Deli visionary dishes meaty tips for a healthy business

Paul Saginaw, the co-founder of a critically acclaimed Michigan delicatessen whose combined company holdings now top $55 million in revenue each year, spoke Oct. 29, 2014, in the Koury Business Center on the ways students should respect their future customers, employees and communities.

Paul Saginaw, co-founder of the Michigan-based Zingerman's Delicatessen, spoke Oct. 29, 2014, at Elon University as part of the C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture Series.
In any business, someone always needs to be “looking down the road,” articulating a vision that inspires and motivates employees. Dedicated employees create better customer service experiences, which is foundational to the success of any moneymaking enterprise.

Paul Saginaw is one of those visionaries for Zingerman’s Delicatessen. As co-founder of the Michigan deli and a partner in another eight companies using the company brand, Saginaw is the first to tell you there’s no better feeling than making customers happy, workers prideful and communities healthier.

“Somebody has to be looking down the road in a business, saying ‘this is where we’re going,’” said Saginaw, who spoke Oct. 29, 2014, to a crowded LaRose Digital Theatre in the Koury Business Center. “It’s a debt you owe to the people who work for you.”

Saginaw visited Elon as part of the as part of the C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture Series and his visit was coordinated by the university’s Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which is sponsoring several programs and events in the months ahead aimed at students in all fields of study.

“You don’t have to be a business major to be an entrepreneur,” Professor Kevin O’Mara, executive director of the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, told the audience prior to Saginaw’s remarks. “It’s for everyone. It’s about mindsets and skills sets.”

Saginaw co-founded Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1982. For its first decade in operation, the deli remained in one location, as one business, serving the needs of its customers with a sole focus on quality food, Saginaw said. By the early 1990s, he and his business partner realized they owed more to their employees.

Saginaw's talk in the LaRose Digital Theater was organized by the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.
In putting together a vision for the future of the company, Saginaw and co-owner Ari Weinzweig wanted to support ambitious employees who had their own ideas that aligned with the company’s guiding principles.

Saginaw cautioned his audience not to confuse principles with best practices. In business, adhering to principles is easier said than done. Technology changes. Regulations change. Markets change. Principles remain constant, and “principles are not principles until they cost you something.

“Values don’t change and they can be expensive,” he said. “Our principles are what differentiate us.”

Zingerman’s today is a community of nine unique businesses, from restaurants to a candy store to a coffee-roasting company, with about 750 employees and more than $55 million in combined annual revenue. Those business are all run by business partners who at one time worked in the deli.

Zingerman’s was called the “Coolest Small Company in America” by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in the Harvard Business Review and on MSNBC for its business practices.

Saginaw is a leading advocate for adopting progressive approaches to food and ways of managing employees and was honored with the White House’s “Champion of Change” Award.

“Our marketing thrust wasn’t going to be on gimmick or price,” he said of his company’s origins more than three decades ago. “It was going to be on knowledge, information, and treating people royally all the time.”