Great Food, Great Beer, Great Leadership (Part 1)

Today I write so that we may explore an alternate role model for leadership in business. I am deeply concerned that we, at a macroeconomic level, may be focused on revering many an icon of business that has as an ultimate goal stock market based profit and ongoing growth for the sake only of growth. Could there be a better, more sustainable model? Could a different approach create not only more sustainable business models but also a more engaged and purpose driven work force?

The first disclaimer that must be made is that this piece comes from someone who has worked for Fortune 500 companies his entire professional career. You can subsequently take this as someone talking about a world outside the S&P 500 he does not know and has no business promoting. Or, you can take it as a piece coming from someone who has solid knowledge of one approach to leadership in an established market based economy, and who has done some reading and exploring into alternative approaches due to the opportunities seen in the world he has been a professional inside of to date. So, for what it is worth, I will share my reflections on Zingermann’s and New Belgium Brewing[1]. These two businesses produce products of phenomenal quality and have had a great track record in developing an ethos and an approach to business that promotes ownership at all levels and clarity of purpose to everyone in the organization. I write this two part piece in hope that you will take the time to consider an alternative way of developing priorities for your business based on 2 successful role models.

Part I: Zingermann’s

Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw opened a Deli (Zingermann’s) in Ann Arbor in March 1982 and have developed it into The Zingermann’s Community of Businesses, which is a family of small, food-related companies and entrepreneurial ventures based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although the success story of the development of this group of businesses with $20MM in sales is noteworthy in it of itself, true recognition should come for the business model and approach followed in the development of the Community of Businesses. They have been recognized in Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants, which is an analysis of 14 companies that, under the radar, have rejected the pressure of endless growth to focus on more satisfying business goals. Goals like being great at what they do . . . creating a great place to work . . . providing great customer service . . . making great contributions to their communities . . . and finding great ways to lead their lives.

At the core of Zingermann’s business model is the understanding that sustainable businesses are built on a foundation of engagement of employees and customers. Furthermore, the model understands that both customers and employees will be captivated by an overall experience, not just product offerings or benefit packages. This is where Weinzweig addresses his concern with the Energy Crisis in the American Workplace today. Weinzweig asks himself why employees are not being more creative, and what is holding the economy from flourishing. He makes a very clear case for being concerned about the energy crisis, and proposes Zingermann’s 12 Natural Laws of Business as guidelines to abate the concerning energy crisis he sees prevail in American business today.

The 12 Natural Laws of Business have been the guiding principles for each of the Zingermann’s operations as they have developed. These are the organizational principles which have guided Weinzweig, Saginaw and the now over 500 staff members in the Ann Arbor based businesses through an exciting 30+ year journey. As you take a deep dive into the 12 Natural Laws, note the constant focus, in third person, on the KEY people in the business. There is not an overwhelming servitude to investors or money markets. The uncompromising locus of attention at Zingermann’s is on clients, employees, suppliers, and an overall exceptional gastronomic experience. The formula seems simple: get great ingredients, engage great people to make great dishes with those ingredients, and be rewarded with loyal customers.

So, I invite you to navigate the pages available on Zingermann’s home site. Look into Bo Brurlinghams’s Small Giants. Even better, next time you are in Ann Arbor, stop by one of the Zingermann’s establishments. There are few opportunities as good to taste what great business and leadership can produce.

Most importantly, as you set the principles by which you lead, make sure to pick those that will grow your customer loyalty and your employee engagement. Sustainable market-based success is sure to come if you focus on greatness before growth.

[1] Note must be taken of the bias toward great food and drink businesses. My epicurean preference clearly goes toward great cuisine and spirits, and this is what led me to research these 2 businesses and their approach to leadership.

2 Responses

  1. James,
    Many believe in the old mantra of “grow or die”, and its commonly accepted interpretation of “grow faster and more aggressively than everyone else or die”. I have thought many times about whether some sort of lower pace, selective growth can be a better strategy for most businesses. I have no doubt it is for at least some. The way you describe Zingermann and NBB seems like this is what they have done. Do you agree? If so, would you say it is strategy or, perhaps more so leadership style (not necessarily a clear component of strategy)?

  2. Hi Mr. Biro,

    Knowing that I am a big fan of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, my dad directed me towards this post, so I thought I’d share a few comments:
    It is probably not surprising that, as an Ann Arbor tradition, Zingerman’s business model has come up in a couple different classes that I have taken here at UM. And what professors usually emphasize is, as you stated, the clarity of purpose that is at the core of Zingerman’s operations. As a customer, I can say that the commitment to their mission statement and the “Zingerman’s Experience” is certainly felt in the welcoming environment of the restaurant and enthusiasm of the employees (one of the co-founders, Mr. Weinzweig, has even been known to walk around the restaurant filling water glasses and interacting with customers)—and the food, of course, is great.
    There is certainly something to be learned about a business that sells $15 sandwiches in a college town, and still manages to have a long line of customers every time I walk in. ☺
    I look forward to reading future posts!


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