Writing in the week with the shortest days of the year, I find myself thinking ahead, optimistically, toward spring. I know we have some hard months to work through. But I’m imagining that by the time the flowers start blooming in May, vaccination programs will be in full swing. We’ll have folks sitting outside eating together again, and things will be looking up.
May 8 is one day, in particular, that I’ve got marked on my calendar. It will be roughly the 43rd anniversary of when I got my first restaurant job at Maude’s as a dishwasher—when I first met Paul and Frank. It will be a week before the 13th anniversary of my mother’s passing. I mention the date here, though, because it will be the 91st birthday of poet, writer, and creative thinker Gary Snyder. Snyder still lives and writes, as he has for 45 years now, on his land near Nevada City in northern California. Over the years, both his prose and his poetry have given me great insight. So, on May 8, I’ll think of Gary, maybe read some of what he’s written, smile, nod, and make a note of how fortunate I am to have benefitted from his quiet presence on the planet.
When I hear, as I so often do, comments that imply that entire generations share the same behavioral characteristics and values, I shake my head at what feels to me like an unhelpful stereotype. The idea seems wholly implausible. While of course there are real “trends” to report on, the reality—my reality—is that there’s no way many millions of people all fit together into one neatly wrapped stereotyped generational package. If I doubt that belief, I have only to remind myself that the poet Gary Snyder and my mother were born within four months of each other. The year was 1930. The start of the Great Depression. She was born on August 2 in Chicago, four months after Gary Snyder entered the world in San Francisco. My mother, with all due respect, was a good person and caring member of her community, but she was about as straight an arrow as someone could be. Gary Snyder, on the other hand, has walked the edge of the creative world in the best possible ways, incorporated anarchism and Buddhism and the wilderness and beauty into a worldview that has brought poetry and creative writing to so many for so long. While my mom was working to help any number of Jewish non-profits in suburban Chicago, Snyder was hanging out in California with Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and the Beat poets. Then traveling the world extensively, speaking fluent Japanese and Chinese, and later appearing as a character in Kerouac’s classic book, The Dharma Bums.
There are many insights I’ve gleaned from Gary Snyder over the years. His poetry, his knowledge of nature and of other cultures, his wise humor, and his willingness to challenge the status quo have been—and still are—an inspiration to me. I have a whole file on my computer full of notes from his writing and his poetry readings that I reference fairly regularly. One thing, in particular, that Snyder said a long time ago has stayed with me for years:
The best way, maybe the only way, to change a situation is to imagine, even to declare that you will stay where you are, in your locale, the rest of your life.
If you had told me when I first arrived in Ann Arbor in 1974 that Snyder’s statement would be my life, I would have laughed. But then, I’d have laughed even harder if you told me I’d later be in the food business, writing books, speaking to audiences of thousands of people, or helping lead a business that did $50,000,000 in annual sales. At 18 I was just happy I’d finally made the decision to come here to go to U of M. Four years later, in 1978, I’d graduated with my history degree and was trying to figure out “what was next.” Not wanting to slide back into life in the Chicago suburbs, I took a job as a dishwasher (much to my mother’s dismay) at Maude’s on 4th Avenue. My decision to stay was only minimally about attraction to Ann Arbor, and mostly about not knowing where else to go. The last thing I had on my mind was staying here for the rest of my life. That decision changed my life. Four years later, in March of 1982, Paul (who’d been the GM at Maude’s when I started) and I were getting ready to open the Deli.
I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Gary Snyder’s statement about mindfully making the choice to stay in the same place for the rest of your life. I’m pretty sure it was referenced in a book I was reading by the psychologist James Hillman. I knew nothing about Gary Snyder, but reading what he’d said made me more than a bit anxious. Staying put for so long—forever, actually—seemed so… constricting. Maybe even crazy. Later though, I realized I’d read rather superficially. Gary didn’t say you actually had to stay in the same place; only to “imagine, even to declare” that you were going to. His point was less about what one ultimately did, and more about one’s intention. And, in that context, it suddenly made total, radical, sense. It was less about being shackled to a spot, than it was about freely choosing to stay in place for long enough to leave a positive and lasting mark on it. After all, we will tend to act very differently when we think we’re just passing through, than we would when we know we’re going to be living, up close, with our legacy in a locality for the rest of our lives. It took me a bit to get there, but ultimately I took Gary Snyder up on his suggestion to:
Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.
Looking back, I can’t really say for sure whether I found the place, or maybe, just as likely, the place found me. But, 40 years later, here I am, happily, by choice, living in Ann Arbor. And as I write today, Gary Snyder’s statement is at the core of my beliefs about business. All these decades down the road, I have a strongly held belief about doing business in the locale in which we live. And a commitment to keeping our organization alive and thriving, contributing to the community in which it started so many years ago now, for what, in this modern era, seems an almost shockingly long time. While so many modern businesses simply start opening more units in more cities, or sell out to bigger corporate consolidators, I/we want—have chosen—to simply stay put.
