`Interview with Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman's - Olive Oil Times

Interview with Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman's

Sep. 19, 2010
James Militzer

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Their sand­wiches are a favorite of Oprah Winfrey. Inc. Magazine hailed them as the coolest small com­pany in America.” Food & Wine has declared them one of the 25 best food mar­kets in the world. Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig helped pro­pel the com­pany from a cor­ner deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan to a star in America’s boom­ing spe­cialty food indus­try — a com­mu­nity of busi­nesses with over 500 employ­ees and roughly $36,000,000 in annual sales. In the process, Zingerman’s has become what the Atlantic Monthly calls the coun­try’s lead­ing olive oil pur­veyor.” Weinzweig sat down with Olive Oil Times to talk about Zingerman’s approach to select­ing and mar­ket­ing this com­plex prod­uct – and his favorite ways to eat it.

What is it about Ann Arbor that makes it a good home base for Zingerman’s?

Well, I think you could prob­a­bly do this any­where. I guess I don’t really know because we don’t do it, but I know I like Ann Arbor. It’s full of inter­est­ing peo­ple, and every­body knows you get a lot of the advan­tages of high-qual­ity urban life in a small town. You’ve got an air­port where you can fly any­where in the world, but you don’t have to live in a big city.

Are peo­ple here more attuned to dif­fer­ent fla­vors and foods?

I don’t know. I don’t do busi­ness any­where else, so I don’t really know. But we have a lot of great cus­tomers here, and we like it here.

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Do you remem­ber the first time you tried good olive oil?

I can. Maggie Bayless, she’s now the man­ag­ing part­ner of Zing Train, our train­ing busi­ness, gave me one as a gift when I was a cook at Maude’s. It was Old Monk olive oil – it’s still out there as a brand. It was the first time I had extra vir­gin oil.

How do you choose which olive oils to sell at Zingerman’s?

Well, every­thing we do here is always tra­di­tional food, and full-fla­vored food. And full-fla­vored for us means com­plex­ity, bal­ance and fin­ish. So that’s the core of how we choose. And then we try to have a selec­tion of regions and olive oil vari­etals. But the fla­vor is what we’re going on, and then you back up to the con­tent, which is what kind of olive vari­etals when it was picked, how it was picked, how it was pressed. All food tast­ing is really the same to me, whether it’s choco­late, wine, cognac, vine­gar, cheese – you’re always look­ing for the same things: com­plex­ity, bal­ance and fin­ish. Professional tasters have, you know, 20 char­ac­ter­is­tics that they name. I mean, that’s good too, but for us it’s those three.

Do you have a panel of tasters?

Well, everybody’s involved. It’s not like a fancy thing, but yes, we do. We don’t sell any­thing with­out mind­fully tast­ing it and decid­ing we like it. All our employ­ees here are involved – every­one who works here, who­ever wants to come. You have to taste like 50 to get one. Technically, me and the man­ag­ing part­ners here prob­a­bly have the final say, but the man­ager of the area really is who’s decid­ing in prac­tice, and we’re just all in there talk­ing about it. And any­body who wants to par­tic­i­pate can come and taste and learn.

features-north-america-interview-with-ari-weinzweig-zingermans-olive-oil-times-zingermans-deli-ann-arborAre there any chal­lenges you’ve expe­ri­enced when choos­ing olive oils and fig­ur­ing out which ones are the best?

Well, you don’t nec­es­sar­ily know which one’s the best. The chal­lenges are all the same ones of doing busi­ness. I mean, it’s an agri­cul­tural prod­uct, so each year’s dif­fer­ent. Some sup­pli­ers are less depend­able in their ship­ping. Stuff gets lost, trucks tip over, ship­ments break. You know, many times we’re buy­ing from very small pro­duc­ers, so we’ve got to com­mit at the begin­ning of the year to how much we want. And you’re not always right, you could have too much or too little.

Do you grav­i­tate toward smaller producers?

Yeah, gen­er­ally – not always – but as a gen­er­al­iza­tion, smaller pro­duc­tion can often be cor­re­lated with higher quality.

Do you go for any big pro­duc­ers, or exclu­sively smaller ones?

Well, we go by how it tastes. And if it’s in the mass mar­ket, it’s less inter­est­ing to us, but if it tastes fan­tas­tic, we would prob­a­bly get it any­way. But gen­er­ally, once you hit those lower price points, it’s not going to taste that great.

Which afford­able but great-tast­ing olive oils would you recommend?

Well, I still often rec­om­mend the Colavita, which is out in the mass mar­ket. There’s also one from Argentina called Trianna. But sort of the next tier up is really what we focus on, because there’s so much mass-mar­ket olive oil. But I think if you go and taste most of those (mass-mar­ket oils), most of them don’t taste that great.

If you go to the next tier up, which pro­duc­ers stand out?

Oh, there’s mil­lions of them. There’s one we just started to get, which is a project we’re doing with Walter Hewlett, who owns Owens Creek Ranch in California. His grand­fa­ther was a car­di­ol­o­gist here at the (University of Michigan), so four dol­lars from every bot­tle goes as a dona­tion to UM Cardiology. And the olive oil is quite good. The one we’re get­ting right now is Sicilian varietals.

What’s your per­sonal favorite?

Well, I don’t have favorites. I like em all, really, or I wouldn’t sell them. There’s so many. Right now the Pasolivo and Owens Creek from California are both really nice. There are some very nice Spanish ones that we’re get­ting right now – Castillo de Canena has been very good, and there’s Naturvie from the west. And Moulins Mahjoub from Tunisia we’ve been using a fair bit. I’m sure I’m for­get­ting a bunch, but that’s a good start. Really, every­thing over there is good, or we wouldn’t have it.

features-north-america-interview-with-ari-weinzweig-zingermans-olive-oil-times-zingermans-deliIs EVOO becom­ing like wine and beer, where smaller spe­cialty pro­duc­ers are carv­ing out a niche?

