Zingerman’s Deli is legendary among sandwich lovers. For almost 40 years, Zingerman’s has been serving huge sandwiches, soups, salads and selling groceries from its brick building on Detroit Street in Ann Arbor, Mich., a short walk from the University of Michigan campus.
Since it was founded on March 15, 1982, its hallmark has been its corned beef sandwiches, followed closely by its Reuben (the sandwich that Barack Obama ordered when he visited a few years ago).
My new book, Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built A Corner Deli Into A Global Food Community goes inside Zingerman’s history, its food, and its business philosophy. In interviewing dozens of people, both at Zingerman’s and across its vast culinary fan base, the one person I wanted to talk with was its meat man: Sy Ginsberg.
If you’re Jewish and from the Detroit area, you know Ginsberg as a legendary deli man—even more famous than some of his customers. Luckily for Detroit, Ginsberg is going to open a new deli in Eastern Market soon. I’ll be one of the first in line.
It’s safe to say that Zingerman’s wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without Ginsberg’s help. Here’s how that happened, and the secret to the corned beef that made him famous—and by extension, Zingerman’s.
How Zingerman’s got started
When co-founders Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig signed the lease for their dream deli, they made of a list of people they wanted to work with. At the top: Ginsberg. Saginaw found Ginsberg through a mutual friend, Bennett Terebelo, a commercial real estate broker in the Detroit suburbs.
Ginsberg had worked in delis since he was fifteen years old, dropping out of college so he could focus on his food career. For a time, he owned a place, and then branched into meat processing, from a company now based in Eastern Market.
When Saginaw called, Ginsberg had developed a sideline in advising deli owners, something he still does across the country. But at the outset, Ginsberg didn’t know if Saginaw and Weinzweig had the right instincts, since they weren’t raised in family businesses the way so many deli owners were.
Weinzweig admits that while his grandmother was a great cook, and he ate at Jewish delis, his family food heritage was lacking. “I grew up on Kraft macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, and Cheetos,” he says. “No one was in the business, they were teachers, doctors, and lawyers.”
“I was sort of the failure of the family,” he explains, for getting his history degree and working in restaurants.
So, Ginsberg was understandably skeptical. “I met them on Detroit Street in Ann Arbor one day and looked at the place,” Ginsberg recalls. “They said, ‘What do you think?’”
Accustomed to suburban strip malls, he replied, “You’re going to open up a deli here? Where’s the parking lot? This location seems obscure.” But Weinzweig and Saginaw impressed him with their enthusiasm. “They had the confidence,” Ginsberg says, “so I said, ‘I’m with you a hundred percent.’”
Devising the perfect corned beef recipe
Ginsberg started by teaching them how to prepare his corned beef, which begins as brisket.
“You get the corned beef raw, and you cook it. A lot of people will, in my opinion, undercook it,” he says of recipes that call for a two-hour simmer. “You get a better yield, but you have to shave it thin to make it decently edible. If it’s on the thicker side, it’s too chewy,” he says.
Ginsberg taught the Zingerman’s owners to cook the brisket for three and a half to four hours. “It’s not going to yield [as much], but it will deliver the most tender sandwich you can imagine. That’s the one important thing I stress to them.”
The right bread and cheese for the job
The bread had to be right, too. Ginsberg suggested that the Deli use double-baked, hand-sliced rye bread. That meant getting the loaves not quite fully baked, then putting them in an oven for 15-20 minutes to create a crusty exterior and warm interior.
“Then you slice it at an angle by hand—not on a slicer machine,” he says. “That gives you the crunch on the crust and brings out the flavor of the bread. Those are the two most important things: corned beef and bread.”
But Ginsberg says Zingerman’s was willing to take things a step further than even his high standards. He was startled to see Zingerman’s use imported Swiss cheese, even though the owners could easily find a domestically made substitute.
“I don’t know anybody who uses imported Swiss cheese anymore,” he says. “Put those all together, and it’s what makes Zingerman’s so good.”
Getting hold of a sandwich
In these pandemic days, almost everybody who gets a Zingerman’s sandwich orders ahead and collects it once they arrive at the Deli. (As I write in my book, it stayed open throughout the past few years, even though Covid has devastated restaurants.)
In person, a basic Zingerman’s corned beef sandwich costs $15.99 for a regular size, $17.99 for a large. You can get Ginsberg’s corned beef on seven different menu selections, including the Reuben that Obama ate, for $18.99 or $20.99. Prices might seem high—Zingerman’s explains why on its website—but you get a sandwich big enough to share.
You also can order sandwiches from Zingerman’s Mail Order, where a corned beef sandwich kits start at $150 (serving three to four people) and range to $200 (serving six to eight). The kits include all the sandwich makings, plus potato chips and brownie bites.
Ginsberg isn’t surprised that the sandwiches are so popular—or that Zingerman’s has hung on this long when other famous delis like Carnegie and the Stage are now gone. He gives Saginaw and Weinzweig full credit.
“I was concerned at first, until I realized how bright they were, and how easily they could figure things out. It takes some degree of intelligence.”
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