The Washington Post

Editor’s note: A detour prompted by sandwiches, and good customer service

I was driving through Michigan the other day on my way to a nephew’s wedding. It was lunchtime and I happened to be near the exit for Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan.

Ann Arbor also happens to be home to Zingerman’s Delicatessen, a local institution and a real treat for anyone with a hankering for corned beef, fresh baked breads, handmade cheeses and so much more.

The wait just to get inside was 20 minutes long. No problem, there was a cheerful host outside dispensing menus and a tasting station of nibbles set up to keep us occupied.

Now as a sandwich shop, that sort of fan base would seem to suggest success enough. But clearly this is an entrepreneurial bunch. There’s a mail order offshoot, a bakery, a creamery, a catering business and coffee shop. They host tours of worldwide foodie havens, sell T-shirts and make candy. They conduct cooking classes and run a training unit to teach customer service, the Zingerman’s way. The chef’s garden became a full-fledged farm. There’s even a “roadhouse” serving comfort food, classic cocktails and bourbon.

Zingerman’s far-ranging operations got me thinking about how businesses define themselves.

A deli is not just a deli, it is a multi-prong purveyor of deliciousness. Except that’s only part of Zingerman’s secret sauce. What really makes the place stand out is its devotion to the customer experience. The staff is so authentically cheerful you actually don’t mind hanging out, waiting for your turn to order or for your food to arrive.

The key is to recognize the thing you can do better than anyone else and translate that magic into a money-making machine. This is no easy trick. It can be easy to spread yourself too thin.

But get it right, and, well, you have something.

For me, that something was reason enough to take a leisurely break on the way to a new family union.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.



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