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Looking to the Past to Prepare for the Future

As the co-founder of one of the country’s largest independent food companies, I’ve spent the past 38 years trying to plan for the future. Now, I’m taking my cues from history

The storefront of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, a food business in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Zingerman’s Delicatessen

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Over the 38 years we’ve been in business I’ve worried about, talked through, and planned for hundreds of strange scenarios. I’m a planner, and here at Zingerman’s we’ve been forecasting and budgeting and organizing for so many years I can barely remember when we began doing it. But, as Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”

I don’t think anyone I know in the food world has ever thought about preparing for a pandemic. Having talked to dozens of colleagues around the country, we all seem to be pretty much in the same boat, struggling to answer the same questions. How do we deal with unexpectedly having to lay off dozens/hundreds/thousands of people that we’ve worked with for years? Are we providing better community service by staying open, or by closing? Can we figure out what the 900 pages of the CARES Act really mean? How does unemployment really work? What’s the difference between a furlough and a layoff? Can we survive for six months on limited menus for delivery and pickup? How long will this go on? Will it ever end? If it doesn’t end for a year, how do we handle that? If it does end, what will happen next? Just writing these questions, I can see why I — and probably most of us — have felt overwhelmed, pretty much daily, for the last few weeks.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 11, we had a sold-out fundraising dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse for SafeHouse Center, the place in town that provides shelter for victims of domestic abuse. It was a great event. The next morning, Wednesday, March 12, was a day that will probably live in infamy in the food world for at least a few decades. It’s the day that almost every restaurant in the country felt a shock that I can only equate to what it must have felt like when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929.

It’s only been six weeks, but it seems like six years. We furloughed nearly 300 of the 700 staff members in our company, which comprises a community of 13 different food businesses. Normally at this time, we’d be ramping up for our busiest weekend of the year: the University of Michigan commencement, which was scheduled for the first weekend of May. Instead, our total organizational sales numbers are now running about 40 percent of plan. Who would imagine that we’d already have adjusted our expectations down so much, so quickly, that we’re celebrating as a “good day’s business” what a month ago we would have thought of as an unremarkable Monday lunch in the slow season of the year? It’s hard to remember the last time I was happy to see a $7,500 day at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, which has 150 seats — but now it seems like a decent weekday’s sales!

The effects of the pandemic are felt differently across the company. Our events space, training business, and food tours have seen their sales drop nearly to zero. At our three restaurants (where we continue to do takeout and delivery), bakehouse, creamery, coffee, and candy businesses, sales are somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of what they would normally be this time of year, though wholesale sales to supermarkets and our mail-order business are helping keep us afloat. The bright note for us is that mail order is very busy — about twice what sales would typically be this time of year. And also that we’re still being kind and collaborative and cooking and serving (I mean delivering) good food. We’re following the CDC and local health department guidelines — constant handwashing, keeping plenty of distance between staff and guests (who are in very limited numbers inside our bakeshop, our creamery, and our coffee company), checking staff temperatures before they begin work — and, in the last week or so, wearing masks. For now, at least for us and for so many others, that’s our new normal.

As an erstwhile history major, two thoughts play around in my head. One is that it’s generally said that no war with a foreign power has ever been fought on American soil. I haven’t lived through one so I’m not sure the analogy is accurate, but this does sort of feel like what I imagine that living through a war would be. Life as we knew it has been drastically altered, perhaps for years. Within a few days of the “invasion,” everything was turned, seemingly, upside down. The craziness of the restaurant world that we all love and have learned to live with and actually kind of enjoy now seems stable and calm compared to this world where the coronavirus is calling the shots and we hope and pray that we, our colleagues, and our businesses can survive.

The other piece of history in my mind is that, while none of us have been through this before, humanity has, many times. Annalee Newitz recently wrote a great piece in the New York Times about the 1666 bubonic plague in London. Over the course of the year, the city lost over 15 percent of its population; across England, 750,000 people died. Newitz’s article reminded me of what I already knew: history always repeats. The good, long-term learning from Newitz’s article is that, as we know, the world did keep going when the plague receded. While it was a horrible year, and things didn’t just return quickly to normal, England did recover. The plague did go away. And there were restaurants still operating at the end of it. (On a lighter note, Newitz shared that Samuel Pepys buried a wheel of “Parmazan” cheese in his backyard when the city was evacuated.)

In our 38 years at Zingerman’s, we have worked through massive inflation, the tragic upheaval of 9/11, and the instability of the recession of 2008. Looking back, I can see that we survived the fear and uncertainty by staying true to our values, taking good care of our customers, communicating caringly with our crew, staying in touch with vendors, and maintaining quality. We continued to talk things through collaboratively, to work cooperatively, to stay as grounded and centered as we could under the circumstances. And this time around, we’re doing the same.

If I’d gone to med school like my grandmother wanted me to, I might be trying to save lives in a hospital or doing research in a lab to find a vaccine or a cure to end this crisis. Unfortunately, I have nothing to contribute on either count. So all I can do is work to keep our community and our organization as healthy as possible. Try to figure out creative and caring ways through the darkness. Try to listen and be empathic and share struggles as best I can. To keep calling colleagues all over the country, hoping that someone smarter has come up with some great solutions. To stay in touch, and keep energy focused on safety and sanitation — and, at the same time, what we have left of service, sales, and staff. And then keep my fingers crossed, think positive thoughts, rub my rabbit’s feet, and, as with all long walks through darkness, hope like hell we can get through to the other side together.

Eventually, like World War II and the plague of 1666, this will start to end. Every day I wait to hear good news, and at some point there will be some. When it does come, we can say something along the lines of what Winston Churchill said as the British turned the tide of a very long war by defeating the Germans in Egypt in 1942. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end,” he said. “But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Whatever happens, I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with so many great people both here in our own organization and in the food community across the country and around the world. To have bought, sold, served, and eaten so much good food, to have had a positive impact on so many people’s lives. I’m not ready to give up yet. And I’m reminded of something one of our line cooks shared with me from her previous job: As they used to say during really rough shifts, “See you on the other side!”

Ari Weinzweig is the co-founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan.