Tourists expect to wait in lines. Whether it is for a rollercoaster ride or for a celebrity chef-approved plate of onion rings, travelers trade lost time for experience gained. In Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s Delicatessen has, for decades, been a place where first-timers gladly wait in line to eat epic sandwiches. But amidst the tourists, half of Zingerman’s patrons are repeat customers. They choose to wait in line, again and again, in summer heat and winter cold, for an average of forty-five minutes. People wait in line at Zingerman’s not just to say that they have been there, but also to be there again.
Zingerman’s Delicatessen sits in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of Kerrytown, near the campus of the University of Michigan. A brick-paved street leads to the expansive compound, which has multiple rooms and levels of indoor and outdoor seating. The Zingerman’s experience begins, however, with a surprisingly fun wait in line.
“So we’ll sit out here and have some snacks?” asked a sweat-shirted, college-aged guy with a feint of resignation as he entered the line. A Zingerman’s employee holding a bowl of cut-up, fresh-baked bread said, “Not only that —We’re going to have some bomb-ass conversation, too!”
Zingerman’s employees follow the “10-4 rule” — within ten feet of a customer, they make eye contact, and within four feet, they engage in conversation. They will make sure you sample their products as the line wraps past the bread counter, where house-baked breads are brought over from the Bakehouse; by the cheese counter, where you can buy and sample dozens of cheeses — from English farmhouse cheddar to house-made pimento that has been served at the Kentucky Derby; the meat counter featuring Spanish ham and Italian salami; shelves of balsamic vinegars, olive oils, sauces, honeys, and spices from around the world. Everything they sell can be sampled. I checked. By the time you reach the end of the line, and decide which one of their more than sixty sandwiches you want to order, the staff will have met you, talked to you, and guided you through some of the best specialty foods available in the world.
Zingerman’s Deli opened in 1982 and now has a team of two hundred employees, with upwards of twenty staff working in the kitchen. The Deli is the flagship store in a collective of Zingerman’s Ann Arbor-based businesses that includes a Bakehouse, Creamery, and Coffee Company. Its concept is seemingly simple — sandwiches and sides with aisles of specialty foods you cannot find anywhere else, like Michigan chestnut honey or eggplant pasta sauce from Bulgaria. It’s delicatessen food with world influence, not for novelty, but to offer what they think are the best ingredients in the world. “This is the best we can possibly find until we can find a way to make it better,” said Rodger Bowser, a Zingerman’s partner and head chef of the Deli.
I sat with Bowser and ate sandwiches. He ordered us the D-$’s Cuban Conundrum, a fluffy paesano roll filled with pulled pork and Arkansas peppered ham, topped with melted Swiss, pickles, mayo and hot mustard. We also ate the Raisin D’etre; curry-spiced turkey salad with locally grown sprouts on top of toasted pecan raisin bread. Both sandwiches were big, two hands needed, and flavorful enough to occasionally stop our conversation entirely. “I like to take full-flavor ingredients, and match them up,” said Bowser.
Bowser is a lifelong chef. He wanted to be a chef because, he said, “You’re never going to be without work, and you’re never going to starve.” He started in junior high, volunteering to help the school kitchen staff prepare lunch, and he went on to study cooking in Michigan and Ireland, working in London before returning to Michigan twenty years ago to take a job making sandwiches at Zingerman’s. Bowser is soft-spoken and serious, thin and bespectacled, with exacting standards. To Bowser, a peach served at Zingerman’s shouldn’t just be good, “it should be dripping on your toes when you eat it.”
Bowser sources Zingerman’s ingredients from over sixty different farms. “Just because it’s local, doesn’t mean I should buy it,” said Bowser. “When we pick foods, taste comes first.” But producers also have to produce enough to meet the Deli’s volume — they are on track to have $16 million in sales in 2016. And the producers, themselves, also have to meet the Zingerman’s standards. “We are not buying products because they are the hip new food. We take the extra time to know the producers and care about the best possible tasting food we can get our hands on,” said Bowser.
To illustrate, Bowser waited five years for an Ann Arbor pickled vegetable company, called The Brinery, to make a sauerkraut that was good enough to replace the sauerkraut used in their signature Reuben sandwich — the first change made to the sandwich since Zingerman’s started baking their own bread in the early 1990’s. Until The Brinery got up and running, Bowser felt like they could find better sauerkraut elsewhere. Zingerman’s searches the globe to find the right ingredients.
Since the Deli opened almost thirty-five years ago the Reuben is the top-selling sandwich. Along with locally-brined sauerkraut, the sandwich has the classic blend of house corned beef, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on rye bread. The toasted bread and kraut both carry a distinct crunch when one sinks one’s teeth into the meaty, salty sandwich. It’s available for delivery as a mail-order kit, but to try it fresh, you have to go to Ann Arbor and wait in line. They don’t plan to expand, because Zingerman’s is more than just sandwiches, more than a specialty market —it is an experience. Bowser told me, “We don’t think we can keep Zingerman’s alive anywhere else.”
Photos by Nicholas Gang