As restaurants are scrambling to banish abusive cultures, Zingerman’s training arm is marking its 25th year of teaching ideas like open-book management, leadership philosophy, and continuous improvement.
— Micheline Maynard
Chefs and restaurant owners have always been collegial – but competitive. They put their own interests first, watching hawk-like to see how others are doing business.
But the approach at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., is different. It has built a multi-million-dollar business, ZingTrain, based on spreading its staff-friendly operating philosophies, in hopes of feeding companies’ bottom-line success.
Lately, it has been conducting that work in an atmosphere of #MeToo and the harsh spotlight it has shone on abusive chefs and proprietors. At the same time, economic pressures have never been heavier on restaurants, which are desperate to find and retain good staff members, from managers and servers to cooks and bussers.
Ari Weinzweig, a co-founder of Zingerman’s, says training has never been more important for the industry. “There are a lot of jobs where people are required to get a formal education,” he said. But restaurants “are an industry where you can get in without any formal training. People are trained on the fly by people who don’t know what they’re doing.”
ZingTrain, which turns 25 this year, was launched a dozen years after the original Zingerman’s Deli opened. Created by Zingerman’s staffer Maggie Bayless, it is now part of a multi-branch operation, including the original Deli, two restaurants, a bakery, plus cheese, coffee, and candy businesses — that generated more than $60 million in revenue in 2018. Of that, ZingTrain contributed about $2 million, from classes held at its offices near the Ann Arbor airport, and in custom training sessions conducted either in Ann Arbor or at a client’s business.
Training Industry Leaders
About half the companies that use ZingTrain are restaurants, and they’ve included a number of James Beard Award winners, and other highly regarded names. This winter, ZingTrain conducted a session for managers at Saba, the new restaurant opened in New Orleans by Alon Shaya. His previous restaurant, Shaya, won the Beard Award as the country’s best new restaurant in 2017.
Eight managers from Flour Bakery and Café, the Boston group run by Beard winning pastry chef Joanne Chang, just returned from a ZingTrain session. They’re the third group of employees that Chang has sent to Ann Arbor, including front of the house managers and pastry chefs. In addition, Weinzweig has come to Boston twice to train groups of Flour staff.
The most recent group learned “how to effect change, and help their teams to be more profitable,” Chang said. “We are growing pretty quickly at this point, and we need all the help we can get to be more efficient and more effective.”
One of ZingTrain’s early customers was Rick Bayless (no relation to Maggie), the Chicago chef famous for his Mexican-inspired cuisine. He credits ZingTrain in helping his restaurants grow to $20 million a year in revenue, with about 300 employees. Bayless got in touch with Weinzweig in 1997 to help with employee training. He and his wife Deeann, his business partner, had trained staff themselves, but as they expanded, he realized they could not keep teaching on their own.
“Ari had an approach to business that was similar to ours, but he boxed it up in a way that people could see it less amorphously,” Bayless said.
That initial session was on ZingTrain’s concept of visioning, in which attendees picture where they want to be at a date in the future, and then figure out the steps needed to get there. It’s a core tenet of the way Zingerman’s does business, although Bayless said he isn’t quite that disciplined. “I couldn’t write a five- or 10- or 15-year vision for love or money,” he joked.
But Bayless is an advocate for Zingerman’s philosophy of open-book management, in which financial information that normally would be kept confidential is shared with employees. While he can’t quantify the effects of ZingTrain in dollar terms, Bayless said it has paid off enormously in helping retain staff, some of whom have been with his restaurants for 25 of the 32 years he has been in business.
One of ZingTrain’s newest customers is Good Egg on Bainbridge Island, Washington, whose owners Lena Davidson and Alice Hunting wanted to create a welcoming culture and send a consistent message to staff. The women, who are married to each other, read Weinzweig’s book, “The Zingerman’s Guide to Building A Great Business” as they were starting their business in 2017, and found it “a balm to the soul,” Davidson said.
Six months after opening, the pair booked flights to Ann Arbor to attend six days of ZingTrain seminars, splitting up so they could learn different concepts. The sessions were “the most lucid, inspiring, and connected time we had spent as business partners and as life partners,” Davidson said.
ZingTrain helped them create new routines to evaluate and share information about the café’s financial and cultural health. They also are slowly creating new systems for hiring, training, and promoting staff.
“We hire for kindness, expect heartful work, and ask staff directly how their life and our business can be co-supportive of each other,” Davidson said.
It might seem that the focus on #MeToo would generate significant business for ZingTrain, but Weinzweig says it hasn’t. For one thing, abusive managers may not want to go through the self-examination that happens at ZingTrain.
“Most of the people who need (training) and decide to get it are going for stock training on inclusion,” he said. “Those are good things, but too much is being done to get somebody off their back than because they believe in the work.”
Others may not want to pay up. Individual courses conducted in person are an investment at $1,250 per person, although there is a discount for booking multiple seats in a class. Chang says she spent $13,000 to send the most recent group of eight managers to Ann Arbor, including $8,000 for classes, and the rest for airfare, hotels and meals.
Along with its focus on visioning, open-book management, leadership development and customer service, ZingTrain is moving into new areas, and exploring digital learning. Maggie Bayless says its newest course, How To Improve, is based on the concepts of continuous improvement and eliminating waste that are part of The Toyota Way, the car company’s heralded production method. It offers a digital course, called The Art Of Giving Great Service e-learning, at $75 a seat, and a trainer’s toolkit for bottom-line learning, at $50.
For Rick Bayless, the biggest benefit from ZingTrain has been that “it helps me sleep at night,” he said. “ZingTrain has equipped us with a common understanding and language that I can share. And if something falls apart,” he said, “it means I don’t have to feel I’m the only one here trying to keep everything upright.”