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Here's What You Can Learn From Lapsed Anarchist Ari Weinzweig

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar July 30, 2016

After our visit to the Center for Positive Organizations we left to meet with Ari Weinzweig in Ann Arbor.

Ari is the co-founder and CEO of Zingerman's, a community of food businesses. Some months ago we learned about Ari's radical approach to running his businesses from Richard Sheridan, who we met in Ann Arbor as well. Zingerman's employs over 600 employees working in 10 different businesses and embraces some very innovative ways of working. This should not surprise you anymore once you learn that Ari is a big fan of anarchists.

Zingerman's history

The Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB) is a family of ten businesses all located in the Ann Arbor area and reflects the novel strategy for business growth created by Zingerman’s Deli founders Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig. Rather than replicating their deli through the franchise model, Paul and Ari instead chose to develop new, independent businesses, all rooted in the local community that work together as one organization. Each business is operated by one or more managing partners who share ownership and put their particular expertise to work in the day to day running of their business.

The idea for the ZCoB was laid out in Zingerman’s 2009 vision, written by Ari and Paul in 1994 and highlighted in Bo Burlingham’s 2003 article for Inc. Magazine, “The Corner Deli that Dared to Break Out of the Neighborhood.”

Meeting Ari Weinzweig

Bucket AW CR

Right after we learned several practical tips to create more positive organizations at the University of Michigan, we were ready to grab diner. We had no choice other than to visit the Zingerman's Roadhouse to experience one of Ari's businesses. And not only due to the stories we had heard about the great food and service. We mainly wanted to find out if the remarkable 'pouring water' story was true.

We heard about this story when we met with Alexander Kjerulf in Denmark. He told us that Ari is often walking around in the Roadhouse with a pitcher filled with water to refill customer's glasses. Even after what we've seen the last 6 months, we were still a bit skeptical. We thought this was one of those "too good to be true" stories; a water pouring CEO of a company with over $ 60 million dollar in annual revenues.

'Management by pouring water'

Once we entered the restaurant a friendly staff member guided us to our table. On our way to our table we scanned the restaurant to see if we could recognize Ari. Even before we arrived at our table, we spotted him moving around with his pitcher from table to table. Right before our food arrived, Ari came passing by to fill up our glasses. We greeted him and shook his hand. His response was enthusiastic: "Ahh! The Corporate Rebels are here!" After chatting for a bit he continued pouring water, "I have to move on, people are getting thirsty".

One of the biggest problems of traditional management practices is that the people with the most decision making power (high up in the organization) are the farthest away from the actual work that's being done. As you can imagine, this often results in ill-informed, slow and terrible decisions.

Later Ari told us one of his customers coined the term 'management by pouring water'. He believes it is one of the most important things he does as a leader. And according to Ari, some of the many positive effects of him pouring water, are the following:

  • Make it easy to teach the little things (On the job teaching)
  • Praising of staff
  • Better staff relationships
  • Understanding the customer (i.e. buying pattern, 'product usage', compliments, complaints)
  • Better customer relationships

Ari is very clear about the benefits for his organization. Ari: "If it's half as helpful to you as Management by Pouring Water has been for me, it'll be a hugely positive investment of time, energy, and resources". He doesn't like to tell people how to run their business, but he believes a similar approach to leadership can result in lots of benefits for all organizations.

A healthy dose of anarchy

Zingermans deli interior 2

The next morning we meet Ari at Zingerman's Coffee Company where we discuss what led him to run his business in an unusual manner. He describes how he ended up studying history and becoming particularly interested in 'anarchy'. After reading hundreds of books on the subject, Ari began to see the parallels between his passion for anarchy and his approach to business. Ari knows anarchy doesn't have a very positive ring to it. But what inspired him in anarchists are their approaches to free thinking, free choice, initiative taking, collaboration, creativity, caring and going for group greatness. What Ari said next underlines this:

"This entire construct came together even better a few years later, after I’d had the chance to assimilate all of my anarchist studies. If you start with our commitment to treating everyone as an equal, if you believe that most everyone is creative and intelligent and able, when you stop sucking up to people in positions of authority, when you lead by serving others instead of by stepping on them, then getting everyone to take leadership responsibility for the effectiveness of our work is the only reasonable way to go. In a way, I think that much of the anarchists’ work was overly focused on bringing down leaders. I’ve got a different twist on the subject: Instead of beating down the leaders, I’d rather bring everyone else up."

