(New York Jewish Week) — My hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is world-famous for precisely two things: It’s where the University of Michigan is located — Go Blue! — and it is home to Zingerman’s, a 41-year-old Jewish deli that’s both a local icon and a national treasure that regularly makes “best of” lists.
And now, one of these storied institutions will make an appearance in New York City for one day, and one day only — and it’s not the well-regarded public university.
On Saturday, Zingerman’s Deli will host a pop-up at Chelsea’s Olly Olly Market, where the Midwestern deli masters will be slinging sandwiches from noon to 8 p.m., or until sold out. There, at 601 West 26th St. near 11th Avenue, New Yorkers can expect top-notch variations on the classic Reuben sandwich, the company’s signature enthusiastic customer service and a host of Zingerman’s-branded sides and merch.
“We had this thought about taking the Reubens on the road, just having some fun with it,” Rodger Bowser, head chef and a managing partner of Zingerman’s Deli, told the New York Jewish Week.
Saturday’s event will be the popular deli’s second-ever popup; their first was in Chicago in 2019 at a location run by 16” on Center, a Windy City-based “hospitality collective.” The experience, said Bowser, was an overwhelmingly positive one — and when 160C expanded to Manhattan last year with Olly Olly Market, the Zingermen decided to give it another go.
Zingerman’s Deli was founded in 1982 by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, “two friends who dreamt of creating a traditional Jewish deli that would bring very special foods to Ann Arbor,” according to their web site.
The pair, who are both Jewish, came up with the name Zingerman’s because they wanted something “that would convey the sense of a good local deli, something that would ‘sound Jewish,’ would somehow telegraph that this was a real delicatessen,” Weinzweig once wrote. (Weinzweig declined to use his own surname, calling it “unpronounceable,” while the name Saginaw evokes the mid-Michigan town from which it took Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel four days to hitchhike.)
Their concept was a hit, and over the decades, Zingerman’s resisted the siren call of expansion or franchising and instead evolved into a progressive-minded “community of businesses” across the Ann Arbor area. These include the consulting business Zingtrain, which shares “the ‘Zingerman’s experience’ with forward-thinking organizations”; Zingerman’s Bakehouse, making classic breads and pastries; a candy manufactory, a creamery, event spaces and more.
These days, “the Zingerman’s Experience is now made and delivered by nearly six hundred people — partners, managers and staff in ten different businesses in addition to the Deli — to the tune of roughly $60,000,000 in annual sales,” Weinzweig writes. (A prolific writer, the Chicago native and Russian history major pens regular newsletters and has authored several books, including “Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon: Stories of Pork Bellies, Hush Puppies, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music and Bacon Fat Mayonnaise” and the four-part “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business.”)
Despite all that growth, popups remain a relatively new venture for Zingerman’s — and for Olly Olly Market, too. “We thought, what better time than our one-year anniversary to start introducing a little bit more of the Midwest to New York?” Tim Wickes, director of food hall operations at 160C, told the New York Jewish Week. Zingerman’s “jumped on it. So we’re fortunate and we’re super excited for the weekend.”
“We also know that there is a large population of Michiganders here in New York, University of Michigan alumni,” said Wickes, who lives in Brooklyn and is, tragically, an alumnus of rival Michigan State. “And we felt like the city would resonate well with that as our first of hopefully [pop-ups] from Chicago and the Midwest in general.”
Initially the idea was “to bring the Zingerman’s gameday experience to as many people as we can in New York,” Bowser said of Saturday’s event. (The Wolverines play the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday night.) “Clearly we have a pretty good fan base there that always can’t get to Ann Arbor for a game. And we just want to share that experience and have some fun.”
As anyone who ever worked at Zingerman’s attest — and that includes me: Working at Zingerman’s is practically a rite of passage for “townies” — and football game days are especially busy day at an already busy place; lines are long and the wait for sandwiches can exceed an hour.
Since the game and the open-to-the-public popup won’t overlap, the Zingerpeople are also selling tickets “to an exclusive tailgate experience with guaranteed seats and sandwiches.”
As for the six sandwich types on sale, all are Reubens or riffs on them, “what we like to call the Russian dressing group,” Bowser said. Among them is the deli’s most popular sandwich, the #2 Zingerman’s Reuben — made with corned beef, Swiss Emmental cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on grilled Jewish rye bread, a combination that former President Barack Obama described as “killer” — as well as the #18 Georgia Reuben, with turkey breast, Swiss Emmental cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing.
Bowser, who was a vegetarian when he started working at the deli 28 years ago, will also be making “a personal favorite”: #36 Lila & Izzie’s Skokie Skidoo, a vegetarian Reuben consisting of Swiss Emmental cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing on grilled farm bread.
As it happens, the Reuben’s origins lie neither in New York nor Ann Arbor: Legend has it the legendary sandwich was invented in an Omaha hotel in the 1920s “to satisfy a group of hungry Jewish poker players,” according to The Nosher.
To bring Zingerman’s Reubens to NYC, Bowser and his team will be driving two trucks packed with food and supplies from Ann Arbor to Manhattan — a distance of 621 miles, or 9 hours and 24 minutes in traffic at the time of this writing. “Obviously you can’t make a Zingerman’s sandwich without Zingerman’s Bakehouse bread,” said Bowser. “And it’s gonna take quite a few loaves of that.”
Bowser estimated the road crew of three will likely leave on Thursday, which would give them a day to set up the space on Friday. (Three other Zingerman’s employees will travel by plane.)
When asked if he had any qualms about bringing deli sandwiches to the birthplace of American deli culture — a place whose denizens are known to be “kind” but not exactly “nice” — Bowser demurred. “I’m not throwing shade at anybody,” he said, emphasizing the main impetus was to have a fun time.
Wickes concurs. Acknowledging that New York “is the mecca of Reuben sandwiches,” he said the pop-up will have a “humble approach.” “We’re certainly in tune with the fact that there’s plenty of fantastic Reubens in the city,” he said. “We just wanted to showcase Zingerman’s.”
As for Bowser, he conceded to one possible challenge: “Navigating two big trucks though traffic sounds daunting,” he said. “But I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”