ANN ARBOR: BECAUSE YOU’RE MINE, I WORK THE LINE (ER, AT ZINGERMAN’S)
I hope none of the people from any of the food boards who I know read this blog, will be offended when I say that one of the very best things that came out of my involvement with Chowhound, Egullet, OA or Mouthfulsfood was meeting my friend Gauri.
Over the last five years, she has become like a sister to me. Not a favourite sister, obviously, she is far too obnoxious and bratty for that accolade, but a sister never the less.
People in this world split firmly into two camps. Those upon whom one would not piss if they were on fire and those for whom one would gladly take a bullet. Gauri is very firmly in the latter camp.
When I first met her and husband, Giri, she was working for one of the large motor companies, almost inevitable given that she lived in Detroit but was undergoing a crisis which, now, I can fully understand. We began to swap mails about her plans to leave the security of it all behind and, to my horror, go and work on the line in a deli called Zingerman’s.
Of course, that was no ordinary deli and, Gauri being no ordinary young woman, she did not remain on the line very long. Five years later she is one of the retail managers of the place and a key part of the whole community.
For those of you who don’t know about Zingerman’s, I think it is fair to say that, in the US its status amongst foodies is legendary. It’s mail order service is known throughout the country for levels of quality and service that others strive to match and the other satellite areas of the main business all operate at the same high standards.
It’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig has attained equally legendary status for creating a community of employees that have become renowned for their levels of customer focussed service.
OK, enough of the hagiography, it is also a cult. Once people get involved with the deli it is hard not for them to be swept up in the euphoria of it all and, I suspect, if Ari were to start handing out the Kool-Aid (admittedly organic and sourced from an individual supplier after months of taste tests) he would get plenty of willing swiggers from within his own ranks.
When I finally decided that, after twenty-one years of publishing I had enough, the first person I told was Gauri. She understood completely, well of course she did, she had only recently been through the same thing herself.
And, of course, she invited me to come and stay and find out what Zingerman’s was all about behind the perma-grins I had experienced on previous visits.
So, what was the best way to do this? Well, god help them, they were actually going to see if I was the sort of person they would ever want to employ. Interviews were set up and a shift was organised for me to work at the deli on one of the busiest days of the year which combined both Homecoming and a football game. Apparently, these are both pretty major events in their own right and, when combined make for a mad day on the shop floor.
My flight up from Chicago was, inevitably, delayed and I arrived tired and a little confused at the ugly terminal of Detroit Airport to find Gauri waiting for me. There was no reason for her to be there, I could have easily caught the shuttle to Ann Arbor, but that reflects the sort of person she is and the Zingerman’s training which expects their people to go the extra mile inside or outside work.
She gave me that slightly disapproving smile she perfected over many dinners listening to my dank, dark secrets and, as we drove we had the first chance to catch up in nearly two years.
By the time we had arrived at their home and I had a late supper with Gauri and Giri, I was shattered and ready for bed. They showed me into the basement den and pointed towards a deeply luxurious bed on the floor. I was asleep before they could say “see you in the morning”
I finally got up late the next morning to find Gauri was already gone and hard at work. Giri, on the other hand was drowsily sipping on a first cup of coffee and planning my day for me.
Before I could be let loose on the shop floor, I had to get to know a bit about the business which involved me going to visit some of the partner businesses including The Bakehouse, The Creamery and the mail order business.
With Giri tagging along and acting as cab driver, our first stop was The Zingerman’s Bake House.
It is a pretty staggering place and, with Manager, Katie as our guide, we saw everything from the preparation of personalised cakes, the making of gingerbread houses with working lights and their daily bread of which they bake thousands of loaves of dozens of varieties every day.
For a man who is known for his phobia of carbs (less so now I have been chowing down on noodles in Asia for a while) it is all a bit much, but I became an instant fan of a Chocolate raisin bread and had some very interesting and slightly impure thoughts indeed about what I wanted to do with a bran muffin.
Next stop, The Creamery where John Loomas was hard at work.
A few years before Gauri, Giri and I had gone out to meet John when he had just begun the business in association with Zingerman’s. Then, he was in a lovely but dilapidated building on a farm somewhere or other, I can’t recall. This time, however, he was in a state of the art new facility next to The Bakehouse and he was loving every moment.
The cheese was as good as I recall, but we were too late to watch him making any that day so had to suffice ourselves with enough tastes to make lunch redundant.
It can hardly be called the hardest day’s work of my life, but hey, I was gearing myself up for the weekend and needed all the rest I could get. I also needed a damn good feeding which I got that evening when the three of us had dinner at The Zingerman’s Roadhouse.
They advertise themselves as selling “Really Good American Food” and they are right. There is nothing pretty about it. It is rib sticking, home style cooking but done here with excellent ingredients of a declared provenance and prepared fresh and to order. Simple really, but few places do it well.
The fried chicken probably summed up my whole experience of Zingerman’s. When it came, it looked excellent and, indeed, the first piece or two was just that. Better than that, even with crunchy skin covering moist meat. One of the pieces was, however, a little bit underdone.
No biggie as you say in the US. But, you would have thought I told the young server that the sous chef had tried to slip me a tongue kiss. Prompt replacement of the offending article was followed by so many profuse apologies I thought she was about to give me a hug. I like the American levels of service, but the Brit in me can’t help thinking that there is no reason to commit Hari Kari over a piece of raw chicken.
Anyway, it is probably this attention to detail that makes Zingerman’s what it is and I got more experience of that the next day when I was invited by Grace Singleton, one of the partners in the deli, to join them at one of their regular tasting meetings.
The large meeting room was laid out from table to table with everything from Jams, chutneys, sauces, olive oils and more and we proceeded to follow Grace around the room tasting as she did. I didn’t really have the vocabulary of the rest of my fellow tasters, but did my best wandering around saying “ I like that” and “that tastes like grass” and hoping I did not make a fool of myself. I almost made it too until I tasted a really noxious chocolate sauce which I declared in a loud voice tasted like “cat sick”
Grace gently explained that this probably did not fit into the Zingerman’s way of thinking. I suspect she agreed with me though. It really was terrible.
After the tasting and while I munched on a Zingerman’s BLT, I was me whose turn it was to be grilled as one of Gauri’s colleagues, Fabian, had me fill in a form and then put me through the mangle to see if I was made of the right stuff to be a novitiate, I mean crew member in the deli. I passed muster, apparently and was told to turn up early the next morning for the big day.
Obviously an early night was in order. So, of course, I stayed up until well past 1am sitting with Giri and drinking wine. If you look in the dictionary under the word “dedication” there is a picture of me waving.
So, it would be fair to say that, the next morning, I was not quite as well prepared for a hard day’s sell as I should have been. A matter compounded by the fact that, before I set foot in the store, I was going to sit down with Ari himself.
I needed some air to cope with Ari, I thought so spent a few moments walking through AA's dispriting little farmers market
which, I realised was dispiriting not because it was bad but because I am really coming to a point where I hate the things. Ho hum
There is no denying that he is an extra-ordinarily charismatic man. When I arrived at 7.45am, he had been there for some time sampling coffee, talking to staff and regulars and making notes about all the things he had to do during the day.
Between all of this, he fitted time in for me and gave me the potted history of the business and his mission statement for the future.
When I asked him why all his staff bought into the Zingerman’s schtick so readily, he just grinned at me with a slightly mysterious glint in his eye and said “you’ll just have to ask them that, now wont you?” and, with that, he went off to do something much more important while I went to do an honest days work for, well no payment at all.
Every potential employee is asked to do a trial shift. In part, to see how they relate to customers and, in part to see how they relate to other members of staff. After their trial, their performance is discussed at a weekly meeting and then they are asked to come on board or bugger off accordingly.
So, I was put to work. I donned a fetching hat and some surgical gloves and set out to impress.
First up, behind the cheese and meats counter where I was sent out to give samples of Montgomery’s Cheddar to the people who were already queuing for sandwiches and bread. I was informed that I should use “my best British shit” to promote sales so found myself hawking the cheese while doing a very passable impression of David Niven.
We sold tonnes of the stuff and, at $30 a pop, I like to think I made a fair contribution to the bottom line.
Likewise, in the bread basked where I cut and sliced like a mother fucker. By the end of my time there, I ruled that box of bready delights like it was my own fiefdom. They almost cried when I had to move on.
Last stop, dry goods where, under the tutelage of the charming and impressive Vanessa Sly, I managed to let my predilection for all things Spanish get oin the way by haranguing anyone who bought oil from any other country. I think they may have actually given a little cheer when I left that bit.
Overall, though I don’t think I did too badly and, by the time my trial ended at 4pm I was covered in a pleasing layer of flour and self- satisfaction.
I had to rush away to cook for my hosts so said a quick goodbye to my work companions and headed back via the grocery store.
As I go around the world experiencing incredible acts of generosity and kindness, there is precious little I can do to repay people. I don’t have the money anymore to buy nice things or expensive meals. But, I can cook. I am no chef, but I cook with huge enthusiasm and I am learning all the time. There is nothing I enjoy more on this trip than the opportunity to spend time in a kitchen with friends both old and new.
So it was here. I had cooked a kedgeree earlier in my stay which Gauri and Giri seemed to enjoy.
This time, I decided to treat them to a recipe from the Chinese part of my trip by preparing a Beijing duck as close to properly as I could manage. They seemed all for the idea and did not mind at all the sight of two poor unfortunate ducks hanging above their stove for two days.
For supper, they invited a few friends from the deli and a good time was generally had by all. It was the least I could do and a fun way to end a very memorable part of the trip.
I had to go to bed reasonably early. My flight to Austin was at 8am the next day. Gauri, of course, was up and about and ready to drive me to the airport at the crack of dawn. She did not have to, she knows that. But she did. That is the kind of person she is
As bratty little sisters go, and if you want to know how bratty watch the film below
she is one of the best
and I love her to bits