A Bigger Deli
No more line at Zingerman's
by Sally Mitani
One thing at Zingerman's Deli that won't change when the new addition opens sometime in late October or early November is the entrance through the iconic brick storefront on Detroit Street. Once inside, you'll do your ordering and paying in slightly different places. After steps one and two, most customers will wander off to find a seat in a new 10,000-square-foot building in back.
There will be one big change in the Detroit Street visuals, though. That conga line on weekend mornings snaking out the door and around the block? Gone, predicts Grace Singleton, the managing partner who has piloted the deli's expansion project.
"The line happens for two reasons," she explains. "Either we have no more seats available and we have to slow down order taking, or because we run out of capacity on our grill. Usually that happens when we have a lot of call-ins and there's just no more room to cook," a problem most acutely felt when breakfast and lunch are crossing over. "Now we have a separate grill for breakfast, so we won't have that issue any more." And 150 seats in the new addition (fifty more outside when the weather's nice) will solve the bottleneck in seating.
Zingerman's has paradoxically built a world-famous retail brand by promoting top-quality, locally grounded, artisanal production, and the deli is the bedrock on which all the other Zingerman's businesses were built. Expanding the cramped, byzantine space of the original store without destroying its charm would probably have been approached carefully just to protect the brand, but the city's historic district commission insured it. "We made it as complicated as we could," laughs Singleton, listing some of the other complexities. The adjacent residential property had to be rezoned, but that didn't alter the DDA boundary that now bisects the newly combined parcel. Zingerman's opted for even more bureaucracy when it applied for brownfield grants and TIF (tax increment financing) for the project.
Singleton is one of three managing partners.
The other two, Rodger Bowser and Rick Strutz, kept the corned beef moving while she managed the construction. How'd she do it?
The outdoorsy-looking, forty-four-year-old bicycle road racer is a down-to-earth administrator. "Well, I was sitting with [Zingerman's co-founder] Paul [Saginaw], and said 'How do we start?' He said, 'You call people.' I said, '... oh ... OK.' So I started calling people and setting up meetings."
That was in 2007. Things took a new turn in 2009, when the house behind Zingerman's on Kingsley caught fire: "A man and woman lived there, and the woman was smoking in bed," says Singleton. "One of our dishwashers saw smoke and yelled, 'Fire!' Then he pulled her out of the house and saved her life." The owner couldn't afford to rebuild, so Zingerman's bought the property.
Viewed from Kingsley, the addition is a simple brick box, and a lot of it houses kitchens, offices, IT, and other infrastructure that most customers will never see. In early October the dining rooms on the first and second floor were just getting their first coats of paint, and carpenters had just about completed the built-in benches lining the walls of one of those rooms. The wood for the benches came from a spruce tree that stood in front of the house that "for the longest time we didn't know what to do with," Singleton says. "We took it to Sawmill John--he has a real name, I can't think what--and he aged it and sliced it into planks, and just recently we got the idea for the benches." Sawmill John's homespun contribution notwithstanding, the architect was Quinn Evans--another Kerrytown-area company with a national reputation.
An atrium connecting the new and the old buildings will take another several months to complete, and when that's done operations will move around to slightly different positions again. But this leg of the renovation is the big one. "For months staff has been carrying fifty-pound sheet trays up and down stairs trying to move the product around because we don't have an elevator. We'll all be so glad to see that come to an end."
Zingerman's Deli, 422 Detroit, 663-3354. Daily 7 a.m.-10 p.m. zingermansdeli.com
See our food blog, A2 Menu, for a pre-opening tour of Zingerman's Annex.
[Originally published in October, 2012.]