Part 6: Zingerman’s and The Lunch Room: An examination of inclusive work cultures

Restaurants foster honesty and openness among staff that makes for a positive environment for those in recovery

At the Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea on Liberty Street, Melvin Parson sipped from his own thermos and slowly ate his peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in tin foil.

“I don’t want to treat the individual and help the individual get better and then put them back in the same soil that got them sick in the first place,” he explained. “I want to do something with the soil.”

Parson is quite literally doing something with the soil. Last year, he started We The People Growers Association, a farming nonprofit organization that he hopes will one day “create a sustainable system that can support a workforce” in places that lack resources. What started as a single vegetable bed he inherited from an elderly woman who passed away has evolved to a couple of large gardens, with one being a hoop house at Dawn Farm.

Farming on Dawn Farm was no accident. Parson is in recovery himself and said he wants to give back to the recovery community.

“I’m thinking as I flesh this thing out, I’m thinking that that space out there (Dawn Farm) can be specifically targeted for the recovery community,” he said.

He continued later in the interview: “I’ve been sober for the past six years now and my philosophy is that I’m not sober for my entertainment purposes only. I’m sober and I think one of the ways in which I stay sober is figuring out how to give (the mentality of giving back to the community) away to someone in the recovery community or to be kind to people in general as a whole.”

“I’m not sober for my entertainment purposes only.”

When talking to Parson, it’s easy to see the effects a Healing Forest has had on him. The passion he has for community is hard to miss, as he sees it as a central tenet to his existence as a man in recovery.

“From an individual perspective, community was huge for me, ’cause community is what supports when I’m unsure about things,” he said. “Community is what supports me when I’m struggling. It supports me when I’m victorious.”

“Community is what supports me when I’m struggling. It supports me when I’m victorious.”

And Parson maintains that the recovery community is not separate from the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti communities at large. He called Alcoholics Anonymous — though his point extends to all forms of addiction — “entrenched” in the community.

“When I say that, I mean a lot of people in the recovery community also work in the community,” he said. “They go to school in the community. They live in the community. So it’s really intertwined. And as a result, employers don’t shun those applicants.”

One of those employers is Ari Weinzweig, the co-founder of Zingerman’s — one of the most famous businesses born in Ann Arbor. What started as a deli in 1982, and still exists in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown district, has now expanded to 10 different businesses.

Zingerman’s is known for its positive workplace environment and giving significant responsibility to its employees, such as the server in charge of breakfast sales at one of their restaurants. At its core, Zingerman’s philosophy is one that believes in the abilities of all people, no matter their education level or previous life experiences. As a result, that’s led to a workforce dotted with people in recovery.

“I would say we’re open to everybody and then we have a lot of people in recovery that have done really well here,” Weinzweig said. “So then it’s sort of natural that in the same way that word of mouth works with everything, which is always the best marketing, and social media just makes it go a little faster or wider more quickly … you know, the word spreads.”

“From day one, I feel like there was a strong recovery representation in Zingerman’s,” Betty Gratopp said, who has worked for Zingerman’s Mail Order for nearly two decades. “There was somebody here I knew I could talk to.”

No one’s recovery is the same. For some, employment may just be a means to an end. But Lisa Roberts, who also works at Mail Order, sees the connection between her job and her life in recovery.

“I got a job (at Zingerman’s) two weeks after I got sober, so my recovery has been very tied to my employment here,” she said. “I feel like I owe a huge debt of gratitude.”

“Likewise,” Gratopp added. “I only had one other job and I was there for two weeks before I started here. And it’s very tied to my recovery for certain.”

Recognizing the impact Zingerman’s has had on their recovery, Roberts and Gratopp, who are close friends, believe they have a role to “pay-it-forward” when new employees in recovery start to work with them.

“We should be here to provide the same kind of experience that was to us when we got here — and just keep it going,” Roberts said.

“Hopefully we can make them feel safe and secure and embraced,” Gratopp continued.

Why Zingerman’s hires people in recovery like Gratopp and Roberts comes down to two questions for Weinzweig.

“A) Why not?” Weinzweig said. “B) I don’t know anybody who hasn’t messed up a lot in their life, certainly me — high on the list. So why would I not want to give people a chance?”

“I have long believed that the line between what people consider success and mainstream and what turns into failure is very fine,” Weinzweig explained. “And that many of us have hovered near that line and ended up on the right (side) of it and others on the wrong side of it.”

A minute or so later, he added, “The more I paid attention, the more I found out how many people had substance abuse issues. So then I started to just believe that almost everybody has a substance abuse issue. And then I started to believe at least the ones that I knew were in recovery were dealing with it. So I actually started to to look at those people as being ahead of the game, not behind. So that’s where a shift in beliefs changes one’s perspective.”

Just a short walk from Zingerman’s Deli in Kerrytown sits The Lunch Room, a popular vegan restaurant in Ann Arbor. Co-owner Phillis Engelbert, formerly a community organizer before moving into the restaurant business, has worked like Weinzweig to cultivate an inclusive culture and positive workplace, which may explain why 11 out of 27 of her employees are in recovery.

“Well I think with the first (employee in recovery), it probably was just building that personal relationship,” Engelbert said. “But then everyone who came after, the word was out: Lunch Room will support you. Or you know, there’s no stigma here. Or like, if you need to go to court dates, they’ll give you time off. Or if you end up going to a court date and you get thrown in jail for a couple days and then come back out, you won’t lose your job. Or like, they’ll celebrate your sobriety anniversaries. Or, just whatever, they’ll understand and there won’t be a stigma.”

But removing stigma in a workplace can’t just be an effort from top leadership. The mentality must make its way into the minds of every employee. One of the ways in which Engelbert is able to maintain a stigma-free culture and family atmosphere is through a careful hiring process.

Removing stigma in a workplace can’t just be an effort from top leadership. The mentality must make its way into the minds of every employee.

“I’m also really really careful about who I hire because I don’t want to wreck (the inclusive, stigma-free culture),” Engelbert explained. “So I tell people when they’re interviewing, I say, ‘We have people here from all walks of life. We have people here of different income backgrounds, education levels, prison history, lesbian, gay, trans, whatever. You have to be happy about that or you can’t work here. Like you have to look at that as a positive and help us embrace all that or this isn’t the place for you.’”

The result of Engelbert’s efforts is an environment in which recovery is able to be discussed openly among the staff. Conversations about recovery occur often at The Lunch Room.

“Everyday. All the time. It’s just like talking about the weather,” Engelbert said.

One Lunch Room employee put it this way: “It’s nice to be open about (recovery), have a boss that understands and just not have like a drug-fueled kitchen environment ’cause that’s just not what I want to be around.”

Every Saturday night, The Lunch Room donates 10 percent of its sales to a local nonprofit. In March, partly because of the prevalence of recovery at The Lunch Room, Dawn Farm was the chosen organization.

Other business owners in Ann Arbor may not give opportunities to people in recovery because of their criminal history or don’t try to foster an environment that lets people be open about their personal lives. But when trying to grow a Healing Forest, is making people live two separate lives, where recovery has to remain out of the office, a best practice?


To read Part 7 on education, click here.

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