HOW WEGMANS INSPIRED THE MOST RABID FANBASE IN THE GROCERY WORLD
“525,600 square feet, 525,000 cases of beer / 525,600 square feet, how do you measure the variety here? / In cheeses, in produces, in bakers, in types of coffee, in apple, pecan, and blueberry pie? / 525,600 items, so much to chose from, how do I decide? / Welcome to Wegmans… Wegmans we love.”
PEOPLE ARE CONNECTED TO THIS STORE ALMOST SPIRITUALLY.
The one-night-only production drew so much local interest that the school had to move the show into a larger auditorium. If you didn’t grow up near a Wegmans, a grocery store-inspired musical may seem a little peculiar. Competitors like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, even with their endless organic conveniences and cult cookie butter, don’t quite inspire the same fervor. But to a Wegmaniac, as the store’s superfans like to call themselves, it’s unsurprising.
Morrison is a self-proclaimed Wegmaniac. And she’s not alone — not by a long shot.
Morrison recalls when she first told her neighbor that a Wegmans was coming to Northborough. “Tears were rolling down her face,” she says. “I found out she almost didn’t move here because there wasn’t a Wegmans, and I realized that this is real — people are connected to this store almost spiritually.”
The retailer’s story began like that of many other businesses: In 1916, two brothers, John and Walter Wegman, started a humble produce pushcart, which soon turned into a brick-and-mortar market, in upstate New York. A few years later, the brothers purchased the Seel Grocery Co., a local shop, and turned it into a full-scale grocery store and bakery called Wegmans Food Market in 1921.
The Wegman brothers soon opened an even larger store, stuffed with a vast variety of meat, produce, dairy, and baked goods. But the real game-changer was a newfangled 300-seat cafeteria.
Up until then, grocery stores were only places you could go to pick up ingredients for a meal. “The Wegmans saw a need to invest in takeout foods and do it right,” says Jordan LeBel, another self-proclaimed Wegmaniac, who also happens to be an associate professor of food marketing at Concordia University. The company put millions of dollars into building kitchens and hiring professional chefs for each location. “It was a bit of a gamble in the late ’80s,” he says, “but they were able to produce in-house cafeterias with a level of craftsmanship that rivaled restaurants.”
The bet paid off.
WEGMANS WORKS FOR ALL THE DIFFERENT STAGES OF YOUR LIFE.
Today, customers are obsessed with the store’s General Tso’s chicken at the Chinese buffet (“Never a dehydrated mishmash of vegetables oversaturated with soy sauce — always tasty, always fresh,” LeBel says), and the enormous and buttery-soft iced pumpkin cookies at the bakery, which are churned out fresh daily. Innovations like these propelled Wegmans’ success, helping it grow into a business that is worth $7.9 billion today.
A cafeteria with excellent food is a welcome addition to any neighborhood. But it doesn’t quite explain tears spilled over a new store. So, what is it, exactly, that is so different about the upstate New York-based chain that started like so many other grocers?
At the most basic level, Wegmans doesn’t actually feel like a grocery store. In fact, according to Jo Natale, Wegmans’ vice president of media relations, each location is specifically laid out to feel like a “European open-air market,” with mini-shops that are each staffed by dedicated experts. It makes for a much more pleasant and easy-to-navigate shopping experience than your typical fluorescently lit grocery aisles.
Michael Rybacki, a Wegmaniac who would go on to propose to his wife at one location, went so far as to compare the Wegmans format to Disney’s Epcot theme park: “There are all these mini-villages, from Russia to China. Wegmans feels like you are going to 20 different places all in one store. The bakery feels like an actual bakery, and not a bakery section of a grocery store. The floral section feels like a little shop. That’s what makes it fun.”
Wegmans also manages to succeed at doing what its competitors are still trying to figure out: turning grocery shopping into a social experience. The stores will regularly host bands — like jazz quartets and classical pianists — along with tastings with local farmers and culinary demonstrations. In certain stores, there are demonstration kitchens that host live classes. And there’s even a mini-model train that whistles and whizzes around each store — a customer favorite.
In college, Rybacki and his friends would spend hours hanging out at Wegmans, grazing on the different food options, even if they didn’t need to buy groceries. “They are able to transform this really boring experience into something entertaining and fun, where you actually want to spend time browsing the store, exploring products,” LeBel adds.
If Trader Joe’s is for the budget shopper and Whole Foods is for the bougie locavore, Wegmans is the grocery store for the entire community. A big part of the company’s strategy is targeting a wide audience — from college students to large families — which, in turn, builds lifelong customers. “You can leave with a full shopping cart of food whether you have $25 or $1,000,” Rybacki says. “There’s the super-discount store stage of your life, and then there’s the Whole Foods stage of your life. But Wegmans works for all the different stages of your life — you can get just the essentials, or you can ball out, all in the same store. That’s why people are so dedicated.”
Compared to Whole Foods, which has 435 locations, Wegmans is small, with only 92 locations. But the dedication of Wegmans’ customers runs deeper than any other grocery store chain in the country — the American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked Wegmans as America’s No. 1 “favorite grocery retailer” last year. In 2015 alone, more than 4,000 people reached out to Wegmans requesting a new store be built in their neighborhood.