Yeah. It was that way in local areas, but it’s cer­tainly that way more now. There are two things that have hap­pened. One is that you have newer peo­ple who have started pro­duc­ing it. And then you have peo­ple who have always pro­duced olive oil, and who used to sell it off to big­ger co-ops or what­ever, and who have stopped that and started sell­ing it on their own. And as they start to sep­a­rate out their oil and sell it directly, they have a much higher focus on the qual­ity of the oil, because it’s got their name on it. And they’re actu­ally work­ing on a much higher level of atten­tion to detail.

Do you find that that has improved the selec­tion of olive oils on the market?

Yeah, and I think it’s true with all foods, too. When you pro­duce some­thing but you don’t know who’s eat­ing it, and your name’s not on it — it’s not mali­cious, it’s just a nat­ural thing that you’re not going to focus on every detail. Like I’m sit­ting here (in the Zingerman’s deli), and every sin­gle cus­tomer knows if what we’re sell­ing is good or not, and if it’s not good we’re in trouble.

What kind of changes have you seen in gourmet food retail­ing, espe­cially as it con­cerns EVOO?

Well, I think aware­ness and under­stand­ing are far higher than they used to be. People just know a lot more. We have kids com­ing in, five year olds, who know what a good olive oiltastes like. It’s not hard – it’s just that once you get used to good, you know good.

Why do you think that is?

Parents are just more edu­cated about it, and kids have been com­ing in here since they were born. It’s just nor­mal for them. I mean, the ques­tion is, why would any­body eat bad olive oil? It’s just that we didn’t know any bet­ter. But nobody mind­fully goes from good to bad, unless they can’t afford it.

Have recent efforts by California pro­duc­ers to dis­credit imported olive oils had any effect on your buy­ing habits?

There’s good and there’s bad every­where. There are peo­ple who pro­duce at the low end of the mar­ket every­where, and in every prod­uct, and there’s peo­ple who pro­duce on the high end. I think California oils are way bet­ter now than they used to be.

When and why did they start get­ting better?

Well, they started get­ting bet­ter prob­a­bly 20 years ago, but they really have been way bet­ter in the last five, six, seven years. Because there’s not really a tra­di­tion of pro­duc­ing great olive oil there – I mean, there is a lit­tle bit. So you didn’t have the tech­nol­ogy or the exper­tise. But one thing about the U.S. is that once peo­ple decide they’re going to get good at some­thing, they get good faster than any­where else in the world, prob­a­bly. And they did.

Are you buy­ing more California oils than you used to, then?


How much olive oil do you sell in a year?

NOTE: Weinzweig referred this ques­tion to Vanessa Sly, Dry Goods Manager at Zingerman’s Deli, who responded with the fol­low­ing – refer­ring only to olive oil sold through the Deli:

We sold approx­i­mately 8,400 bot­tles of olive oil for a total of $247,000 in sales. We cur­rently carry 64 dif­fer­ent olive oils, and with some of them we have sev­eral dif­fer­ent sizes (250ml, 500ml, 1L). Our aver­age price is $29.99 and aver­age size is a half liter. Of those 8400 bot­tles, just shy of 2000 are of Spanish ori­gin, about 5500 are Italian, and 750 were made here in America. The rest are from Australia, New Zealand and Tunisia. We only carry 4 oils from France, but they con­sti­tute 16% of the total bot­tles sold.”

features-north-america-interview-with-ari-weinzweig-zingermans-olive-oil-times-weinzweigs-guide-to-good-eatingHow much olive oil do you sell through mail order?

NOTE: Weinzweig referred this ques­tion to Brad Hedeman, who han­dles Marketing & Product Selection at Zingerman’s Mail Order who told us: For 2009-10, we did about $420,000 in olive oil sales, which was about 5% of our entire year’s sales.”

Do you pay atten­tion to olive oil com­pe­ti­tions, and does that affect your buy­ing deci­sions at all?

No, usu­ally it’s more the other way. We’ve already bought stuff, and then it’s nice when it wins awards. I don’t place a lot of stock in judges – for any­thing. Because there are times when stuff has won that I don’t think is spec­tac­u­lar. Less so with olive oil. But if some­thing doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t mat­ter whether it won. If we don’t like it, we don’t like it. But gen­er­ally, it’s more the other way. The ones we like win awards. I think it helps, I mean, it doesn’t hurt. But we don’t stock olive oil based on whether it’s won awards.

What’s your favorite way to eat or cook with olive oil?

All ways. On sal­ads, on pas­tas, on fish. I eat it pretty much every day.

Any par­tic­u­lar breads you like with it?

Ours. (laughs) Well, we make a lot of good breads, I’m pretty spoiled.

How do you edu­cate customers?

Classes, newslet­ters, everything’s open for peo­ple to taste. I wrote a book about it – well, a lit­tle book about olive oil which got rolled into Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating as a chap­ter. But we have every­thing open to taste, so it’s very nor­mal for peo­ple to come in and taste six, seven, eight, or ten olive oils. You can go over there and do it right now!

(NOTE: I did – they were delicious.)

Thank you for your time. Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Just that good olive oiltastes really great, and I hope peo­ple con­tinue to learn to love it as much as we do.

a com­mu­nity of busi­nesses that employs over 500 peo­ple and includes a bak­ery, cream­ery, sit-down restau­rant, train­ing com­pany, cof­fee roaster, and mail order service

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