zingerman’s in ypsi… the rest of the story

I just met with Paul Saginaw, one of the owners of the Zingerman’s food empire. I don’t have a lot of time to write right now, but I did want go on the record as saying that, with very few exceptions, have I ever been as inspired, or as optimistic about the chances of our Ypsilanti. I don’t want to overstate things, but I think that it’s safe to say that Zingerman’s does have very real plans not only to come to town, but to do something truly revolutionary here. The vision is incredibly ambitious, and it hits on a number of points familiar to readers of this site. There is a sustainability component. There is a jobs-training component. There is a green component. And, as you would expect from Zingerman’s, there’s also a good food component. Above all else, accoding to Paul, Zingerman’s in Ypsilanti will be dedicated to providing good, quality food with dignity to underserved populations, and I believe him when he says that he can find a way to do that… and do it without undermining the high-end Zingerman’s brand.

Most encouraging for me was the revelation that not only are they thinking about opening a restaurant and a market here that would possibly sell items on a sliding scale, and even deliver portions on a sliding scale, but endeavor to be supplied almost exclusively by local providers. After visiting the Farmer’s Diner this past summer in Vermont, I’ve been obsessed by the notion that such a restaurant should exist here in Ypsi, and it’s great to hear someone with the resources and experience to make it happen, not only agree, but agree enthusiastically.

I didn’t know it previously, but Paul is on the national board of of BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. In fact, he’s headed next week to Lawrence, Kansas to visit Local Burger, a restaurant, like the Farmers’ Diner, that is dedicated to providing high quality, locally raised produce and meat at an affordable price, and pay eveyone in their supply chain an amount that they can actually live on.

We talked at length about the puzzle confronting Zingerman’s – How can they come to Ypsi and provide products that our citizens can afford, without jeopardizing the upscale brand that they’ve cultivated so well in Ann Arbor? I asked how it is that they think they can, for instance, sell breakfast for upwards of $5, when Denny’s, paying their people and suppliers much less, is selling their version for $2.99. Regardless of how much they bring their prices down, I argued, they’ll never be able to compete on price. He was confident that they’d find a way to make it all work though. First off, he said, “good doesn’t have to be terribly expensive.” He maintained that you could, for instance, buy good pepper without buying exotic peppercorns pre-chewed by indigenous aborigines. (I can’t remember his exact phrasing, but it was something like that.) Essentially he said that there’s a level of quality that can be approached without going to the extremes that Zingerman’s is so well known for. And, he said that some people would be willing to pay more if they knew where their money was going. He said that more and more people were beginning to realize that it was worth spending money on essential items, like food, instead of all the shit that we’re being told by marketers that we need… Anyway, the details were still a bit fuzzy concerning price and positioning, but he thinks that it can somehow be pulled off, and I believe him.

He also mentioned being inspired by One World Everybody Eats in Salt Lake City and So All May Eat Cafe in Denver, two entities that serve diverse clientele and charge on sliding scales. He was, I believe, talking with people at both of these restauants about their models. As he explained it, he wants to create a place where “bank presidents can be found sitting down at big tables next to new parolees.” Overly ambitious? Maybe. But I want to believe. I’ve eaten at places like that in Italy, and there’s no reason that we can’t find a way to make them work here.

I could go on and on about our conversation, but I think that’s enough for now. Paul offered to come back to Ypsi sometime in the future and sit down with a bunch of us, so I think I’d better save some of the really inspiring stuff about food and grassroots revolution for him to say. I will say, however, that I got the sense that Paul really believes in Ypsi and what we’re trying to accomplish here. He spends time here. He gets coffee at the Ugly Mug. He’s been to the Shadow Art Fair. He says that he’s felt the energy here. And, he shares the belief that we are “the Brooklyn to Ann Arbor’s Manhattan.” Those were his words, not mine.

[A big “Thank You” to the readers of this site that saw my last post about the possibility of Zingerman’s in Ypsi and encouraged Paul to call me. Apparently he was hit by several people in the wake of that post. It’s nice to know that this blog can reach out when it has to and tap people on the shoulder.]

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8 Comments

  1. Stacey
    Posted January 11, 2008 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    I spied you with the Zingermans man and was just checking to see if you had something to report. Thanks for some good news. I hope they’re also committed to locating downtown.

  2. Posted January 11, 2008 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I think it’s great that Mr. Zingerman (I realize that’s not really his name, but I like it anyway) came and chatted with you and everything, and I also think it would be cool if they opened something in Ypsi– preferably downtown on Michigan Ave. where it would help some of the other businesses trying to make a go of it down there.

    But I gotta say, I will believe it when I see it.

  3. Tom
    Posted January 11, 2008 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Have the considered building something on Water Street? A green Zingerman’s building would be a huge step toward getting that development rolling.

  4. dan from austin
    Posted January 11, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I have never been to Ann Arbor or Zingerman’s, but I love them anyway! I’ve worked with some of their trainers through my co-op work and have found them to be great and inspiring people. Paul’s view of doing well by doing good is inspiring and I look forward to seeing what is coming next for them. The book, Small Giants has some great stuff about Zingerman’s that may be of interest.

    On another note… Mark, have you seen the stuff about independent and democratic Michiganers voting for Romney in the Repub primary in order to keep the Republicans from settling on one candidate? There’s something on DailyKos about it.

    And, our vegan friend, Kucinich is asking for (and paying for) a recount in New hampshire due to voting irregularities.

    That is all…

  5. Mark H.
    Posted January 11, 2008 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    It would be terrific for Zingerman’s to open a shop in Ypsi, and the approach you describe, Mark, is inspiring. It could work here. As to where in Ypsi – Michigan Ave or Cross Street, or where ever in town that is available that Paul thinks would work.

  6. Posted January 12, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like Paul, as usual, has some great plans. If people are interested in these topics, I wanted to send out a general invite to attend the BALLE national conference in Boston in June. I’ll be there with a TLF board member or two, and Paul is speaking (www.livingeconomies.org). It’s a great way to learn about new innovative initiatives happening around the country, like Local Burger, or the B Corporation movement (www.bcorporation.net), or more about Buy Local campaigns.

  7. mark
    Posted January 13, 2008 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    That sounds fantastic, Lisa. Any chance that you might be blogging about the conference through the Think Local First site? If not, how about sending notes for me to put up here at MM.com? I know that there are a lot of us who can’t afford to be there but are very interested.

    And thank you, everyone else, for your notes. (I’ll be posting something later today about the campaing to get Michigan Democrats to vote for Romney in the primary.)

  8. Posted January 23, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Now, how many of you would like to start raising goats and chickens here in town so that we can be a really local supplier. No reason why Ypsilanti city can’t have a vibrant agricultural economy too. Alot can be done in small spaces…

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