I Spent Nearly a Whole Day at Wegmans, And Here is What I Learned
The subs are how they get you. My first encounter with Wegmans, years ago, happened because this girl I knew used to live near the one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and wouldn't stop talking about how great they were. I didn't get it, at first—when you first walk into a Wegmans, it looks a lot like, well, a supermarket; at the time, I was pretty deep into the religion that was Whole Foods. First of all, the lighting at Wegmans was all wrong. The baked goods didn't seem artisanal enough. There was shriveled up lo mein on the hot bar. Wegmans seemed, I don't know, basic, which is of course a thing that we didn't say at the time, not yet.
And then I had a sub. I think they cost then about what they cost now—a small for $4, a medium for $5.99 and a large for $8.99, the latter big enough to feed 2 to 4 people, unless they are me, in which case there are 2 to 4 people who will have to go ahead and get their own sub, if they want to eat.
The bread was fresh, and it was real, like I remember from childhood, not that puffy cloud, too-white nonsense that we have accepted as normal in supermarkets and many sub shops now. Mostly I remember how big the sub was. I think there was more tuna salad on that thing than any human should eat in a week. There were sweet and hot peppers, some sort of cheese (they didn't have cheddar, the obvious pairing with tuna, for reasons I could not figure out) and an herby, house-brand sub oil, that they apparently sold in bottles. I couldn't get over how great the thing was, what great value it had been. For years, every time I drove through the Lehigh Valley, I'd stop and get a sub.
Wegmans was founded in 1916 in Rochester, New York. The brand has been a staple of Western New York life for decades—out of the 90-plus stores the company has now opened, roughly a third of them are up in that rather remote part of the state, a part of the world that relatively few Americans now choose to settle. Roughly around the turn of the century, Wegmans began to look out into the wider world, opening stores in various affluent New Jersey towns within the commuter belt. In short order, Wegmans had become a thing. A thing that everyone wanted to have.
Eventually, I moved beyond the sub counter, usually found right at the front of the store, and I began exploring. The newer stores in particularly are notable for their vastness—they can be formidable, until you get to know what's where. I began to look covetously upon the house brand products, often organics, often extremely reasonably priced. I marveled at how wide the aisles were, at how clean the stores were, at the fact that there always seemed to be more cashiers than they needed, and that they were always there, standing at the end of their station, waving you in like you were an airplane looking for a place to land. It was all very impressive, to say the least, but in the end, it's a supermarket, and I never lived near a Wegmans, and with supermarkets as in life, long-distance relationships can be hard to maintain.
A few years later, I was lucky enough to move to Baltimore, which has Wegmans in its suburbs. I quickly came to resent shopping anywhere else. I discovered their 40 oz. sacks—it's a lot— of organic granola for $8.99, which lasted me for weeks. Greek yogurt, 32 oz., was $3.99. A dozen large, organic eggs, $2.99 with the Shoppers Club card, which of course you cannot walk into Wegmans without.
After years of loyalty to Whole Foods, I felt like I'd walked out of a cave and into the sunshine. I was buying good, simple, quality food, at very reasonable prices. It reminded me of shopping in a good European supermarket, where prices are often so good, it makes you want to riot when you get back home and remember just how much we Americans are being hosed by Big Grocery.
Would the magic last, I wondered? Over the last few years, Wegmans has been growing at an impressive clip; they've quickly become favorites in a whole array of new markets; you can find their increasingly familiar stores as far up as the Boston suburbs and, soon, all the way down in Raleigh, North Carolina—in 2019, they're going to finally open in New York City, in the redeveloped Brooklyn Navy Yard. How is a family-owned company going to cope with becoming such a giant?
The newest store opened just a couple of weeks ago in the quiet, Northern New Jersey suburb of Montvale, just a short ride from New York City. I ventured out to the 108,000 square-foot store on a Sunday afternoon—typically the last time you want to be at a supermarket, even if it's the happiest supermarket on earth. I figured I'd have my answer.
Surreptitiously taking notes while also doing some shopping, I began to compile a list of reasons why I think that Wegmans is such a great supermarket. After around 1,000 words, I decided it was probably time for me to get out of there and get some fresh air. Here is the edited version.
Wegmans is essentially perfect—but only after you learn how to shop there. Like many supermarkets, Wegmans offers terrific values, side by side with a lot of things that are no kind of value at all. While a lot of people make a big deal about the prepared food, I have never found it to be any better or any more attractively priced than the alternative, with a few exceptions that I will outline below. Wegmans, to put it bluntly, is a terrific place to shop if you like to cook at home. After that, it becomes just another upscale supermarket that has successfully fooled people into paying $8.99/lb for macaroni and cheese.
