Shop talk: What kind of effect will Wegmans have?

Photo by Tom McGovern Photo by Tom McGovern

Wrapped in a blue fleece blanket covered in pineapples, a sleepy Dori Mock has held her place as first in line at the supermarket’s November 6 grand opening since 4am.

“I’m buying into the hype,” she says, though she’s never been to a Wegmans and doesn’t quite know what to expect. A crew of six friends, young and old, joins her in line in front of the store’s glass sliding door, which is scheduled to open at 7am. They name the staples they are most anticipating: sushi, donuts, bagels, chocolate dome cake and, most of all in this moment, bathrooms.

By 6:30am, two lines of toboggan-hat- and glove-wearing grocery fanatics have formed on each side of the supermarket. Some clutch complimentary coffee that the store’s employees handed out, while others already have a tight grip on their cart, ready to get inside the store. In Mock’s line, the second group of patrons has its own story to tell.

“We were the real first people here,” says Connie Wallace, laughing. She and her coworker, Heather Waugh, who work at the Pantops Chick-fil-A, were so eager to be the first ones inside that they slept in a car in the parking lot.

It was “cold and uncomfortable,” but they kept the car running to stay warm and the shopping center’s security officers checked on them often. However, when they woke up at 5am, they were disheartened to see that people were already in line.

Bummer.

A few minutes before the store’s anticipated opening, both groups, plus a few more from their line, are led into the front of the grocery store, where they are greeted by every Wegmans employee scheduled to work that morning, as well as a number of other Wegmans employees who stopped by to welcome the eager “Weggies,” as one shopper fondly refers to himself.

Store Manager Chris DePumpo and executive chef Jason Voos were both on hand to greet customers on opening day. Photo by Tom Mcgovern
Store Manager Chris DePumpo and executive chef Jason Voos were both on hand to greet customers on opening day. Photo by Tom McGovern

Among the Wegmans staff at the storefront is store manager Chris DePumpo, elevated on a few stacked pallets, and giving his workers the pep talk of a lifetime.

“It’s going to be a busy day. Make sure you take your breaks, keep hydrated, and if it gets a little bit chaotic, the back room is a beautiful place,” he tells the mass of cheering employees. “Love yourself and love each other and there’s nothing you can’t do together.”

All at once, the Wegmans employees and their leaders begin clapping their hands slowly and in sync, gradually speeding up the beat until there is no rest in between their rhythm.

“Give me a W!” DePumpo calls, and the crowd responds by shouting out the letter and forming it with their arms, “Y-M-C-A” style. Then comes the E, the G…and so on.

At the end of the cheer, DePumpo’s pallet throne is dismantled and cleared, and the Wegmans floodgates are opened. It’s time to shop.

“I’m a Weggie!” can still be heard from one member in the crowd, who holds up his Shoppers Club card for a photo.

Customers are first introduced to the produce section, the “crown jewel” of the store, according to Wegmans spokesperson Valerie Fox. Of the 700 items offered, 140 are organic and some are regional, such as the selection of meats brought in from Senterfitt Farms in Madison County and Huntley Farm in Broad Run.

Wegmans has its own organic farm and orchard in Canandaigua, New York, near its Rochester home base, where it has produced a good deal of the supermarket’s produce since 2007. It’s quite a stretch from the company’s inception as a small grocery cart, called the Rochester Fruit and Vegetable Company, launched in 1916 by the Wegman family.

The Charlottesville location at 5th Street Station is Wegmans’ 92nd in the country. According to the store’s special formula—which they declined to share—it was calculated that about 23,000 people visited Wegmans on opening day.

Photo by Tom McGovern
Photo by Tom McGovern

“One comment a customer left was that he’d never been before and wondered what all the hype was about,” DePumpo says, but at the end of the visit, that customer said the experience lived up to its reputation.

So what is it? The vast selection of prepared foods that you can eat in the supermarket’s 250-seat dining room or grab to-go? The sushi that you can watch being prepared? Or is it the pizza shop, the sandwich station or the sit-down restaurant? The 56 cookies baked daily or the fresh fish market? The cave-ripened cheese? Family-pack deals?

John Emerson, a “recovering executive chef,” is now in charge of sushi at all Wegmans stores across the board. He’s excited to give the people of Charlottesville a taste of the supermarket’s famous wild sockeye salmon oshi-zushi, a sushi recipe created by Wegmans’ Takahiro Hachiya, who says the square sushi dish, pressed into a plastic mold, garnished and flamed with a torch, was actually invented in Japan in the 15th century and seldom seen in America.

At Wegmans, however, it flies off the shelves.