Way back when we opened the Deli in 1982 (when unemployment was at its highest point in the 20th century and interest rates were at 18 percent), we had the strong desire to start a business that would be unique and special. A place that people would experience in such meaningful ways that they would carry the memories of the experience with them wherever they went. Over the years, as I reflected—sometimes consciously, sometimes just quietly in a back corner of my mind—Gary Snyder’s statement kept me thinking. That Zingerman’s might not only be about making a special and delicious destination, but, also, about what it would mean to have Zingerman’s be only in this one single and very particular spot. To “dig in” and bond ever more deeply into the ecosystem in which we were ensconced. To become a special place, within a special place. Gary’s statement quietly kept challenging me to commit, recommit, and recommit again, to the idea of keeping our business based here in the town in which we were living and working. To dig into the belief that there was something that was sustainable, local, inspiring, interesting, and important about doing business only here. Yes, we ship food all over the U.S. Yes, we do training around the world. Yes, we now do virtual BAKE! and ZingTrain classes. But to come to Zingerman’s, you have to come to Ann Arbor. That, like everything in life, we could look at that as a constriction. Or, we could see it the way Gary Snyder said, when he shared this philosophical framework:
Discipline and freedom are not opposed to each other. We are made free by the training that enables us to master necessity, and we are made disciplined by our free choice to undertake mastery.
Over the years, this idea resonated with me more and more. To do business in the place you are fit in with so much else I was studying. The growing economic emphasis on local. Anarchism. Ecology. Ecosystems. It fit too with the work of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder’s longtime friend and another writer who’s had a big influence on me. Berry, born August 5, 1934 (three days after my mother’s fourth birthday), has also made Gary Snyder’s statement about digging in and committing to where you are a very meaningful reality. In 1965, at the age of 31, he and his family moved back from New York City where he was teaching writing, to rural Kentucky, to a farm near the town of Port Royal. Fifty-five years later, he’s still there farming and writing prose, poetry, and fiction. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Berry shared:
I say to the young people, don’t get into this with the idea that you’re gonna solve all the problems… The important thing to do is to learn all you can about where you are… to learn everything about that place. To make common-cause with that place. And then resign yourself to becoming patient enough to work with it over a long time. Then you’ll increase the possibility that you will make a good example. And what we’re looking for… are good examples.
I hope, with our work here at Zingerman’s, over what is now almost 39 years here in Ann Arbor, we would be the kind of example that Wendell Berry was looking for. At the least I know that Gary Snyder likes what we do. After visiting us for the first time, back when he was 85, he sent me one of the kindest compliments we’ve ever gotten: “Zingerman’s is a remarkable synthesis of the old and the new, the elite and the populist. I loved it!”
Doing business only in the place that you’re in, saying “no” to the idea of national expansion and franchises, isn’t really new. It’s the way people have worked for most of human history. But so much has changed in the last few centuries. To start a business and stay put—to become well known, but still not leave—has become something of a radical act. Maybe it fits with what Gary Snyder meant when he said he was a “post-revolutionary.”
All these years later, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not just passing through town. Rather, I guess, the town passes through me. I’m not saying this way to work is the right path for others, but for me, being in this place—in a positive place like this—has helped me to be myself. As Gary Snyder says, "A knowledge of place contributes to knowledge of self.” Part of how I’ve become the imperfect person I am is by being surrounded by so many great people. To be part of, in my own introverted way, this imperfect but special community. Snyder also said: "To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is whole. You start with the part you are whole in.” I feel whole in Ann Arbor. What was originally incidental became, over time, intentional.
Wendell Berry writes, “Community depends on the sympathy and moral imagination that thrives on contact, on tangible connection.” When we’re here, when people know how to get a hold of us, when we see the difference—for both better and for worse—that we make in people’s lives first hand, it changes the way we work. Every day I get email compliments and email complaints. Suggestions, course corrections, and ideas for improvement. They come from people who care about, and are connected to, Zingerman’s in meaningful ways. We can keep our own spiritual balance sheet in our heads by holding close to how many lives we’ve made better. By being in town, I believe, we stand a greater chance of making real what Ron Lippitt (the man who developed the core of our approach to visioning here in Ann Arbor back in the 60s) advocated, when he called on community leaders to “raise the appreciative and spiritual standard of living.”
