Story by Stephanie Hunt; Photo by Sea Star Arts Photography, of Paul Saginaw speaking at Lowcountry Local First’s 2013 Good Business Summit

Exclamation points!! That’s the punctuation of choice when Ann Arbor, Michigan deli founders Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig wrote their guiding principles for Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB). “Great Food! Great Service! Solid Profits! A Great Place to Work! Strong Relationships!”…to which one can only add a zippy “heck yeah!!”

That’s what Verde’s Jennifer Ferrebee and the king of King of Pops, Andy McCarthy, would add, anyway. They are among the Charleston-area small business owners and Lowcountry Local First (LLF) members who have embraced a Zingerman-inspired zest for focusing on company culture, values and community as fundamentals for growing a successful local business.

It’s a counter-cultural business model to be sure—emphasizing principles over profit (or at least equally)—and it’s not easy, especially when you’re a small operator who sometimes must channel every scrap of zip and zing just to keep the doors open. Which is why support and guidance from like-minded local business owners is so important, and why the LLF-originated and -hosted “Zing Table” (a name they made up) has been crucial to Ferrebee and McCarthy and their fellow Zingers.

Ferrebee and her husband/business partner had opened their first Verde restaurant on King Street not long before she first heard about Zingerman’s at a customer service session hosted by LLF. “It was a time in our business when things were done the way we wanted them to only when and if we were there,” says Ferrebee. A light bulb went off (“zing!”) when she learned how Zingerman’s developed strategic training materials to achieve more consistent customer service. “They are highly systematized in their operations—whether its open book financials or training their team in customer service. I just couldn’t get enough.”

So when LLF’s Jamee Haley suggested a Michigan jaunt to meet with Saginaw, a friend and colleague she’d gotten to know through BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies), and experience the Zingerman way first-hand, Ferrebee jumped. “To this day, seeing their businesses up-close and so casually is one of the most beneficial experiences I’ve had,” she says. But once she returned home, a question loomed: so how to implement all those best-practices? “A support group, that’s how,” she realized, and that’s how Zing Table came to be.

Once a month, Ferrebee and McCarthy gather ‘round at LLF with a core group of other Charleston-area Zingerman’s disciples—a cadre that includes an engineer, marketing professionals, a printing company owner and a few other food and bev folks like April Bennett from Taco Boy—to talk shop, Zing-style. “We share ideas with other small business owners—it’s a good spring board. It’s always helpful to hear how others solve problems,” says McCarthy, who embraces a Zingerman-esque emphasis on a strong vision as guide star for business decisions. “Our meet-up is great for accountability.”

For Ferrebee, Zing Table is invigorating and inspiring. “That hour spent thinking about the bigger picture rather than what immediate fire needs to be put out next energizes me,” she says. “I get to step back and consider what the source of whatever issue or challenge I’m facing might be, and borrow others’ wisdom to address it. Plus, it helps to realize that while we may run different businesses, we all face similar problems.”

Zing Table participants hold one another accountable and challenge each other. “We ask each other the hard questions,” says Ferrebee, who recalls one Zing pal asking her and the others if everyone on their team could articulate the company vision. “For me the answer was no, so I knew we needed to work on that. I’ve come to realize it’s much easier to operate a business than evolve and improve as a company,” she adds.

Though challenging, that desire to evolve and improve motivates Ferrebee and her Zing colleagues, and monthly meetings around the Zing Table helps them achieve their vision and live out their values. And while its more rectangle than round, the Zing Table does bring the LLF message and vision full circle, suggests Ferrebee.

“Lowcountry Local First has a very clear message about the economic and community benefit of supporting local businesses. But how we all actually do that is as a community of support, whether as a consumer buying local, or at the business owner level,” she says. Creating a business networking environment, and a Zing Table, to encourage those empowering relationships is a key way LLF works to serve, support and strengthen the local economy.

Jordan Amaker
Director of Marketing & Communications
Director of Marketing & Communications