“Get it before the bears do,” Emerson says.

Wegmans by the numbers

120,000 square feet

23,000 shoppers attended the grand opening

65,000 products on the shelves, compared with 40,000 in most grocery stores

1,000 different SKUs of beer for sale

$800 for the most expensive bottle of wine, Penfolds Grange

800 parking spaces

700 different produce items (140 organic)

550 employees

92nd Wegmans to open in the country

56 varieties of cookies baked daily

27 registers

The executive chef in Charlottesville, Jason Voos, manages a culinary team of 150 employees assigned specifically to his store. He does a little bit of cooking and a lot of developing the food interests of the people on his team.

DePumpo says that in his 23 years with the company, he’s noticed that, while those things are popular, they’re not what keep the people coming back. He attributes that to the welcoming atmosphere.

“People get a true sense of family,” he says, when they enter the store. “They know [employees] are here because they’re doing what they love.”

Wegmans’ employees are called family members, he explains. And though 6,000 people applied for the chance to work at his store, he could only hire 550 (200 full-time and 350 part-time), with about 50 of them coming from leadership positions in other Wegmans locations.

Put simply, “a lot of planning” goes into opening a store, but the most exciting, and perhaps most important part, he says, is training the new team.

The first employee orientation was held April 28. During that training they identified the store in which each team member would train and observe, and 95 percent of them were sent to locations in Richmond or Northern Virginia.

The training takes place over four days during which employees work for 10 hours a day and stay overnight in their locations—Wegmans pays for their hotels, accommodations and meals.

This gives them enough time to prepare for the big day, DePumpo says, without having to spend too much time away from their families.

For someone who arrived at the store around 3:45am to start prepping for opening day, the best part for DePumpo was that initial Wegmans cheer.

“It was like coming home,” he says.

Neighborhood reactions

While thousands of people rush to take in the newly opened Wegmans at 5th Street Station, some residents in the areas surrounding the shopping center look at the complex with a mixture of disdain and disappointment—and it has little to do with the upscale grocery chain.

“There are both positive and negative effects when a retailer opens a store of this size,” Eugenio Schettini, president of the Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association, writes in an e-mail to C-VILLE. “The creation of new jobs and opportunities for our citizens—to the impact of increased traffic and the mounting pressures on the local mom-and-pop stores and businesses. It’s not just Wegmans, but the whole shopping center.”

Evan Terrell has lived at Lakeside Apartments on Avon Street Extended for the past six months. Construction on the new shopping center was underway when he moved in—and he isn’t happy about seeing so much of the natural land cleared.

“I understand that Charlottesville is a growing community with growing needs and the ability to spend money,” Terrell says, as he looks down Avon, toward the new traffic light signaling the 5th Street Station entrance. “However, this new complex is representative of a broader, more universal issue regarding the need for growth—trying to balance that with more sustainable behaviors and consuming patterns.”

Terrell says he has already noticed a high increase in traffic coming and going from the area, as well as light pollution and construction. But that isn’t his main worry.

“My concern is that the desire for profits weighed much more heavily than the need to conserve tens of acres of forest land that were there before,” Terrell says. “The atmosphere of Charlottesville—the pride the city has in its small-town community feel, its proximity to the mountains, the forest and the natural areas is not being preserved due to this endless emphasis on growth and development.”

The making of 5th Street Station

Wegmans might be the star of the show, but it’s not the only attraction in the 470,000-square-foot shopping center on 73 acres.

The total investment has been $200 million, according to Jeff Garrison, a partner with the developer, 5th Street Station Ventures LLC, which now owns the property.

“The site was never truly developed before this,” he says, adding that a landfill and storage facility previously sat on the property.

The land was bought before Wegmans, 5th Street Station’s anchor store, signed on, and now the retail occupancy is 90 percent filled—with 21 shops lined up—and some, like the supermarket, already in business.

Joan Albiston lives on the opposite side of the shopping complex, on Royer Drive in the Willoughby neighborhood.

Albiston, a resident there since 2008, says the creation of the new shopping center has had lasting effects on her home: Glowing lights from the shopping center illuminate rooms in her home throughout the night and the sound of nearby highways roars louder—especially during rush hour.

“It just makes me sad, and I see it all the time,” Albiston says, as she looks out her window onto 5th Street Station. “I mean, I’m sitting here looking at people come and go out of the shopping center right now.”

She also says the loss of wildlife habitat is a visible issue, noting that more animals are trying to find homes and food in their neighborhood and are found dead on 5th Street and Harris Road when they meet the increased traffic. A tally of animals struck by traffic includes a bear cub, many deer, a possum, raccoon and fox.

