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Leadership Development

7 Steps to Being Lucky & Good

In the past year or so, I’ve been asked to speak on the subject of innovation about 14 times.As the economic screws tighten, it seems like the pressure increases to invent the culinary equivalent of the next iPhone. People from the press, business schools and bigger companies keep asking me to predict tomorrow’s big breadwinners and to foretell the food world’s future. I’m honored to be asked, but there’s little that we do here that’s about being predictive—Zingerman’s isn’t now, nor has it ever been, about catching the next big wave. While we’ve worked hard and we’ve been blessed with good fortune, I don’t think that we’re where we are because we’re some sort of modern-day food fortune tellers.

So what’s the secret to success? Well, I can tell you some of the things that we’ve done in focusing on quality and using the food we make, serve and sell to create the foundation of a sustainable, high-energy business. I’m not 100 percent sure that the seven points that follow are the right ones for everyone. But I’m pretty sure that they’re the approaches that have been working here for nearly three decades now. And—I believe strongly—they are going to keep working effectively for us for many years to come.

1. Make something special.

If we want to have a special business, the products we sell have to be special, too. I’m not saying they have to be expensive, just special. Exceptional. Engaging. Interesting. Different. And better still, unique. (Or at least unique to our part of the world.Pimento cheese is found in just about every kitchen in the South, but in Ann Arbor hardly anyone’s heard of it, or at least they hadn’t until we started serving it six years or so ago.) Selling stuff that everyone else is selling—even if they’re moving a lot of it—is almost never where we look to put our energies. What we want to work with here is the stuff that’s NOT selling—at least not yet. We want to put something out there that people will get excited about, take note of, talk about and want to actively get behind, through good times and bad.

2. Create something people are going to want.

I almost skipped this one because it’s so obvious but, yeah, making a distinctive product of exceptionally high quality that no one is going to like or be interested in paying for isn’t going to get us far.
How do we know what people are going to want? One option is learning to go with our gut and find those foods that feel right even though anyone in their right mind would tell us they’d never sell. Having done that dance dozens—actually hundreds—of times over the years I’m well familiar with it. Seriously, it’s safe to say that nearly every significant product we have here was either

(a) unknown in Ann Arbor,

(b) something most everyone said would never sell or, in many cases,

(c) both.

While it may seem like guesswork, there’s actually a mindful method behind choosing new products. One of the ways we do it here at Zingerman’s is to home in on foods that hardly anyone in our part of the world has ever eaten but that are traditional and popular in their place of origin. That might mean pimento cheese from the South, harissa from Tunisia, vinegar-based barbecue from eastern North Carolina, fried cheese curds from Wisconsin, the Bakehouse’s Paesano bread in the style of Puglia and so on. To me there’s not much research needed for this stuff: people from the American South, Tunisia, North Carolina, southern Italy or almost anywhere in the Badger state will tell you exactly how good these foods are. So it’s not a huge leap for me to forecast that as-yet-unsuspecting Ann Arborites are going to like them, too.

Another way is to improve on something everyone already loves. To quote from Paul Hawken’s book, Growing a Business: “Take a prosaic, everyday, kick-around sort of product and make it real again. Hamburgers, for example. There are so many bad burgers in this world I venture to say that anyone with a hot grill who makes an honest one with generous portions and fresh fried onions will never lack for customers. In other words, take a product and reduce it to its essence.” No shock then that one of our biggest sellers at the Roadhouse is our burgers that are ground daily from fresh whole chuck, hand pattied and grilled to order over oak. They aren’t cheap, but they sure are good and we do sell a lot of them.

3. You’ve gotta believe!

I’ve come to realize over the years that what we sell has to be special, not just so that it stands out in the marketplace but because the people who work in our organization absolutely have to believe in what they’re doing. When this is the case, employees feel comfortable selling the products, press people like to report on them and customers like buying them. Because there’s nothing to hide, you can just come at it from the heart and know that the more customers learn about a product, the more they’re going to like it. And from there, we generate the solidity, trust, calm confidence, appreciation and abundance mentality that are found in any mutually rewarding relationship.

4. Substance sells.

Glitz will only get us so far; to achieve long-term business sustainability our product actually has to be good—not just have good marketing. In order to get the emotional buy-in and passion we’re looking for, those who buy from us have to understand why our products are distinctive, why they cost what they cost and how they will make their lives better.

5. Definitely sweat the details.

Ideas are wonderful and all, but when it comes down to the food, what we serve does have to taste good every day in the real world, not just in the test kitchen. In order to make this happen we have to watch the details. All the time. In the food business, maintaining outstanding quality is a lot of work—and it can all come apart at a moment’s notice. Just because we made one good meal doesn’t mean the next one will be good, too. All it takes is someone forgetting to add the salt, or serving tepid soup from a steam table and before we know, a guest is having a way-less-than-stellar experience.

6. Keep getting better.

While we may have made great things happen for nearly 30 years here, there’s still no way we can happily sell customers the same sandwich tomorrow that we sold them yesterday. Anyone who’s committed to greatness in the food business knows there’s no resting on laurels; if our food isn’t getting better then we’re sinking into the morass of the middle of the market.

7. If the food isn’t good, people aren’t coming back.

Okay, maybe that’s not always true. But at Zingerman’s, from the day we opened back in 1982, we’ve believed that the burden was on us to produce something—food, service or, better still, both—that would make customers want to travel a long way to buy from us. And it’s still true today. When we score quality—we do it here on a 0 to 10 scale—we’re driving for the hard-to-hit 9s and 10s at the top of the chart. While 7s and 8s aren’t likely to cause customer complaints—that’s the range where people are usually perfectly satisfied—we want to sell stuff that leaves people talking and shaking their heads in a good way.

While we never get it all right, and we know everything we do can be improved upon, it’s those 9s and 10s that have taken us to where we are today. They are also what make customers start thinking about coming back not long after they finished their lunch. As Jim Van Buchove, long-time director of the Henry Ford Museum (30 miles east of us in Dearborn, Mich., and an amazing place in its own right), once said with his usual enthusiasm, “Zingerman’s is a place where you wait 15 minutes to order, you pay $15 for your sandwich, you wait 15 more minutes to get it and when you’re done you say, ‘Damn, when can I do that again?!’”

To be clear, in closing, I don’t think anyone has to do any of the seven things I’ve listed here in order to be successful. But I do think these seven steps can make a difference.

A few years ago I was in Calabria visiting with a talented cheesemaker. As we were finishing lunch, after discussing the details of cheesemaking and tasting a bunch of terrific cheeses, he leaned over and said, “People ask me if I believe in luck.” I paused, having not a clue where he was going with this story. “I tell them, for sure, I believe in luck. But I find the harder I work, the luckier I get!”

I’m with him. When we achieve all seven of these steps, sales seem to get stronger, the staff seems more engaged and the bottom line tends to look a whole lot better. I guess then that seven really is a lucky number.