Not Business as Usual
At a Michigan creamery, cheesemaking represents a collective culture.
I have long believed, and have often claimed, that I was there that day on Detroit Street, 28 years ago, when Zingerman’s Delicatessen first opened its doors. So I was crestfallen and embarrassed to learn on my recent visit to Ann Arbor that I could not possibly have been there. As it turns out, I would not enroll as a freshman at the University of Michigan for a full six months after that historic day.
Although I was not there to sample the first “Who’s Greenberg Anyway?” (the #1: corned beef and chopped liver with Russian on rye), and probably missed the first thousand “Helen’s Have Another” (#17: lox, cream cheese, onion, and tomato on pumpernickel), I made up for it nearly daily for the next four-plus years. Then, as now, I fancied myself a connoisseur and spent much of my father’s hard-earned cash on knishes, Montreal-smoked meat, tasso ham, olive oils, and, dare I say, the first artisan cheeses I ever ate. Once, when money was short, I took out an emergency student loan from the bursar and spent it on pastrami.
Zingerman’s still occupies that slant-roofed brick building at the corner of Detroit and East Kingsley, but, under the guidance and vision of its founders, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, it has grown into a collection of food-related businesses, all based in Ann Arbor, employing more than 500 (up from two that first day). Each of these semi-independent ventures, collectively known as the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, or ZCoB, shares the now-famous Zingerman’s brand, with its zany cartoon graphics, disarmingly cheery service, relentless pursuit of quality, and a dedication to community involvement and employee empowerment, all of which has made ZCoB the subject of business school case studies and books by management gurus.
There are, as of this writing, nine businesses in the Zingerman’s community: the delicatessen, of course, which, despite its Jewish deli schtick, is one of the most respected food shops in the country; the Bakehouse, which bakes all that rye and pumpernickel; Zingerman’s Mail Order, which, as I am quoted in its pages, is the “best mail-order food catalogue in the country, hands down”; the Creamery, opened in 2001, which produces ever-more types of cheese; Zing Train, a consulting arm that spreads the Zingerman’s management gospel; the Roadhouse, a barbecue joint north of town; and most recently, the Zingerman’sCoffee Company and the newly minted Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory. All are in partnership, to varying degrees, with Weinzweig and Saginaw through their holding company, Dancing Sandwich Enterprises.
Man Behind the Molds
Zingerman’s Creamery, the subject of my cheese-hounding visit, is located in a cavernous warehouse in an unromantic industrial park south of town. John Loomis, the creamery’s cheesemaker, is elbow deep in Cheshire curds when I arrive. Loomis is also a managing partner; in the ZCoB model each business has a managing partner with a financial stake in the venture—and the requisite, unbridled Zingerman’s passion.
Loomis is tall and handsome in a rugged, weathered, bushy-eyebrowed sort of way, like a slim Lee Marvin in a hairnet. He has a curmudgeonly reputation among the Zingerman’s staff. Saginaw refers to him alternately as Curly Loomis (presumably an ironic Three Stooges reference) or Smiley Loomis (again, presumed irony). I do not notice—or perhaps my own vaunted orneriness blinds me to this trait in others. I find him to be affable, passionate about his craft, and full of humorous anecdotes. And far less likely to shoot you than Lee Marvin.
Loomis comes from a line of dairymen, sort of. His father worked for Sealtest Dairy in Detroit, and John and his brother Bill worked there every summer, screwing tops on Reddi-wip cans. I ask if he remembers Twin Pines, the dairy of my suburban Detroit childhood. “Remember it?” he says. “I went to school with Milky’s son!” (Milky was Twin Pines’ mascot, a frightening Pagliacci-style clown who incanted “Mine’s Twin Pines” and seemed to drool black ink.) Loomis had declared it “the worst job ever” and vowed never to work in dairy again.
Failing in his resolve, John and Bill started the Loomis Cheese Company in 1989 in Manchester, a town 20 miles southeast of Ann Arbor. Their Great Lakes Cheshire was a tangy, briny, prickly sharp cow’s milk cheese based on the unpronounceable Llangloffan, a Welsh type made by Leon Downey, another famed dairy curmudgeon with whom Loomis apprenticed. I remember his cheese from my earliest cheesemongering days, when artisan American cheeses were few and Loomis was a pioneer. The brothers were ahead of their time, alas, and they closed their dairy in 1994 when they “grew tired of being poor.” Loomis arrived at Zingerman’s a few months later, and after five years as Zingerman’s principal cheesemonger (and a very brief stint as a latke fryer) he opened its namesake creamery in partnership with Weinzweig and Saginaw.
