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Ann Arbor's Food Revolution

Marcus Nilsson

Photo: Marcus Nilsson

But there’s more to the success of the Zingerman’s business model than obsessive regard for the preservation of authentic regional cooking. The company is passionate about community roots—including its own. Last year, the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (now consisting of seven interdependent enterprises, including the Zingerman’s Bakehouse, Creamery, and Coffee Company) chalked up about $35 million in sales and published its “2020 vision,” outlining plans for growth in the next decade. As part of that design, the company keeps open books and involves employees in the story behind the profits—something virtually no other food company has attempted. Zingerman’s extends the principle of sharing financial growth to its surrounding community. In 1988 the original partners founded Food Gatherers, not just Michigan’s first food-rescue program but the first organization of its kind to be founded by a for-profit business, and today Zingerman’s contributes at least 10 percent of the previous year’s net operating profit to philanthropy. Call it culinary socialism or utopian capitalism, Zingerman’s is a Midwestern food mecca drawing visitors from around the globe, including curious industry types who want to carry back some of its magic to their own businesses.

In the three roadhouse dining rooms, the walls are dotted with homemade collages of maps, photographs, and handwritten notes to tell the tale behind some of the restaurant’s menu items, like Colonel Bill Newsom’s Kentucky Country Ham, still cured with a method passed down in a family will from 1792. There’s a large, hand-drawn U.S. map pinpointing the sources of the ingredients. The young, engaging staff are uniformly well-educated about the menu, yet polite enough to resist overloading diners with information. They may not bother to share that the creamed corn is made with John Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn, barely known outside of Pennsylvania Dutch Country; that the blue cheese on the salad comes from the milk of a closed herd in Point Reyes, on Tomales Bay in northern California; or that the egg noodles in your soup are made with sheeted and slow-dried pasta from Al Dente, in Whitmore Lake, Michigan.

As a company, Zingerman’s struggles to balance the reality of nonlocal ingredients with strongly held values about sustainable agriculture and economies. In season, the Roadhouse kitchen sources two-thirds of its produce from the Ann Arbor area, with Young’s own farm contributing about 15 percent. What started out as a 100-square-foot hobby garden for the chef has grown to a two-acre plot over the past two years, and he plans to cultivate 150 additional acres that will be able to provide about half the Roadhouse produce.

“We live in Michigan, so local doesn’t only mean eliminating the obvious—like raspberries air-shipped in from Chile. We also couldn’t be consuming coffee, tea, chocolate, or spices, all of which come from what might as well be the moon in terms of the geographic proximity of our sources to Ann Arbor,” says Weinzweig. “The peppercorns we use come from India, not Indiana.”

Weinzweig has always maintained a constant dialogue with his far-flung suppliers, no matter where they live, in what he calls a “modern face-to-face relationship.” If a customer has a question about a cheese he is buying, there’s a chance Weinzweig knows what the cows on the farm are eating that day. “I’ve long thought that one of the most important things we do is build connections among people who share those same values,” he says. “We connect people in Ann Arbor with food made by caring craftspeople around the world. For us, buying local means having a relationship with the people who make the food, a relationship with the people we work with here in town, and a relationship with the end user. In that sense, we’ve had twenty-six years of buying local—all over the world.”

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