As Daniel Wegman - known as "Danny" - and his daughter, Colleen Wegman, sat at a conference table talking about the future of the company recently, they downplayed the popularity of their stores.
"We don't think you should ever think you're a phenomenon," he said.
"Yes," Colleen Wegman nodded in agreement, "that just makes us nervous."
"We never want to become complacent in what we do," he said.
While it's not uncommon to find a grocery-store cheese department, Wegmans offers more than 400 varieties of specialty cheeses, including farmhouse cheddar from England and Roquefort from caves in France. It brought in Pierre Herme, regarded as the top pastry chef in France, to design its patisseries. Wegmans' meat department workers have to get certificates in cooking techniques such as braising so they can pass along suggestions to customers.
The company's newer stores include eat-in seating areas. The Pittsford location includes a restaurant called Tastings, with an open kitchen, exposed brick walls and a menu that includes shrimp bisque and homemade sorbet.
While some supermarkets and discount warehouses pass out free samples of frozen chicken nuggets and the like, Wegmans' chefs prepare gourmet meals for shoppers to taste. In a training kitchen at the Pittsford store recently, managers were cooking recipes from the chain's glossy magazine, called Menu, so they can talk knowledgeably with customers.
"If you buy the best fish in the world and overcook it, then it becomes the worst fish in the world," Danny Wegman said.
Barbara Davis, a 49-year-old homemaker, used to prepare a turkey for Christmas dinner regularly until she saw Wegmans' chef demonstrate how to make a rib roast. He helped her select the roast and the ingredients. Davis said she intends never to cook another Christmas turkey again. "I always say shopping anywhere else is shopping, and that shopping at Wegmans is an experience," Davis said as she pushed a cart through a Wegmans in Penfield, east of Rochester. "Whenever I go anywhere else, I always say, `This isn't Wegmans.'"
Following in the steps of one of its biggest competitors, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Wegmans instituted an everyday low-price strategy several years ago. Customers accustomed to special sales were put off at first - revenue dipped the first six months afterward - but the practice stuck and proved successful. Some analysts say Wegmans' prices are comparable, although people perceive its prices are higher because of the broad selection.
"You still spend a lot of money at Wegmans because there's a $21 cake in the bakery you'll want to buy," said Stern, the Chicago consultant. "On dry groceries, they're much more competitive."
Known to play hardball with suppliers, Wegmans sets strict times on delivery and high standards on the freshness of products. With executives accustomed to the harsh winters off Lake Ontario, its stores stay open in snowstorms - and expect suppliers to deliver as well.
However, the 35,000-employee chain was ranked this year as the best place to work in the country by Fortune magazine. Employees often remain with the company for years.
The company isn't afraid to try new ideas - or to fail while trying them. It once carpeted stores only to remove the coverings when they became dirty. It launched online shopping several years ago, but stopped the service after it foundered. One worker convinced Danny Wegman to allow her to sell her homemade cookies, made from generations-old Italian family recipes, at the Pittsford store.
When Wegmans prepares a new store, the buzz often builds for months. Hundreds of people have been known to line up outside of a new store on opening day. Customers tailgate in the parking lot and wear homemade T-shirts with the Wegmans' name. Some "groupies" even travel to new openings.
So many people have tried to get into the store being built in Hunt Valley, the grocer had to erect a fence. Some have entered anyway, only to be ushered out after wandering the cavernous aisles.
"We came to check it out because we heard so much about it," said Rochelle Bohrer, who came with her husband to the Hunt Valley location to get a sneak peak after hearing that its pharmacy, but not the supermarket, had opened recently. Her son shopped at a Wegmans in Virginia and hasn't stopped talking about it, she said. The glimpse she stole beyond the temporary barriers only whetted her curiosity.
The Hunt Valley store will have a Market CafM-i with indoor seating for 200 and outdoor seating for 75, a sushi bar, fresh seafood delivered daily and a kosher food bar. A Complements Shop will sell upscale kitchen products including cookware and accessories. The store will also feature Maryland products such as crab cakes and littleneck clams from the Virginia coast and an expanded selection of McCormick spices. New York products, for the transplants, will also be sold.
The company said it received 3,600 e-mails last year from people asking it to build a store in their neighborhood. Many of them came from expatriates from the Rochester area suffering withdrawal.
But, concerned about attention to detail and intricate training of staff, Wegmans limits itself to two new stores a year. About 650 people will work permanently at the Hunt Valley store, but it will have 1,400 employees on hand to open the store. At least for that first week, that single store alone will be among the 20 largest employers in Baltimore County, larger than the likes of Black & Decker Corp., MBNA Corp. and Comcast Corp.
"I can tell you without hesitation that the Wegmans will exceed the expectations that anybody has," said Carpino, the United Way president here. "They won't disappoint."