June 23, 2013
I woke up this beautiful June morning after three days of academic conferencing that was both grueling and deeply satisfying. I would normally be traveling for the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, but this year the meeting was at the Kellogg Center on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing. One of the conference highlights was the keynote address by Amy Emmerling, who is a managing partner for Zingerman’s Bakehouse. As she described it, Zingerman’s is a throwback company that is more dedicated to making the Ann Arbor, MI area a great place to live than it is to fattening its partner’s wallets. They do this by running a family of businesses that are guided by a commitment to full-flavored traditional food. This is half the story. The other half is the way that they run those businesses.
To start with the first half, I’d like to point out that food quality is one of the things that makes anyplace into a great place. You can be snobby about this, but you don’t have to be. Good food can be simple. In my book some of the best food is simple. But you do have to be attentive to the things that make it good: the ingredients, the time and care needed for preparation and the emotional inputs. Any number of poets and writers have told us that spite and sloth, as much as love and joy, become part of the final product that people eat. Our Western scientific viewpoint as administered by the Eff Dee Ay and other acronymic orgasimations does not recognize emotion as a legitimate food ingredient, but I am here today in the Thornapple Blog signing up for the contrary point of view. Emotion counts. Definitely. And if you want to live in a good place, you need to be eating good food most of the time, and this means food prepared by people who are not pissed off and resentful of the fact that they are there preparing it for you as opposed to, say, having a beer and watching reruns of Dancing with the Stars. There is some highly snobby food seen on the food channel that is not good food by this definition, and since I am the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture and Food Ethics, what I say goes.
Or at least, sort of.
So you can see that there is a much tighter connection between the first half of the Zingerman’s philosophy (as it was recounted by Amy Emmerling) and the second half. You can’t really make good food in a way that conforms to the now official W.K. Kellogg Chair definition when the people who make it are spiteful and inattentive, and if you are running a business that makes food, the people who make the food are, more likely than not, your employees. If you want employees to take an interest in what they are doing, it is wise and prudent to ensure that they are fully and emotionally enrolled in the project for which they are employed. In the Dot Com era, start-up IT companies did this by putting a pool table and video games in the break room, but being old-fashioned I’m inclined to think that Zingerman’s approach (open accounting, listening and opportunity for advancement) is probably both more generalizable and reliable.
Now I hasten to add that I am not here to plump Zingerman’s, though I did buy 12 oz. of their coffee yesterday evening at Goodrich as I was on my way home from the Kellogg Center. All I really know about their philosophy is what I heard in Amy’s talk on Friday. I also know that they make great bread. There is a school of thought in business and economics that calls it “place prosperity”: you run a business because you want to make the place that you live more handsome and appealing. It’s not always easy, and it means passing up on some key market opportunities that could create wealth. But contra Milton Friedman, that’s what business should do. Don’t forget: you heard it here first.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agriculture, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University