Although Loomis’s cheesemaking career began with Cheshire, the Great Lakes Cheshire redux he’s making when I arrive is actually the newest introduction to Zingerman’s vast line. The Creamery makes cream cheese, much of it destined for bagel duty in the deli, and farm cheese (“cream cheese without the cream”) bound for blintzes. It also makes fresh chèvres, sold in cups; a slightly aged version called City Goat; Little Dragon, a young goat cheese rolled in tarragon; Sharon Hollow, a parfait of cow’s milk curd, chopped chives, and garlic-infused fromage frais; Argyle, a little stick of fresh cow’s milk cheese rolled in toasted pinhead oatmeal, which Loomis serves, drizzled with honey, for breakfast; and the strangely delicious Liptauer, redolent of anchovies, capers, and paprika.
Semi-aged and matured cheeses figure in Loomis’s inventory as well. Lincoln Log is a stout baton of bright, lemony goat cheese wrapped in a downy white mold rind and adorned with bay leaves. Detroit Street Brick is a mold-encrusted ingot of aged goat cheese studded with green peppercorns. Bridgewater is his roughhewn, pepper-laced ball of double-cream cow’s milk cheese whose unwitting genesis can be traced to a bag of overlooked farm cheese in the trunk of a Honda on a hot summer day. In a round called Little Ypsi (pronounced ip-see, for the nearby city of Ypsilanti), I find a dead ringer for Crottin de Chavignol, the famed moldy goat’s milk nugget of the Loire Valley.
The flavors it generates are sublime, as evidenced in three of Zingerman’s cheeses: Manchester, a cow’s milk puck tapered like the base of a small cone; Little Napolean, a thick coin of goat cheese like the Pélardon of the French Cevennes; and the droopy Chelsea log, which the cheesemaker calls his “problem child,” since it’s the most temperamental of the bunch.
Loomis muses about reviving Pinconning, a Colby-like Michigan original from “up in the Thumb.” Named for Michigan’s signature mitten-based system of geographical identification, the large peninsula juts into Lake Huron, forming Saginaw Bay. (No relation to Paul.) The creamery also produces numerous original gelatos: John Do Ya, Chocolate Heat, Rocky Ride, Turtle, Guinness, and Irish Brown Bread, to name a whimsical, decadent few.
I wonder as we talk if the cheesemaker’s alleged curmudgeonliness is just a minor manifestation of a classic Zingerman’s behavioral trait: a steadfast refusal for satisfaction. “There’s nothing we do that we can’t do better,” Weinzweig tells me, pausing briefly from his nightly rounds filling diners’ water glasses on the tables at the Roadhouse (one of his main schmoozing techniques, I’m told). Zingerman’s philosophy preaches constant, incremental improvement of all aspects of its business, from the food it makes to its fabled service to its management practices. Scorecards are everywhere. Customers rate the service, cheesemongers rate the cheese, the staff rates its managers, and so on. And these are no idle suggestion boxes; scores are quantified and become metric analysis in Zingerman’s famed open-book system. One of the monthly indicators tracked: “How many times did we ask for help?”
The ZCoB model, with its collection of intertwined businesses, reinforces this culture of constant improvement. The deli and mail-order service, for example, serve as ready, discerning, in-house test markets for the creamery’s cheeses, connecting cheesemaker and cheesemonger in a tight and rapid feedback loop and providing quick information on staff and customer preferences and cheese behavior. Both also help Loomis choose which cheeses to make. The cream cheese so popular on the deli’s bagels is also used in the bakehouse, to create chocolate, muscovado, and New York–style cheesecakes. The deli’s dissatisfaction with Bûcheron, the commercial French goat cheese, led to the creation of Lincoln Log.
Other types in the creamery’s line happen more serendipitously, through travel discoveries (Weinzweig found Liptauer on a trip to Vienna), nostalgic inspirations (Manchester is based on Finn cheese from London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy, where Loomis once apprenticed), and happy accidents (as in the case of the aforementioned trunk-ripened Bridgewater).
However a cheese gets its start in the company, it’s always considered a work in progress, per the Zingerman’s manifesto. Loomis drives this point home just as I’m about to leave. Stopping to browse through the company’s branded cheeses in the tidy little retail shop in front of the creamery, I pick up a particularly handsome Manchester and declare it to be perfect. “Perfect,” Loomis says, wincing. “They’ll never be perfect.”
Matthew Rubiner writes for culture when he’s not working overtime at Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers and rubi’s café, his businesses located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.
Photo by Benjamin Dell