By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(Published in Cheese Connoisseur Magazine)
The Zingerman’s Reuben is the quintessential destination sandwich.
The corned beef is cured just for the famous Michigan deli and sliced to order in thin, juicy, warm pink ribbons. Crusty Jewish rye is cut from loaves, grilled and spread with thick, scratch-made Russian dressing. To crown it, only locally fermented kraut and slices of nutty, brown butter-y Swiss Emmentaler will do.
Such mouth-filling perfection comes with a price tag that seems quite modest once you experience it. This attention to detail and obsession with authentic flavor has made Zingerman’s Delicatessen a bucket list eatery for foodies and one of the most respected cheese sellers in the nation. It’s become a de rigeur campaign stop for politicians including Reuben devotee Barack Obama.
It didn’t start out that way. Two friends, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, opened a tiny five-table deli in a historic building in Ann Arbor in 1982. They met at the University of Michigan and both wanted to stay in the pretty college town. They needed a business idea.
“Paul and I missed the traditional Jewish delis we’d grown up with,” Ari says. (Everyone calls him “Ari” because “Weinzweig” is hard to pronounce.)
Ask Ari about his earliest cheese memories and you don’t hear about farmstead chevre. “I grew up with individually wrapped American slices,” he says with a chuckle.
During the Deli’s planning stage Ari tasted cheeses and studied cheese books. “I tried to order the cheeses I was reading about. Some I couldn’t get and some we got but they didn’t taste like the descriptions,” he says. “I’ve spent the next 33 years of my life trying to find those flavors.”
Zingerman’s way with curds encompasses cheese created at Zingerman’s Creamery, cheese served at Zingerman’s Roadhouse restaurant plus cheesemaking classes, cheesecakes, and a mail order service that ships cheeses and cheesemaking kits.
Zingerman’s is actually a culinary educational institution masquerading as a simple Jewish deli. The learning process starts the moment you walk in the door. The nearly cinematic scene full of colorful hand-painted signs, excited murmurs over matzoh ball soup, the aroma of fresh croissants and the warm greetings from every employee that sees you.
Off to one side of the shop are beautiful fish that were smoked just a block away and a tower of Reggiano Parmigiano. You eye well-sourced accoutrements to take home, your chutneys, olives, pickles, crackers, vinegars, estate bottled olive oil, salumi and lots and lots of cheese.
Some shops do a little sampling. At Zingerman’s tasting is an essential part of the experience, and not just for customers who can sample almost everything in the place. The cheese sellers taste the wheels and cones along with the guests. ”It’s the only way to know how the cheese is doing,” Sean Hartwig says.
The Deli’s main cheesemonger oversees a counter that features about 75 to 120 top shelf French, Italian, British and American cheeses at a time. These include cheeses from Zingerman’s Creamery such as Detroit Street Brick goat cheese laced with green peppercorns. All are handled with TLC, sliced or cut to order and wrapped in breathe-able cheese paper.
Some are rare and limited production items available only because of longstanding relationships Zingerman’s maintains with affineurs and cheesemakers in the major producing regions. One gem is a 30-month aged Comte from France, Hartwig says: “There’s a density of flavor and mouthfeel with a nice fruitiness and lots of cream. It’s also the longest finishing cheese I’ve ever tasted. It just goes on and on.”
Equally inspiring is Vermont-made Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen, “a beautiful cow’s milk cheese, a natural blue with hints of anise or licorice. I’d serve it with warmed honey, toasted nuts and a glass of cider,” he says.
The selection changes because great cheeses have their seasons, meaning that some bestselling favorites will be unavailable for a time.
“We’re cheese enthusiasts, not snobs,“ he says. “It’s great to walk each guest through the process. We teach them that it‘s better to buy less and come back,” he says. While people may keep some blocks of cheese in the fridge for a month, cut artisan cheese is at its best for only three to five days.
While the cheeses and other foods are exceptionally tasty, the real secret to Zingerman’s success is how customers, employees and partners are treated.
