Natural Foods Merchandiser

ZingTrain keeps retail workers on right track

by Chris O'Brien

In 1982, when Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw opened Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., their intention was to offer a world-class corned-beef sandwich. By 2003, Zingerman’s was named "The Coolest Small Company in America" by Inc. magazine, and today the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses—including seven businesses—employs more than 500 people and generates annual sales of more than $30 million.

One of those businesses, Zingerman’s Training, or ZingTrain, has transformulated Zingerman’s almost three decades of business success into seminars, training and consulting services for business owners and employees.

Maggie Bayless, managing partner at ZingTrain, actually worked the deli in 1982. She came back to Zingerman’s after getting her master’s of business administration and working for General Motors and a variety of other companies, to launch the now-successful training company with Weinzweig and Saginaw.

"We started ZingTrain in ’94 with the idea of offering training within the Zingerman’s businesses and communities," Bayless says. "In 1996, we began sharing with companies outside and offered the ‘Zingerman’s Experience,’ a two-day overview approach to our method. It was selling out almost immediately, and so we created more programs and offered training on more in-depth topics."

Today, ZingTrain offers seminars on finance, merchandising (merchandiZing!), service, managing the bottom line, creating vision and leadership. Fourteen speakers from various Zingerman’s businesses are available for public and private addresses, and ZingTrain will develop custom training seminars to cater to a company’s specific needs.

"When we first started, our customers were predominantly people in the specialty food industry," Bayless says. "Now, it’s not unusual to find that more than half of the people attending a seminar have nothing to do with food or specialty retailing. The content of our workshops is not about how to make a sandwich, but how to deliver great customer service, and so the product is irrelevant to the interpersonal interaction our training is focusing on."

Bayless says ZingTrain has worked with all kinds of individuals—health care professionals, insurance agents and undertakers, as well as small, independent private companies and large corporations.

The seminar that will be presented at Natural Products Expo East, "Creating a Vision of Greatness," is about becoming the best company possible without necessarily having to continuously expand.

"The typical success model, what you learn getting an MBA, is about getting as big as you can as fast as you can," Bayless says. "Not that big is bad, but we believe that there are other ways to define success. We want to continue growing, but we also want to keep improving the quality of the food and the service we are delivering and give back to the community."

One of the keys to ZingTrain’s successful training formula is implementing a system built around tools and expectations.

"When it comes to training employees, we are real believers in documenting clear expectations for staff," Bayless says. "So by the end of the first week, they’ve been given tools and training, and know what they should be able to do. We have a training passport that lays out seven-day, 30-day and 60-day expectations and clearly defines what success in the position looks like, as opposed to just being thrown in there until you learn the ropes."

This active milestone-style training is critical for jobs that involve many products or a high level of customer service "because the customers don’t care if you have been there for two days or two years, they want service," she says.

ZingTrain believes in open-book financing, too. That means having the budgets and financial statements and other money matters, except salaries, accessible to everyone in the company. "I don’t want staff to understand a balance sheet or profit-and-loss statement," Bayless says. "I want them to understand the key numbers that are impacted by the decisions they are making every day, and if they don’t understand the financial implications, they may not be able to make the best decisions.

"In the food business, people are always shocked at how small margins are," Bayless says. "No one in this business is making money hand over fist, so we want to help our employees help the company figure out how to make more money by educating them on how the finances of the business work."

In turn, Zingerman’s companies all have some kind of gain-share plan, in which employees, depending on status and tenure, get a bonus based on performance beyond quarterly goals.

"Those of us [who] are managing partners in Zingerman’s want to create jobs that we get excited about coming to every day," Bayless says. "It’s not always about building a lot of value, selling and moving on, and we have found that a lot of organizations feel that way. We are happy to be able to offer training solutions for their vision."

Chris O’Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 34

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 34

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