only be at Zingerman’s for six months to get back on his feet. Nine years and many roles later, he’s still happy to be at Zingerman's.

“I thought I would be there for six months and now I have a career. They built me up and invested in me more than just an employee, but also as a person.”-- Jeff Ochs, Production Warehouse Manager

While creating a place where team members can bring their whole selves to work has many positive benefits, what happens if a staff member is having a bad day? Does that give them permission to treat others poorly? At Zingerman’s, the answer is absolutely not.

“How many of you have come to work when you were tired?,” asked Ari during our “Welcome to ZcoB” course. All twelve (including Ari’s) hands went up. “Because, that’s life,” he said. “Even if you’re tired, it doesn’t give you a right to be rude to a customer,” he said. Heads nodded and the conversation turned to managing ourselves and our energy authentically in the workplace.

Largely influenced by Anese Cavanaugh’s Intentional Energy Presence (IEP) method, we talked about Zingerman’s Recipe to Manage FUN 3 Elements of Energy. While a lot of reading and managing energy is admittedly intuitive, it’s incredible to me that we took the time to talk about reading and understanding energy, managing it, and why it’s important. Furthermore, the effects of reading and managing energy are profound. Here’s what we discussed:

Recipe to Manage FUN 3 elements of Energy:

3 Elements of Energy & How to Take Care of Them:

  • Your Physical Energy: Rest, smile, eat well, hydration, exercise, and learning skills

  • Your Mental Energy: Spiritual, intellectual, emotional energy, breathe, therapy, music, yoga, writing, self-care, mindful of words, connection to nature, active learning

  • Your Vibrational Energy: How you impact others. Smile, work on breathing, don’t slouch, spirit of generosity, compassion, empathy

How to Manage Your Energy:

  • Read Your Energy:

    • Where are you on a scale of 0-10?

  • Set Your Intent: Where do you want your energy level to be?

  • Manage Your Energy:

    • How can you manage your energy using the 3 Elements of Energy (above)?

  • Repeat It

    • As soon as you get grounded, something will happen. Repeat the steps.

Talking about and managing energy happens often at Zingerman’s. For example, it’s not uncommon for team members to share their energy levels with one another at the beginning of a shift. Kitchen staff will even include it on their kitchen reports, taking note of an average energy level for that shift at the beginning and end of it.  Ultimately, this practice increases self-awareness, provides individuals with the permission to take care of their energy, and a framework for how to talk about energy levels in the workplace.

The Bread Box at Zingerman’s Deli (Credit: Emma Boonstra)

The Bread Box at Zingerman’s Deli (Credit: Emma Boonstra)

4.    A Place to Learn and Grow

“Providing you with a chance to grow is one of the most meaningful things we will do.”- Ari Weinzweig

As we learned in “Welcome to the ZCoB”, one of the nine strategic elements of Zingerman’s 2020 vision is to be an educational destination. Internally, they have one of the most comprehensive training programs I’ve ever seen. The University of Zingerman’s (U of Z) has over 73 classes ranging from knife safety to how to give a performance review.

“Everyone who starts in the company gets a training passport,” said Kelsie Caplis HR Generalist at Zingerman’s.“[The passport is] a list of classes or activities that someone needs to do to do on-the-job training.”

The orientation passport consists of 12-15 courses, which are required to be completed within 90 days. Team members are always paid for attending courses. Wage increases,  PTO, and other types of benefits are often tied to completing a passport.

“After the orientation passport, you can move on to whatever passport you want,” said Kelsie. “You’re always taking classes and learning and re-training in different areas and that's the goal: to always have a passport in your pocket so that you’re always learning at the company.”

All of the U of Z courses are taught by operational managers.

“One of the strengths of this is that if you get operational managers teaching the content, they are much more likely able to live what they are teaching,” said Maggie Bayless, Founder and Managing Partner of ZingTrain. “They are also more likely to raise an issue, if what we’re teaching here isn’t what we are doing.”

Maggie shares that one of the downsides of having operational managers teach courses is that the material isn’t always updated as frequently as it needs to be; however, ZingTrain helps instructors to update the materials on an annual basis and assists in designing the course curriculum. Overall, the pros outweigh the cons. “The managers benefit so much in terms of personal and professional development when they are teaching, so I think it’s worth it to do it the way we do, but it’s not perfect,” said Maggie.


Transparency is one of the fundamental values at Zingerman’s, which makes it an incredible place to work. Founders Ari and Paul are transparent about their journeys of growing the business. The Zingerman’s 2020 vision openly lays out where they are heading as an organization. Their mission and guiding principles clearly express how and why they do things as an organization. Financials are even shared openly internally and externally with the community. And because of how transparent Zingerman’s is with team members, in turn staff often feel like they can be transparent with Zingerman’s, “It’s not uncommon for team members to give us a month, or a year’s notice that they’re leaving,” said Ari. This all goes back to the philosophy that Amy Emerling, Managing Partner of the Bakehouse, shared with me, which is “I really care about the development of humans, not just team members.”

For more incredible resources from Zingerman’s, please visit:http://www.zingtrain.com/

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