Mega-grocer brings buzz to Maryland

In Rochester, N.Y., its hometown, Wegmans is also known as an atypical tourist attraction

September 25, 2005|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When people here want to impress out-of-towners, they take them to the headquarters of Eastman Kodak Co., the pioneering photography giant, to one of the lush vineyards along the Finger Lakes or west to the famed Niagara Falls.

Or they head over to the local grocery.

Wegmans Food Markets Inc., with stores three times the size of the average supermarket, chefs in high hats, European-style cafM-is, 700 varieties of produce and French patisseries with fruit tarts and mini creme brulees, is a popular, albeit unusual, attraction in Rochester. Foreign dignitaries and Hollywood celebrities such as Cher have been spotted in its stores here.

"It's definitely a major draw," said Heather Baum, while shopping recently in the company's flagship store in the suburb of Pittsford. Her out-of-town friends bring coolers with them to take home Wegmans goodies. "People are amazed when they first see it."

"New York state's best-kept secret," as some food consultants call it, is starting to get out. Wegmans plans to open its 69th store overall and its first in Maryland next Sunday at the renovated Hunt Valley Towne Centre on Shawan Road in northern Baltimore County.

While some grocery chains are consolidating or straining to turn a profit, Wegmans, which posted $3.6 billion in sales last year, is thriving. Its entry into Maryland next week continues a decade-long march beyond the chain's western New York roots into Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Northern Virginia.

Its stores are akin to a combination of Super Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. Like a supermarket on steroids, Wegmans' newest stores range up to 140,000 square feet, compared with 45,000 square feet for a typical supermarket.

Wegmans has been called the Disney World of supermarkets - grocery shopping as entertainment. Others describe it as the Nordstrom of food because of its high-end products and reputation for customer service. Like Nordstrom, you can return items to Wegmans, no questions asked.

The grocer does not believe in self-checkout and opens a new register if more than two people are waiting in line.

Meg Major, who follows the industry for Progressive Grocer, a trade publication, said of Wegmans, "They're always on a self-improvement mission."

Yet many consumers outside New York and Pennsylvania have never heard of the company. Only in recent years has the merchant moved beyond mostly middle-income markets into more populous and wealthier ones.

It entered the highly competitive and high-income Northern Virginia area last year and outperformed locally dominant Giant Food. It raked in $93 million in sales in its first year in Loudoun County's Sterling, triple the average of most other stores in the area, according to Food World, a Columbia trade publication. A second Northern Virginia store in Fairfax opened in February.

"This is a company that came from Rochester, N.Y.," said Neil Stern, a senior partner at retail consulting firm McMillan Doolittle in Chicago. "It's not like they came from New York City or some sophisticated place. A lot of their stores are in middle-of-the-road places. In the past five or six years, they've realized if they can get a combination of density - a lot of people - and income, that that's where they shine."

Simple beginnings

The company had simple beginnings. John Wegman started it as the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Co. in 1916. His son, Robert Wegman, 86, is chairman. Grandson Daniel, 58, is chief executive, and great-granddaughter Colleen, 34, is president. They are mostly responsible for running the family business.

The company's headquarters, beneath the jets landing at nearby Greater Rochester International Airport, are modest with an interior design reminiscent of the set of the 1960s TV show The Brady Bunch. The smell of bread wafts from a baking facility on the premises.

Wegmans is a big deal in Rochester, where it ranks among the top five employers, along with Kodak, Xerox Corp. and the University of Rochester. One of the area's oldest companies, it's a major corporate donor and sponsors a much-anticipated LPGA golf tournament each year at a local country club.

"It's huge here," said Peter Carpino, who heads the United Way of Greater Rochester. "They are the market leader in groceries. They are an outstanding corporate citizen."

Eugene Fram, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, said: "People come from all over the United States to see it because it's such an unusual store."

Rochester Mayor William Johnson recalled visiting Raleigh, N.C., whose mayor wanted to show him a supermarket he described as his city's version of Wegmans. "They made a good shot at it, but they couldn't come close to matching," Johnson said. "I've seen supermarkets in many other communities and I think they [Wegmans] stand up head and shoulders over any of the others."

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