In the specialty food world, Zingerman’s is an iconic name. Complete with its Delicatessen, Bakehouse, Coffee Company, and other affiliated businesses—the Zingerman’s family of brands has evolved, over the course of its nearly-40-year history, from an upstart deli to a specialty food standard-bearer to an almost unparalleled collection of companies—bringing craftsmanship and care to a number of food-related ventures.
I recently spoke with Aubrey R. Thomason, Managing Partner for Cream Top Shop and Zingerman's Creamery, to learn more about the Creamery and it’s place in the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.
“I think the standard idea to fruition is about seven years!” Aubrey said, describing the incubation process. “John Loomis worked at the Delicatessen and wanted to open a Creamery to make cream cheese to go with the Bakehouse bagels. In 2002 he opened a creamery with Zingerman's to do just that. Cream cheese was our flagship product and we sell quite a bit of it still.”
The Ann Arbor institution that would become Zingerman’s Community of Businesses first started as Zingerman’s Delicatessen in 1982. Founded by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig in a historic building near the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, the deli quickly evolved into one of the nation’s most preeminent and influential specialty food stores. Unwilling to simply set the tone once, the company began to expand its horizons. In 1992, Zingerman’s Bakehouse was founded, and a decade later, the need for cream cheese to complement its burgeoning bagel business prompted a new venture—Zingerman’s Creamery.
“We work directly with one farm for cow’s milk and one farm for goat’s milk. We negotiate with the farms directly on price. We pay a price that helps keep the farm in business. Both of the farms we work with do their own added value work and that helps them to stay sustained. The farms are within an hour of the Creamery,” Aubrey explains, noting the painstaking efforts the company goes through to produce its artisanal cheese offerings. “We approach cheese making with tradition in mind. For lactic cheesemaking that means it is a very long and slow process. We ripen and acidify our milk for between 18-14 hours. We have long drainage times, and we do all of the forming and making by hand. We believe that milk is a very fragile material, and we treat it so. Doing everything we can to reduce mechanical movement of the milk and all hand handling of the curds.”
It’s a process, Aubrey explained, that the creamery has gotten really good at—drawing on a number of age-old traditions to produce various washed-rind and wrapped cheeses, each distinguished through the traditional affinage process.
“We believe in great service; our sales and service are about getting the customer what they want—accurately, enthusiastically and going the extra mile,” Aubrey noted. “The cheeses that we are making are not cheddar and gouda, and so they do require a fair amount of educating the consumers—on what they are, how to use them, and how the flavors differ from their experience. We have a very robust training and events department. We host about 4 events a week from Cheese 101, to Wine and Cheese, to Mastering Mozzarella, and we offer tours of our production facility. We also partner with our wholesale customers to train their customer and staff. Education is the name of the game.”
And though the company is steeped in cheesemaking tradition, that doesn’t keep it from being innovative. In fact, Aubrey told me, the company has a new marinated mixed-milk offering set to debut later this year.
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“We are developing the Great Lakes Marinated—a blend of fresh cow and goats milk cheese, packed in American olive oil, Michigan Heirloom Canola, and Sunflower oils,” Aubrey said. “This will be coming to market in the spring!”
Zingerman’s Creamery cheeses are available through a variety of distributors—including Tomales Bay Foods on the West Coast, World’s Best Cheese on the East, regionally through R. Hirt Jr., Co., Cherry Capital Foods, and Fortune Fish & Gourmet, and nationally through Gourmet Foods International.
For more dairy, deli, bakery, and specialty food news, keep reading Deli Market News.