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.
Do you remember the first time you tried a 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.
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.
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