I hope that this small corner of the world, lived in and lovingly cared for, for so many centuries by Ojibwe people, later settled by English and French and Germans, a stop on the Underground Railroad… is a bit better for our organizational presence. I know we are better for having been here. I hope this town—that’s been home over the years to remarkable people like Ron Lippitt, Brenda Ueland, Tom Hayden, Iggy Pop, Jane Dutton, Omari Rush, Wayne Baker, John U. Bacon, Micki Maynard, Robin Kelley, Keith Taylor (who brought Gary Snyder in for dinner), Lisa Barry, Lisa Cook, Bo Schembechler, and Mary Graham (the first African American woman to graduate from U of M back in 1880); a place that’s been visited by so many wonderful people from around the world for everything from conferences on philosophy, to football games, concerts, poetry readings, and training on pipefitting; home to The Ark, the Michigan Theater and the African American Cultural and Historical Center—has been enriched by Zingerman’s “digging in.”
Wendell Berry once said, “Part of manners used to be to say to somebody you just met, ‘Where are you from?’ And I quit asking it, because so many people say they’re from everywhere or nowhere.” I’m honored to say I’m from Ann Arbor. Being here in what the world calls Washtenaw County has helped make us the special (still highly imperfect) business that we are. I hope that we honor all of those people who were helping to make this place what it is long before Zingerman’s ever existed.
Next month we will formally embark on the implementation of our 2032 Vision. It will put the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses at 50 years. Here’s one very small snippet of what’s in the vision:
Staying put in order to grow
“First, don’t move;
and second, find out what that teaches you.”
It’s fifty years down the road and we continue to base our businesses in the Ann Arbor area. It’s a huge piece of what makes us who we are. We are part of this place more deeply than ever. It challenges us to stay close, it excites us, it makes us creative. It’s a powerful and paradoxical paradigm. By choosing to stay local we have opened up opportunities we never imagined.
The entire vision is about ten pages long, so there’s much more to it than those few lines. It’s a lot about continuing to improve in all of what we do. Because as Gary Snyder writes, “The preserver of abundance is excellence.” I’ll have finished copies to share with you by late January. At the core of the whole thing, though, is that we will continue to work as if we will—if we do our job well, and fortune and the community are with us—stay where we are for a long time to come.
All which leads me to the appreciation I put in the December issue of “Zingerman’s News,” the print newsletter we still put out every few months. (My mother was adamant about sending thank you notes.) In the spirit of staying in the same place for a long time, we’re on issue #281.
…the main point of writing this… is to express deep thanks and appreciation to you. To thank you for supporting us—a business that, I hope and believe, is very much of this place called Ann Arbor. When people have asked over the course of the year, how we’re doing at Zingerman’s, one of things that I regularly respond with is: “If you’re going to go through a pandemic, Ann Arbor is a really great place to go through it. The business situation is, at best, super stressful, but still—if we’re going to be going through the challenges of this year, I’m very glad to be doing it here. This evening as I’m writing this, sitting outside in the lovely light of one of those near perfect, early autumn Ann Arbor evenings that we all wish there were more of.
Thank YOU for being such a positive, caring, and supportive community. Thank you for being truly committed to our getting through this. Thank you for acting kindly and treating our crew so well through the duress of the last eight months. Thank you for taking public health seriously. Thank you for working to make the community more inclusive and to elevate the lives of those who have so often been left out. Thank you for trying to do the right thing, finding paths that honor each of us as individuals while still caring about the collective good. There are clearly systems to overhaul, and a whole lot of listening, talking, teaching and training to be done. Injustices to be righted, kindnesses to be communicated, generosity to be generated. Thank you for holding the course. We will get through this. Together. It’s not easy. But it can, I believe, be done. Other than the weather, I’ve never doubted my decision to stay in Ann Arbor. In fact, I love and appreciate the town more with each passing year. This year, as rough as it’s been, maybe more than ever.
John O’Donohue said that in the wilderness, animals have a “sense of fluency with the place they are in and the way they move in it.” I imagine that to be the case here for me, and for our organization. I hope that our work at Zingerman’s can help make it that way for you as well. In the spirit of O’Donohue’s appeal to boost the presence of beauty in small but meaningful, every-day-ways, I hope that… our imperfect organizational presence, is what John O’Donohue might have considered a blessing on the community. That’s certainly our intent. I believe we can get through this best by treating every person we come into contact with, with dignity; by revamping and revising systems to ensure that dignity is delivered to everyone, every day and in every way; by leading with appreciation, joy and generosity. There are a lot of problems to fix. I hope it doesn’t seem totally Pollyanna to believe John O’Donohue’s gentle words: “There are limitless possibilities within each one of us and, if we give ourselves any chance at all, it is unknown what we are capable of.”
Thanks to Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry—and my mother—for their guidance and insight shared from afar over all these years. And more importantly, thank you to all of you for making what we do every day at Zingerman’s possible and for the chance to be some small positive part of such a special place.