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Seeing Wegmans with a Fresh Set of Eyes


As a trade magazine editor who has written about the grocery industry for more than a decade, I was embarrassed to admit to my colleagues that I had never stepped foot in a Wegmans Food Market.

After all, Wegmans is viewed as the crown jewel of grocery stores. The chain enjoys a cult following of loyal shoppers in its core markets, and has earned a superior reputation among retailers manufacturers and anyone else who knows the inside of the grocery business.

I made my shameful admission during an editorial conference call earlier this year to discuss ideas regarding a tribute Progressive Grocer editors were conceptualizing to honor Wegmans’ ongoing 100th anniversary this year. The initial thought was to launch a social media campaign asking our followers to tell us “How does Wegmans wow you?”

Up until now though the only way Wegmans had wowed me was through anecdotal observations from the trade and consumers that I gathered throughout my years of covering the grocery business.

I grew up in Georgia and spent the first half of my life there so I was quite familiar with another family-owned chain known for stellar customer service and a great selection of fresh food and groceries: Lakeland Fla.-based Publix Super Markets. And I knew from my past reporting that executives from Wegmans and Publix have been in share groups together. But from what I’d heard, you really have to experience Wegmans firsthand to really appreciate its uniqueness.

So it was decided: I would visit my first Wegmans, coinciding with the company’s centennial celebration, to find out for myself what the fervor and fanaticism are all about. I live in New York City, so the closest Wegmans is nearly 40 miles away, in Woodbridge, N.J. It would be about an hour’s drive from my apartment in Queens, and it would make for a nice Saturday road trip with my happy-go-lucky husband and enthusiastic, food-loving 8-year-old daughter.

Before we set out, I conducted a bit of research to better prepare and familiarize myself with what I could expect from a consumer perspective, while also delving deeper into the opinions from Wegmans’ faithful followers. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found more than one blog post devoted to praising Wegmans. Many people love it for its delicious prepared food selection, and some adore it for its high-quality private label products, while others just enjoy the store environment, including standout service and cleanliness.

To be sure, the grocer has built an enviable level of trust among its most loyal clientele. Even my in-laws, who met in college in Buffalo, N.Y., are among the many fans of Wegmans.

First Impressions

The first thing I noticed about Wegmans is that it’s not very flashy from the outside. The store in Woodbridge is located in what looks to be a typical suburban shopping center, and features an abundance of parking — which is a good thing, especially on a Saturday afternoon, when finding a space is no easy task.

The store itself is undeniably huge. Spanning 124,000 square feet, the Woodbridge location has an exterior featuring floral displays amid several entrances.

In fact, lunch was my first objective, after our late-morning hour-long drive. I was in the mood for something simple, while my daughter had pizza on her mind (as always). My husband was hungrier and craving a larger meal.

Not to be let down, we found all three options at Wegmans. I decided to try a 4-inch sandwich from the sub shop. My daughter was thrilled to discover brick-oven-style cheese pizza by the slice. And my husband was impressed to find Southern-style barbecue and slaw with black-eyed peas (his mom’s family hails from South Carolina, so he can appreciate good Southern eats the same as me!)

We sat upstairs in a large, open seating area that overlooked the prepared food section of the store. Familiar rock music from the ’80s played over the speakers, and a homey décor reminiscent of townhomes with well-lit, welcoming windows made us immediately feel comfortable and ready to enjoy our food.

And enjoy the food we did. It’s hard to impress with a sub sandwich, but Wegmans easily managed to do so. The fresh baked wheat bread hit my taste buds out of the park. Even the turkey, cheese and mayonnaise were a level above any other sub sandwich components I’ve ever consumed. As my daughter happily devoured her pizza, my husband commented on the “good, sweet” flavor of his barbecue.

While eating, we noticed three college students playing a board game at their table. Clearly, they felt right at home at Wegmans, too.

We were also impressed at the level of cleanliness at the store, including in the bathrooms. During our meal, we saw an employee meticulously cleaning off tables. I guess we’re just not used to seeing that much effort at cleaning up, especially in the New York metro area, where everyone’s in a big hurry to move on to the next thing.

Fresh at its Best

After our meal, we took in the impressive variety of prepared foods downstairs, including a sushi bar, a salad bar, a soup selection and an Asian bar. I saw firsthand evidence of what I’ve read about Wegmans’ chefs: According to the company, they walk the stores each day to select the best meats, seafood and veggies for the signature entrées and sides that they create in Wegmans’ prepared food areas and restaurants. I have a feeling that the company also has a good handle on which products sell best and how much food to prepare — not an easy job for retailers, or foodservice operators, for that matter.

Moving on from prepared foods, we encountered what turned out to be my favorite part of the store: the bakery and patisserie. My daughter and I couldn’t resist taking home a cookie and several pastries to enjoy later.

We were also especially impressed with the fresh seafood department, which was undoubtedly the most massive I’ve ever seen in a supermarket. It included whole fish on ice, fresh mussels and much more. A friendly seafood department associate was all smiles and ready to engage with shoppers.

The next thing that stood out for us was the cheese cave. We knew we couldn’t leave without picking up a sampler of international cheeses for my mother-in-law. The variety of cheeses, representing numerous countries of origin, was seemingly endless.

Next to the cheese section was a mouth-watering Mediterranean bar featuring stuffed olives, mushrooms and artichokes.

After being so wowed by the other fresh departments, I wasn’t quite as impressed with the produce section — although part of my impression came from the fact that the selection had been picked over by Saturday afternoon. Even so, the produce looked fresh and included locally grown and organic products.

The center store selection wasn’t too different from other traditional supermarkets, although I did notice plenty of Wegmans private label products (definitely a “wow” for me), a special section featuring family-size packaging, and a large area devoted to packaged international foods. My favorite “international” aisle was the Southern section, which featured canned collard greens, hoppin’ john and Sylvia’s peach cobbler.

Additionally, I was struck by the diverse shoppers at the store. I had expected a somewhat upscale consumer base, but here I saw shoppers of various ethnicities, ages and apparent income levels, which speaks volumes about Wegmans’ universal appeal. It also suggests that the company has figured out a smart pricing strategy, especially in Woodbridge, where discounters Walmart and Aldi have stores close by.

My daughter, meanwhile, was excited to find Kellogg’s Disney “Frozen” cereal, as well as a cute miniature train that chugs along a track above the dairy section.

Cheers to 100 Years

I would be remiss to not mention Wegmans’ adjacent wine, liquor and beer store in Woodbridge. Here I found a selection of $6 wines, reminiscent of Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck.” If you feel like spending a little more, there’s a selection of “highly rated $10-and-under wines,” as well as “highly rated $20 and under.” A great option for beer lovers, meanwhile, is the mix-and-match craft beer pack.

As we were leaving, my family and I agreed that Wegmans is a grocery paradise of sorts. The company has figured out how to promote good, healthy eating with those you love, and it’s also evident that they’ve trained their staff well.

Wegmans’ planned Brooklyn Navy Yard store won’t be a practical choice for my regular grocery shopping trips, but my family will head there whenever we feel like being wowed by a one-of-a-kind grocery-shopping experience.

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