The Big Cheese: Ari Weinzwieg, CEO and Co-founding Partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses

Cream cheese and bagels. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Macaroni and cheese. These were some of the foods Ari Weinzweig, CEO and co-founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, MI, ate as a child. Then again, as he points out, this was the standard fare of most kids growing up in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s.

“I always liked cheese, it just wasn’t particularly good cheese or good versions of it,” says Weinzweig, whose businesses now include the iconic Zingerman’s Delicatessen, and whose honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Cheese Society (ACS). “I still like to eat a lot of cheese, but the quality now is much better.”

Weinzweig, a Chicago native, moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. In 1978, he graduated with a Russian history degree. Not wanting to move back home, and surer about what he didn’t want to do next with his life than what he did, Weinzweig got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant to support himself. It was a move that ultimately launched his now legendary career in the food business.

It all started when Weinzweig met Paul Saginaw, a fellow UM alum and the restaurant’s general manager when washing dishes. The two became and stayed friends, even after Saginaw left a few years later to open a seafood market. Weinzweig, in the meantime, moved up the restaurant’s food chain to prep cook, line cook and then kitchen manager. He was casting about for an answer to ‘what’s next’ when Saginaw called. A 1,300-foot-square space in a quaint red-brick building near the fish market was available. The two envisioned this as an ideal restaurant-retail spot perfect to fill a community void of traditional deli favorites like corned beef on rye as well as trendy specialty foods such as olive oils, mustards and honey. On March 15, 1982, with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, and a signature selection of foods, including cheese, Zingerman’s Delicatessen opened.

Cheese Connoisseur spoke to Weinzweig about his love of cheese, his career and his thoughts on the industry.

CC: Let’s start with your life before Zingerman’s. How did your childhood shape your associations with food and outlook on business?

AW: No business acumen or culinary background came from my childhood. Those were both learned as an adult. No one in my family is in business. And, I wouldn’t say my mother was a terrible cook, but she wasn’t a great cook. Food was not unimportant, but I’m not from one of those families like some of my friends that came together, and still do, for these amazing meals. What did come back then was a love of reading. I was exposed to a lot of books from the time I could read, and I grew up in a family that paid attention to the world, which I later realized not everyone does. When I was 15, I went to camp in Israel for the summer. Just small bits of traveling like that I think help people understand the diversity of the world.

CC: Let’s pretend we’ve gone back in time, and it’s opening day at Zingerman’s Delicatessen. I just walked in the door. As a customer, what are some of the cheese selections I’d find?

AW: Well, that was a long time ago. But I do remember we had a pretty good selection of what was then artisan cheese. It pales in comparison to what we have now, most of which wasn’t available in the U.S., let alone in Michigan, back then. In hindsight, a lot of them were specialty food, but factory-produced. There were soft-ripened cheeses from France, like Delice De France. There was Saga from Denmark. Certainly, there were the classics like Gruyere. And, what they used to call Switzerland Swiss, Emmental, which I went through enormous gyrations trying to get in whole wheels and people thought it was crazy. Occasionally, we would get Bucheron and Montrachet; those were generally the two goat milk cheeses available in the U.S. When Laura Chanel’s stuff started up, that was a big deal. We’d air ship it in from California. That first shipment was mishandled by the airline, so it came in no good and we had to reorder, so that was the beginning of that. Parmigiano Reggiano, I think that we used to be able to get that, but it wasn’t easy.

CC: What were, and are, your guiding principles in deciding the selection of cheese to offer for sale at the deli?

AW: In 1991, so nine years in, was when we wrote down our guiding principles. They weren’t different from what we were intuitively trying to do or unconsciously working at. It’s always been about the tradition of food for us, and then full flavor. We define full flavor further to mean complexity, balance and finish. In tradition, it’s always been about going back to the older way of doing things. So, 41 years ago while we were doing the renovations on the deli, I was starting to read a lot of whatever cheese books I could find. Like Androuet’s book on French cheese “The Complete Encyclopedia of French Cheese (and many other continental varieties)”, Barbara Ensrud’s book “The Pocket Guide to Cheese” and Evan Jones’ book “The World of Cheese”. Whatever books were out there, I was reading them and trying to learn more about cheese. Because I was a history major, I was always drawn to finding out the way it was supposed to be, not the way it was available. Now that gap has closed enormously. But at the time, I’d read about these amazing cheeses, and then we’d order something with the same name from the importer, or the distributor, and it was not that good. It just pushed me to dig deeper and figure out how to get the real thing here.

CC: Beyond importing cheeses, what led you to look more locally and start Zingerman’s Creamery?

AW: We started the Creamery in 2002 making handmade cream cheese. Nobody was making it. There’s still hardly anybody making it, and it was this same gap between what was possible and what was available that we filled. Beyond that, our

vision for Zingerman’s overall is something we first defined in 1993 and that I describe in our newest pamphlet, The Story of Visioning at Zingerman’s: Four Visions, Forty Years, and a Positive Look Towards the Future. Essentially, we have Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. Today, there are the deli, bakehouse, creamery, catering, mail order, ZingTrain, coffee company, Roadhouse restaurant, candy, events at Cornman Farms, Miss Kim and our food tours. Each is semi-autonomous, and there’s a managing partner for each business that’s driving the boat, so to speak. We work collaboratively together to run the organization as a whole organization. That is how we decided long ago that we were going to grow.

CC: Could you share a couple of examples of how the businesses are intertwined such as how the creamery’s cheese weaves its way through the other Zingerman businesses?