This view is what separates Zingerman's from many other organizations. Most practices they have put in place are based on the above beliefs.

We finished our coffee and moved on to the Zingerman's Roadhouse to witness some of these practices in real life. It started with a mind blowing experience of joining one of their so called open book management sessions.

Powerful tools to engage employees

Open book management

We joined the open book management session at the Zingerman's Roadhouse. We experienced it as one of the most powerful practices we have seen so far on our search. This open book management is an incredibly powerful tool to create transparency (and engagement!) within the organization.

In traditional organizations lots of leaders, managers and employees are complaining about a lack of entrepreneurship. We've noticed it ourselves as well. We lacked entrepreneurship ourselves in our previous jobs.

Then why is there so much lack of entrepreneurship? Well.. mostly because you don't know what the hell you're doing financially.

You might know what the organization as a whole is doing financially, but how does this translate to your work? How can your team influence the revenue, profit, loss, and cost of what you're doing? Or do you just have to wait for 'management' or 'the organization' to decide on when to save or invest money?

Open book management is about creating transparency on how the business is doing. In the Roadhouse we experienced it for one hour when the staff of the restaurant discussed that week's results. Aspects such as net operating profit, revenues, costs and customer satisfaction (which are traditionally discussed by management only) were discussed with everyone who desired to join.

Illustrative to how powerful it can be, here's the story that one of the dish-washing employees shared with us: “In previous jobs I was just expected to fulfill my standard tasks. Since I started working here I feel that I use parts of my brain that I wasn’t using before. I feel like I am actually running a business and that I contribute to it in a valuable way.”

When did you ever hear an employee, who's main task is dish-washing, tell you the above after he just finished explaining last week's net operating profit?

As you know from the blog post on our Toronto workshop, we are going to start with a blog series on Rebellious Practices. In this series we'll get into more detail on how open book management works and how you can use it in your team or organization.

A meaningful on-boarding session

After the open book management session we joined Ari and six relatively new employees in an on-boarding session. It's a session in which Ari (or co-founder Paul) teaches the new staff about Zingerman's most important aspects. We see great parallels with the organizations we've seen before, but such a clear and personal way of transferring the history and the culture of the organization was new to us. The most important topics that were discussed:

  • History of Zingerman's
  • Purpose
  • Values
  • Triple bottomline (great food, great service, great finance)
  • Personal leadership lessons
20160629 170319

The way Ari approached this session clearly showed his unique leadership* *approach. With lots of humor, inspiring stories, and practical tips, we could see the employees becoming an integrated part of the organization.

A comment of one of the 16-year old attendees was incredibly powerful and underlined everything we had seen that day: "I learned a lot about how to work with other people since I started here. It's about how we treat and value each other respectfully. The experiences even changed the relationship with my teachers at school."

After the session we tell Ari how surprised we were by such comments. His response and the emotion in his voice is revealing: "That is why I get so much energy out of sessions like this. Hearing stories like this is what makes my job so great."

After saying a final goodbye to Ari and Zingerman's we can barely realize the uniqueness of this organization. It feels great to experience once again how inspiring a workplace can be. It strengthens us even more that work can and should be so much more fun and inspiring than it currently is for so many people...*


We can imagine you want to see more of Ari Weinzweig and Zingerman's unique approach to business. If you want to learn more, we highly recommend starting with the below presentation of Ari on what he calls The 12 Natural Laws of Business.

If you want to take a deep dive in Ari's views and Zingerman's unique practices? Check out his books, which we highly recommend! Books can be bought here.

Interested in contacting Ari directly? He told us he would love to personally answer any questions you might have. You can drop him a line on ari@zingermans.com.*

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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