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The Ten: Amy Emberling

Amy is a woman with short greyish-brown hair, she stands in front of a bakery display in a white apron and holds a baguette
Amy Emberling of Zingerman's Bakehouse

Name and job title

Amy Emberling, Managing Partner, Zingerman’s Bakehouse, Zingerman’s Community of Businesses

Where were you born, and where do you live now?

I grew up on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. I left for college and return at least once a year to visit family members who still live there. It’s a place that to this day people on the plane sometimes clap when they land. Returning is like coming back to a beloved homeland. Many Cape Bretoners left for economic reasons and making it home again is deeply meaningful. I now live in Ann Arbor, MI.

How you describe what you do?

On the broadest level I am the steward of the bakery’s mission and vision. On a more granular level I do whatever is necessary day to day to help us all be successful in our roles at the bakery – form bread, package cookies, answer the phone, listen and love.Yes, love is an unusual word to use in the business context but here at Zingerman’s it’s in our mission statement and our 2032 vision.

How much did you spend on your last cup of coffee?

I drink two cups a day, one in the morning and one at as close to 2 pm as possible. In the morning I make it myself and it costs about $1. In the afternoon if I’m at the bakery I walk 80 steps to Zingerman’s Coffee Company and pay $2.07 for a short Americano using my Zingerman’s staff discount of 40%, one of the best benefits we all get.

What is one ingredient that is crucial to your work and/or life?

My life has been inextricably linked to wheat. As a baker for the last 30 years it has been a part of 95% of the food that I’ve been making. It’s been interesting and challenging to be so connected to a grain that is critical to the basic nutrition of much of the world and a crucial part of the world’s economy evident acutely right now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is also a food that has moved from being beloved in our culture to somewhat maligned. Traversing this terrain has been both educational and challenging on many levels.

What does a food and/or drinks system mean to you?

This is actually a deceivingly big question hidden in 11 words. Perhaps one way to define it is that it’s all the people, places, things, and cultural ideas that interact from thecreation to the consumption of food in a defined group or geographic area. Right now at the bakery we’re grappling with being a positive player in developing a sustainable grain shed in the Great Lakes region, essentially the food system of grain. Currently, much of the grain that we use comes from Colorado and Utah. We’ve been working with many other bakers, farmers, millers, and agricultural experts closer to us to try to change this, but it hasn’t been simple. The challenges in this effort are related to those factors I listed in the definition of a food system. People – farmers who are interested in growing a broader variety of grain and customers willing to pay for local grain (that at least initially may be more expensive). Places – Figuring out what versions of the grains will grow well in the regional environment and soil. Things – We need local silos and mills who will process the grain and sell it. Cultural Ideas – Developing the belief in our communities that this is a worthwhile effort.

How does your immediate locale / environment affect your work?

At Zingerman’s we’ve been committed to being local right from the start, which is now 40 years ago. Our version of local includes buying local but even more than that it is an acknowledgement that we exist in our current form because of the community we’re a part of. This is one of the many reasons that we’ve never opened a business in a different community. We realise it would fundamentally be different which is fine but not what we’re interested in pursuing. Michigan is a great agricultural state which shapes the ingredients we use. It is the state of the American car industry which influences how many of us think about work, entrepreneurship, and transportation. Ann Arbor is the home of the University of Michigan which attracts 10s of thousands of students from around the country and the world annually who shop with us and influence what we make and how we make it. These are a few of the many ways that our locale influences our work.

Where do you draw inspiration from, in your work?

I love to travel. It’s been a big part of my life from the time that I was a child. Nothing made me happier than our summer trips to Maine and New York City. I’ve continued to feed my wanderlust into adulthood. During these trips I take notes about dishes, combinations of flavours, and unique ingredients. Beyond that, somehow travel frees my mind and I daydream more easily about the bakery and how we could improve or what we can bake. The dislocation of travel is actually very grounding for me.

What impact do you want to have?

I’ve grappled with this question a lot. I sometimes fear that being a baker is not a very impactful career in terms of world peace and health and at times I question the value of expending so much energy doing it. I’ve come to realise and accept that our work does bring daily moments of joy to many people through nourishing and delicious food. This has value. As an employer I try to create a work environment that is nurturing and supports people in reaching their personal goals. I hope that’s a positive impact on the community.

What change do you want to see in the food and/or drinks system?

I’d like us all to pay our employees more. We’re working diligently on this. To make this possible the public also needs to accept the prices that real food made sustainably has value and costs more. Let’s pay this price up front rather than paying for health care and social services to solve the problems that cheap food creates.

We ask all our interviewees to please send us two photos: one that represents themselves and one that represents their work.

What are The Ten? We explain here why we are conducting these interviews.

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