AW: Really, the only one that doesn’t is Miss Kim, because it’s a Korean restaurant and there’s not a lot of cheese tradition in Korea. And ZingTrain, our training business, doesn’t do much with cheese either. But everything else does. Take the coffee company. There’s a Toast Bar with a menu of some 10 different toasts, and we use the creamery’s cheeses like cream cheese and pimento cheese as toppings. The Roadhouse has a whole cheese list and then there’s cheese curds, cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, and cheese on poutine. There’s a lot of cheese over there in the deli. I’m not sure how many, but more than 800 different cheeses, all focused on traditional and full flavor. Forty years down the road, we now have really good relationships with importers and producers from all over the country and all over Europe so we’re able to source stuff we could only dream about in 1982.

CC: Back to the creamery, how has the repertoire of cheeses made there grown and evolved over the years?

AW: We make a whole series of fresh hand-ladled goat cheeses. We make, as of last year, a couple of small bloomy rind cheeses. We also do some spreads that we sell quite a bit of, in all our businesses and we wholesale it all over. One is our pimento cheese spread. I did the recipe for this about 15 years ago or more. We also do a Hungarian Liptauer, which in essence is pimento cheese from Hungary even though they don’t call it pimento cheese, but that’s what it is. Then we do a Cervelle de Canut. That’s in the style of Leon, France, which has herbs and garlic in fresh goat cheese and is made into a spread typical of that area. We make some fresh cow’s milk cheese. The Manchester is a light bloomy rind but is firmer than a brie.

CC: Another of your community of businesses is Zingerman’s Press. I see cheese figures prominently here, too. Tell us about your writing.

AW: The writing started just with our newsletter, not with any intention to write at the volume that I currently do. I got good feedback, and it kept evolving. Nowadays, I write more about business and leadership stuff than I do about food. But I continue to write our e-newsletter and four of the five items are about food. It’s not always cheese, but it’s often about cheese. Then I write the regular newsletter. We sell a lot of cheese, so it’s all woven in there. With the Parmigiano Reggiano, I’m sure I was already writing about it. Then it evolved into a little booklet as part of a project that we did with the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano. The book, “Story of Traditional Wisconsin Cheese”, started as an essay.

CC: Another of your companies is Zingerman’s Food Tours. That brings travel to mind. Where might be some of the places you’ve traveled and been hands-on with the cheese you sell and tell fun stories about?

AW: Well, where do I begin? I don’t know that it’s possible to understand how cheese is made even without seeing it made. The amount of handwork that is done for artisan cheese is remarkable. I remember going up to Appleby’s Dairy, which was one or maybe one of two farmstead cheddars in England, and meeting Mrs. Abbleby. That was before there was the internet and e-mail. It was just basically showing up or making a phone call and trying to get somebody on the phone to work out the visits and all.

Then, I remember when I went to Ireland for the first time, which was in 1990 or 1991. Artisan cheese in Ireland had essentially disappeared, but it had started to make a comeback at that point. There were maybe 10 or 12 cheesemakers in the whole country. So, I figured out who they were, and I think I went to most of them. One of them was Gubbeen, which we still sell, from the Ferguson family out in Schull in West Cork. While I was there, I met Jane Scooter, who at the time was a partner at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. She was also visiting. I later met her business partner, Randolph Hodgson, who’s become a good friend. I convinced them to start exporting the cheese they were maturing. So, we were the first ones to get Neals Yard Dairy cheese in the U.S.

Another one would be going to the Comte area. I had read about Comte. The Comte we were getting was quite young, and it was not at all like it sounded when I read the books. Basically, what people were telling me was, ‘well, in the U.S., you don’t like it strong’. It was only when I went to Besancon, up in the region, and I remember going to the farmers market, and there was like, I don’t know, 20 stalls of people selling Comte in all different ages, all the different flavors. I’m like, yeah, this is what I want. I learned from visits like this to tell them I wanted what they ate. They’d say, ‘no, you don’t want that’. And I’m like, yet that’s what I want. I don’t want what you think I want.

CC: Speaking of traditional cheeses, I saw that Zingerman’s Deli has a Raw-Milk Cheese Appreciation Day and that in recent years this has turned into a weeklong appreciation event. How did this start?

AW: I was participating in Oldways. They started the Oldways Cheese Coalition. We’ve always been about where we can get raw milk cheeses. And that work came out of learning from Patrick Rance’s book, “The Great British Cheese Book”, and his amazing, “The French Cheese Book”, which came out later and advocated for raw milk. At the time, raw milk cheese was made to be this boogeyman of health risks, which was inaccurate. Not that there can’t be health risks, but there can be health risks from pasteurized milk cheeses, too. So we, and it wasn’t just me, helped people to legally be able to continue to make raw milk cheeses.

CC: I understand that your ACS Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes Zingerman’s renowned artisan cheese selection and your active role in promoting the growth of specialty cheese in the U.S. That said, and with the incredible selection of cheeses available, what do you pick? What is your favorite?

AW: I’ve always been drawn to mountain cheeses, like really great extra-aged Comte. A lot of the great artisan ones from Switzerland that we’ve been getting that we never used to be able to get. I still love really good Roquefort. And then there are so many American cheeses, like Vella, and the classics like dry Jack. The now-famous Rogue River Blue is, of course, delicious. So are all the cheeses from Jasper Hill. There are just so many. Then, I’m biased about the creamery’s cream cheese. But I do think it’s back to what it would have been like 100 years ago. It’s really delicious.

CC: Great. Last question. Where do you see the cheese industry headed in the future?

AW: Well, that’s a fair question that I don’t know that I have a great answer to. I hope that where it’s going, like the rest of the world, would be to better and better quality and to paying farmers more, even if it means charging more for the cheese so that we have a sustainable industry.

Subscribe to our Email Newsletter!