But it’s not all bad news; Albiston admits there are some benefits to the new shopping center.

“People like it,” she concedes. “You could argue and say, ‘Well, less energy gets used because people don’t have to drive all the way to Walmart or to 29 North’ and that has some value.”

Albiston says she is lucky to live in a neighborhood that is still surrounded largely by woodland, as she has seen other areas in town where this is not the case, but says she still wants to voice her concern.

“It really isn’t egregious by many people’s standards,” Albiston says. “We have a really great deal. But, if I don’t say something, how do people know, how do people be careful when the next development comes along? And it will. …In fact, it already has.”—Additional reporting by Rebecca Bowyer


Why C’ville?

In May 2012, the Wegmans team announced its plans to expand into Charlottesville. Though two store locations opened in Richmond earlier this year, supermarket spokesperson Jo Natale says they didn’t affect the decision to bring one here.

She does say, however, that Charlottesville is similar to the New York town of Ithaca, where Wegmans has existed since 1988.

“What’s similar about the two is that both are home to major universities and both have downtown pedestrian malls, but I would hesitate to say that the demographics are comparable,” she says, adding that the Charlottesville store wasn’t studied in comparison to Ithaca’s. “Each site must stand on its own.”

The most important criteria Wegmans looks for in new sites, she says, is a site large enough to accommodate the store and adequate parking, accessibility of the site, population density in proximity to the site and its location to other Wegmans stores.

“If all of these criteria are met, we look at other demographics, like income,” she says.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Charlottesville in 2014 dollars was $47,218; Albemarle County was $67,958. (Ithaca, New York, by comparison was $30,318.)


Just the facts

The chain began as a modest food cart called the Rochester Fruit and Vegetable Company in 1916 and is basking in its centennial celebration.

The store offers regional products, like beef from Senterfitt Farms in Madison County.

Five local beers are on tap at the supermarket’s full-service restaurant, The Pub. This includes Evelyn, a session IPA made by Hardywood Brewery exclusively for Wegmans.

Ranked No. 5 on Forbes’ list of America’s Best Employers this year.

Wegmans built and opened its first cheese cave in New York in 2014 to mimic conditions in European cheese-ripening caves. Freshly ripened cheese is then shipped to localities.

For opening week, off-duty Albemarle County Police Department officers were hired to make sure there was a safe and orderly flow of traffic. Up to seven officers were working at a time.


Shelf life

Charlottesville and Albemarle County have never shied away from top grocery chains—in fact, they already have three Krogers, three Food Lions, three Harris Teeters, one Giant, one Trader Joe’s, one Whole Foods and one Fresh Market. So how will the new guy in town compete?

If you ask them, they say it’s their prices.

Red seedless grapes, per lb.

Wegmans: $0.99, Food Lion: $1.99, Kroger: $1.99

80 percent ground beef family pack, per lb.

Wegmans: $1.99, Food Lion: $3.29, Kroger: $3.99

Store brand all-purpose enriched flour, 5 lbs.

Wegmans: $0.89, Food Lion: $1.87, Kroger: $1.79

Store brand macaroni and cheese, 6-7.25 oz.

Wegmans: $0.33, Food Lion: $0.72, Kroger: $0.79

Store brand butter sticks, 1 lb.

Wegmans: $1.99, Food Lion: $3.59, Kroger: $3.49

Colgate Total toothpaste, 6 oz.

Wegmans: $1.49, Food Lion: $1.97, Kroger: $1.89


Photo by Tom McGovern
Photo by Tom McGovern

 Top 10 list

According to a Wegmans spokesperson, these items are some of the store’s most sought-after items.

Wegmans Basting Oil: 8 oz. for $6.99, 16 oz. for $8.99 or a family pack of two 16-oz. bottles for $15.99

Wegmans Fresh Cut Veggie Noodles: package price varies by weight; $6.99/lb.

Wegmans Wild Sockeye Salmon Oshi-Zushi: $6.99

Wegmans Family Pack Tilapia Fillets: $4.99/lb., sold in a two-pound package for $9.98

Wegmans Greek Yogurt: $.69 each or a family pack of 12 for $7.80

Wegmans Ready-to-Cook Chicken Cacciatore: package price varies by weight; $4.99/lb. for a large pack with an average size of 2.9 pounds, $6.99/lb. for a small pack with an average size of 1.3 pounds

Wegmans Culinary Stock: $1.99

Conti Torraiolo Sangiovese: $6

Wegmans Frosted Bite-Size Shredded Wheat Cereal: $1.69

Wegmans Organic Sandwich Bread: $3 half loaf, $5 full loaf

 

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