“Paul and I knew from the beginning we had to have quality service along with a quality product and quality of service,” Ari said. As a result, they started a landmark training program that aims to make every customer, whether cheese geek or cheese curious, feel attended to and appreciated.
How good is the service? Good enough that other companies pay ZingTRAIN, Zingerman’s training company, to teach their employees how to go the extra mile, to project genuine enthusiasm, and to believe in customer satisfaction.
This approach holds true for the entire community of highly successful businesses that Zingerman’s has spawned in its search for authentic ingredients that meet its high bar. The Deli’s need for great bread gave birth to the Bake House which made genuine bagels that deserved classic cream cheese which was then provided by Zingerman’s Creamery.
Located off the beaten track on Ann Arbor’s south side, Zingerman’s Creamery began life in 2001 to produce a stabilizer-free cream cheese that Cook’s Illustrated has praised for its “well-rounded balance between saltiness, tanginess, and creaminess.”
Using only about 1,500 gallons of local cow and goat milk a week, the Creamery now handcrafts 16 different cheeses, says Aubrey Thomason, co-managing partner of the Creamery and store. The roster features fresh cheeses including burrata, chevre and mozzarella, liptauer (seasoned with paprika, capers and a little anchovy) and pimento cheese spread, as well as aged cow (The Manchester, Great Lakes Cheshire) and goat (Aged Chelsea, Little Napoleon) cheeses.
The small shop at the Creamery also stocks some aged imports and notable Americans such as the “well-executed” Avalanche Hand Reserve Hand Bandaged Goat Cheddar from Colorado.
Most intriguing are the creamery-to-counter efforts available only in-store. “I use the shop for fun stuff like Manchesters wrapped in cabbage and cheeses washed with local ales,” Thomason says. Also available are cheese board goodies, beer, wine, and small batch gelatos in intense flavors like pawpaw. Cheesemaking classes, tours and pairings of cheese with everything from artisan chocolates to fermented foods also draw turophiles.
Thomason details the labor-intensive care cheeses receive at the Creamery, whether she made them or chose them. “Cheese is alive and it has a lifespan. You can take care of it or let it die early,” she says. Each morning the cheeses are withdrawn from the “cave“ – a climate controlled cooler. “We unwrap and clean the cheeses and put them out,” she says. At night the Cheddars and the Goudas are tucked-in – re-wrapped and placed back in the cooler.
The all-Zingerman’s cheese tour can continue next door to the Creamery at Zingerman’s Bake House and shop stocked with breads, pastries and signature treats such as the Magic Brownies. Cookies can be dunked in a cappuccino from Zingerman’s Coffee Co. and roasters. Finish up at Zingerman’s Roadhouse with a celebrated American menu including dry-aged beef sliders topped with five different cheeses and the edgy pairing of peanut brittle (from Zingerman’s Candy Co.) with pungent Point Reyes bleu cheese.
As sandwich lovers across the nation celebrate the 100th anniversary in 2014 of the birth of the Reuben at Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York, you will often find a line out the door at Zingerman’s Deli.
Like the cheeses they love, Zingerman’s guests often have to wait until the time is right to reach the counter. But when they get there the spotlight is only on them and they can taste and learn to their heart’s and taste buds’ content.
422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor Michigan
3723 Plaza Drive, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Zingerman’s offers a robust selection of cheeses through its mail order site ranging from Bayley Hazen Blue and Kirkham’s Lancashire to Piave Vecchie and Brabander Goat Gouda. The changing roster of treats includes Iberico Bacon, Ethiopian Aricha coffee, Chestnut Honey and Boat Street Pickled Figs along with Zingerman’s meats, gelato, coffeecakes, candy bars and, of course, Reuben sandwich kits.
To order: 888-636-8162; zingermans.com
John Lehndorff’s writing has been featured in the Washington Post, Town & Country, USA Today, AAA EnCompass, Bluegrass Unlimited and other publications.