Before introducing Wegmans of Charlottesville, it is worth asking what all the fuss is about. If you’ve never been to Wegmans, you may be baffled by the fervor over the arrival of the family-owned supermarket chain. It’s as if this Sunday’s opening were the second coming of The Beatles. “How can someone possibly be this excited about a grocery store?” you might wonder.
To answer that, you need more than just facts and numbers. Albeit, the numbers are impressive. The Charlottesville store will employ 550 people, including a culinary staff of 150, and will offer more than 60,000 products, including roughly 700 fresh produce items and hundreds of cheeses. And, despite its modest footprint, this year it was named America’s Favorite Supermarket in a survey by Market Force Information.
Nor can a list of virtues convey the magic people find in the chain of 92 grocery stores. Many have made valiant attempts, like Rachel Sanders, at BuzzFeed, who lists 25 reasons why Wegmans is the “greatest,” calling it “a small, beautifully maintained, self-sustaining city.” At Business Insider, Ashley Lutz takes just sixteen reasons to explain why it’s the “best,” while at Huffington Post Brie Dyas tries to name that tune in just eight notes. At CBS News, Michael Hess goes further and says Wegmans is not just the best store but the “greatest company in the world,” thanks to being an “extraordinary employer,” creating an “amazing customer experience,” pioneering “new ways of doing things,” and being a “force of good in the community.” And, at The Kitchn, after just one visit Cambria Bold concludes that Wegmans is in a “league of its own,” calling it “like Trader Joe’s, Fairway, Whole Foods, Target, and an open-air market all rolled into one.”
But, as compelling as some of these tributes are, none can capture exactly what makes people so crazy over a grocery store. That’s because what sets Wegmans apart is something indescribable. It’s the je ne sais quoi that makes it a place people love to love.
Brian Fox once explained that in founding Bodo’s his aim was to create “a place that people could become champions of.” And he nailed it. Sure, people like the food at Bodo’s. But, what its devotees really seem to enjoy is the experience of liking Bodo’s. As with fans of sports teams, supporters of politicians, and a man in love, adoration is part of the fun, amplifying virtues and masking flaws.
Wegmans is the same way. Ask any Wegmans fan about the store and they sound like someone in love. Wegmans is a place people love to love.
“It’s All About the People”
So, how does a business – like Bodo’s, Wegmans, and, say, Disney World – become a place people love to love? If I could answer that I’d own a fortune, but a recurring ingredient seems to be this: treat your employees well.
“It’s all about the people,” says Charlottesville store manager Chris DePumpo. “I measure success not only by sales, but also by the smiles of people I work with. If we show our employees caring and respect, they will give their best to our customers.”
This alone may not be enough to make Wegmans a place people love to love, but it sure helps. 2016 marked the 19th straight year that Wegmans made Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, placing fourth. An astonishing 94% percent of Wegmans employees say their workplace is “great.” This is one of fans’ favorite aspects of the store. Employees seem genuinely happy to work there and genuinely happy to serve their customers.
Wegmans employees are not just happy, but well-trained, too. Wegmans sorted through more than 6,000 employment applications for its Charlottesville store, culled them down, and then began the rigorous task of educating their new employees. In fact, Wegmans’ relatively slow growth rate of four-stores-per-year is not because of lack of capital, but because of the stores’ emphasis on extensive employee training. New employees do not interact with customers until they have received at least 40 hours of training. Wegmans’ cheesemongers know cheese, their bakers know bread, their butchers know meat, and so on.
Another benefit of treating employees well is retention, which cultivates a consistent experience for customers. Wegmans’ turnover rate is 5% for full-time employees and 25% for part-time employees. Compare that to the national retail average of 27% for full-timers and 66% for part-timers.
Case in point is Jason Voos, Executive Chef of Wegmans of Charlottesville. Now 31, Voos has known since high school that he wanted a career at Wegmans. He grew up in Pittsford, NY, where Wegmans is legendary, and worked at the seafood counter during high school. After culinary school at Johnson & Wales University and training in upscale restaurants, Voos returned to Wegmans for good in 2007. Rising through the ranks, he became the Executive Chef of the Woodbridge store in 2014 before taking the same position in Charlottesville this year.
With a culinary staff of 150, Voos’ primary role is supervisory. “My main goal,” Voos says, “is developing the food interests of the people on my team . . . You have to pay attention to your people and put in the time and effort to make sure they have what they need to do their best work.”
When I asked Voos his favorite prepared food in the store, he didn’t hesitate. “I love our sushi,” Voos says, citing the rice grain milled specially for Wegmans and rice vinegar custom blended for Wegmans by the 350-year-old Japanese firm Marukan.
A Sneak Peek
So, what will the new Wegmans be like? Here’s a sneak peek of the impeccable 120,000 square-foot space, with a store map and photos by acclaimed local photographer Tom McGovern.
- the area’s largest bakery, with detailed information on the sources of the bread’s flour, 56 types of cookies made daily, specialty cakes, etc.;
- the area’s largest seafood market, with sustainable, whole fish delivered daily, and steaming at no additional charge;
- the area’s largest produce selection, with plenty of local and organic options;
- the area’s largest cheese selection, with cheeses from Wegmans’ 12,000 square-foot man-made “cave” in New York as well as an in-store misting station for local affinage;
- the area’s largest butcher, with meat sourced locally and elsewhere, dry-aged in house;
- Nature’s Marketplace, an entire section devoted to restricted diets, including Vegan, organic, and an entire aisle of gluten-free products;
- The Buzz coffee shop, with organic coffee and even Nitro coffee on tap;
- a full-service florist, with arrangements prepared to order;
- a bulk candy counter exceeding any child’s dreams;
- a beer selection with more than 1,000 different items, and two full aisles of local brews;
- a wine selection with roughly 2,250 items, including wines from 21 vineyards in the local Monticello AVA, and even a climate-controlled fine wine room with wines as dating back to 1969 and costing as much as $800;
- a market cafe with seating for 250; and
- The Pub.
The Pub is a full-service restaurant and bar, with three large screen TVs and eight beers on tap, including local favorites from Champion, Devils Backbone, Blue Mountain and Starr Hill. They even have a beer made exclusively for Wegmans by Hardywood Brewery, a session IPA called Evelyn. The lunch and dinner menu (here’s a peek) features comforting pub classics, like Buffalo popcorn shrimp, hand-breaded calamari, pub wings, salads, and sandwiches. In the morning, there are breakfast sandwiches and fresh Bloody Marys made from Wegmans ingredients. Chef Voos’ personal favorite menu item is the French Dip, with Wegmans’ own seasoned roast beef, caramelized onions, melted Gruyere, au jus, and horseradish cream sauce. An entree Harvest Salad with Seared Salmon was delicious, with romaine, mixed greens, provolone, dried cranberries, apples, and pecans, all in a tarragon vinaigrette.
Finally, to help you navigate the massive store, insiders recommend Wegmans’ Mobile App. It allows you to create shopping lists based on recipes or your food needs for the week, and provides an aisle-by-aisle map for where you can find each item.
Grand Opening is Sunday, November 6, at 7 am. After that, Wegmans will be open daily 6 am til midnight. See you there.