Let us take a moment, however, to talk about the subs and the pizza. If you walk into Wegmans and are too lazy or cannot buy things to take home, the subs, as previously discussed, are a must, followed closely by the pizza. All last summer, they had this deal at the pizza counter (in every Wegmans I visited, which was a lot) for a baked-to-order $10 pie that was absolutely enormous; at the new Montvale store, I noticed they'd flipped over to a high-end pizza oven and were doing $9 medium margherita pies that were actually really good and served two. At any price, their pizza is a terrific deal, truly.
Their house brand is one of the best marriages of quality and price you will ever find. The yogurt and granola I mentioned earlier are perfect examples—you can eat a superbly healthy breakfast for a week, for just a few bucks. Need to make a ton of sandwiches? Buy 30 oz. of thinly-sliced ham or turkey, for $8.99. Cheese, too—32 oz., or 44 slices, starting at $6.99 for Mozzarella, Provolone and Monterey Jack. Want a whole bunch of flavored sparkling water? With my Shoppers Club card, I could have bought five 12-packs for $11. (Take that, La Croix.) Got hungry kids? An extremely good, 12 oz. shells and cheddar dinner sells for $1.79—Amy's chintzy, tasteless 10 oz. version was recently on sale at Target for $3. Shredded cheese started at just $1.99. Frozen waffles were 24 for $2.99, cans of albacore 99 cents, 24 ounces of tomato basil sauce for 99 cents, 4 lbs. of spaghetti for just $2.99. A savvy shopper feeding a non-picky family really could clean up here, all without having to go to Costco. (Apologies to people who love Costco.)
Lots of this stuff is organic, too. A gallon of organic milk, on average, now costs roughly $6.50. Wegmans sells it for $5.49. Cans of black beans, a four-pack, go for $3.69 here. A big loaf of fresh-baked, organic sourdough bread in the bakery, $4.50.
The produce section will make you forget all about Trader Joe's. A typical Wegmans produce section is the size of half of a Trader Joe's store. (No, really—it kind of is.) It's packed with options, both organic and non-organic, and prices, while not uniformly better than everyone else's, are great—5 oz. clamshells of organic salad started at $2.49, 5 oz. of baby arugula was $1.99, organic bananas went for 59 cents a pound.
The Shoppers Club is a club you want to be a member of. Not only do you save a ton of money, there's also an app that helps you keep track of everything, offers you coupons based on your shopping habits and helps you keep lists of what you like to buy—Wegmans isn't the only store that does this, but it does it quite well.
They have a whole counter that just makes zoodles. Okay, not quite, but the Veggie counter, which I saw at the Montvale store, had an entire team of people preparing all sorts of vegetables for people to take home and cook, if you're super lazy. Vegetable purees, all sorts of things chopped and diced and sliced—basically, it's like the hot bar for people who are horrified by chicken tenders.
Be careful, because you can spend an insane amount of money on prepared food that is totally hit or miss. They make mini-layer cakes, for example, that were selling for $8 and taste like a box mix; one table away, however, mini-pies were terribly good for $6. Burgers at the in-house burger bar that's at a lot of new locations? Lousy value, at $10 or more with a few French fries. Frozen custard, on the other hand, at the same counter, for a couple of bucks—absolutely. On this side of the store, you need to shop smart.
If they have a liquor store at the location you are visiting, prepare to be really jealous. Acres (no, seriously, almost, it seems like) of ridiculous deals on wine, for starters. It obviously depends on where they are located, but their new Hanover, New Jersey store for example, which I also visited recently, has a liquor store so vast, it would require a special trip to make sense of. (I know I'll be back, and soon.)
In the end, the best thing about Wegmans is that they have everything. Whether you're here for dry-aged ribeyes, a cluster of snow crab legs for $8.99 or have $15 to spend on a week's worth of dinners, the greatest thing about Wegmans is that it manages to be all things to all people. It has no agenda, seemingly, other than getting you whatever it is you are looking for, and it does this in a way that somehow does not require them to be terrible—for twenty years, Fortune Magazine has ranked it among the Top 100 Companies To Work For. (In 2017, Wegmans took the #2 spot.) Obviously, spending a Sunday afternoon there was far from a mellow experience, certainly not in Bergen County, New Jersey, and certainly not a week or two after it opened to the public. Still, walking out into the parking lot with a bag full of food that cost me about $12, I still felt the same way I did, going in. There may be certain things about other chains that I'd miss, but if I had to choose one American supermarket and stick with it forever, it's always going to be Wegmans.