The employees, too, are just as loyal to Wegmans as the customers, as the company provides benefits that go far beyond just flexible schedules — including a scholarship program that has awarded over $105 million to 33,000 individuals. “Wegmans really cherishes people who work here,” says Kathryn Williams, who works at a Wegmans in Woodbridge, New Jersey in the service department. Williams started as a customer service representative in the produce department, and has since been with Wegmans for 12 years. “My managers are always asking me, ‘What do you want to do next? What do you want to do with your career?’ and then helping me to get ready for that next step,” she says.
In addition to the scholarship program, Wegmans holds an employee summer carnival, complete with live music and team games, hosts yoga classes, and has “store wellness champions” in each location to help employees lead healthier lifestyles. “They are striving to push forward as a company, but they also want their employees to come with them and be a part of that success,” she says.
The retailer has long been on all the lists of best companies to work for, with a level of customer service that many described as “telepathic.” “They are literally the best employees ever,” LeBel says. “I live in Montreal, and last week I was getting groceries and the clerk never once looked at me. That would never happen at Wegmans, because the staff is always so welcoming.”
Bill Congdon, a division manager for the grocery chain, says that the company regularly receives what it calls “love letters” from customers about the outsized care employees put into their jobs, like a manager who paid for a customer’s groceries because she forgot her credit card.
Of course, in this day and age, more people take to Twitter than pen and paper. And #Wegmania is an ever-trending hashtag in thousands of tweets. “When you move to a location without a Wegmans after living in one for a couple decades, withdrawal sets in,” LeBel tweeted when he moved from Ithaca to Montreal and found himself without a Wegmans. Another user, @heathermsc, tweeted out a photo of her son dressed up as a Wegmans employee for Halloween. Tumblr, too, is home to plenty of Wegmania. There is an entire Tumblr called “Fuck Yeah, Wegmans!” which has over 264 pages of diehard customers posting about their favorite things from the grocery store.
When the Northborough, Massachusetts location opened in 2011, nearly 25,000 people came to the opening. The town population is just over 14,000. This opening-day mania is par for the course. One group of women drove over 200 miles just to attend the opening of the grocery store. And it wasn’t the first time a group of superfans turned a store debut into a long road trip destination. “They live in Maryland, and they have come to the last five openings,” Congdon recalls. Who needs superstars to fawn over when there are supermarkets?
“We usually see between 1,000 and 2,000 people outside the door waiting for the store to open,” Congdon says. Many of them camp out in the parking lot the night before, completely decked out in Wegmans gear. While chains like Chick-fil-A offer the first 100 customers at a new location food for a year, there are no such promises of generous freebies, opening specials, or sales at Wegmans. And still fans turn out in droves.
Wegmans is so integrated into people’s lives that it’s not unusual for special events to take place there. While some people plan a romantic dinner or a hike up a scenic mountain to propose, Rybacki turned to Wegmans. He and his girlfriend Nicole Bouyea spent several years in a long-distance relationship and used to meet up at the grocery store when they were able to spend time together. “Wegmans was right off the highway, and we loved eating dinner at the café,” Rybacki says. “It was a time when I only had, like, three bucks in my pocket, and I could still always buy Nicole dinner at Wegmans. It became our place.”
Years later, when the two were no longer long distance and Rybacki was ready to pop the question, he saw that a new Wegmans location was opening near his house. “I saw the opening date, and I was like, ‘F*ck yeah.’ It was a no-brainer where I was going to propose,” he says. “That store was basically our home.” Rybacki proposed in the newly minted Market Café inside the Wegmans, where the manager helped to hide 30 of the couple’s friends and family for the surprise. “When [Nicole] realized what was happening, she kept saying, ‘You’re doing this here? Not here!’ And then she was ecstatic,” Rybacki recalls.
ONE GROUP OF WOMEN DROVE OVER 200 MILES JUST TO ATTEND THE OPENING OF THE GROCERY STORE.
“I know that deciding to propose [at Wegmans] sounds crazy for people who think it is just a supermarket,” he admits. “But you literally can’t not be happy there. If I called a Stop & Shop and said I wanted to propose there, the people would think I was nuts. But Wegmans was like, ‘This makes total sense. We’ll make you a cake.’ That’s the attitude they have about anything.”
It’s not just couples, kids who grew up with the store, and suburban moms that are Wegmaniacs. When Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Richie Incognito signed a new contract, he tweeted, “Not gonna lie…@Wegmans was a big part of me re-signing in Buffalo. This place is [fire emoji].”
The declaration made him popular — at least within the confines of Wegmans stores. “I walked into a Wegmans, and the kid pushing carts was like, ‘Incognito, you are a beast,'” he says. “Employees were coming up and giving me high-fives. It blows me away. You can go to Wegmans and get exactly what you want to cook, or you can sit down and have a fine-dining meal, and it’s always high-quality. Wegmans has everything I could want.”
And the madness among Wegmaniacs ensues. “People are literally ride-or-die for this grocery store,” he says of first moving to the town. “When I meet fans from the area, the first thing they will ask me is, ‘How are you liking Buffalo?’ and the next thing will be, ‘Have you been to Wegmans?'”