Shoppers eagerly await Wegmans


Lars Rusins, head of Baltimore Foodies, says some members of his group of food lovers wonder what all of the fuss is about over a Wegmans grocery store's opening in Hunt Valley this weekend.

But Rusins and his wife, who have seen a Wegmans in New Jersey, can't wait. "We already have applied for and received our Wegmans shopper's card," he says.

Margaret Sullivan, a producer at Maryland Public Television, first saw Wegmans while visiting friends in Clarks Summit, Pa. "Just wandering up and down the aisles is always an eye-opener," she says.

And Jeff Spear, a food and beverage marketing consultant who lives in Owings Mills and visited the Wegmans near Dulles International Airport, says the store is "a Disneyland of food. There is so much to see and experience."

For months, Baltimore food lovers have been abuzz about Wegmans. Those who have seen other Wegmans are rhapsodic over the store, which features 700 kinds of produce, more than 400 varieties of cheese and a large selection of prepared foods. Those who have never been to a Wegmans are wondering if all the hype can be true.

The Wegmans that opens Sunday in the Hunt Valley Town Centre on Shawan Road will be the largest that the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain has ever built - 140,000 square feet, including a 300-seat restaurant.

The store will offer more than 60,000 items (compared with about 40,000 in most supermarkets). In addition to the large selection of produce and cheese, it will feature an olive bar with 40 kinds of olives, a kosher meat counter, aisles of international foods, a French pastry shop developed with consultation by famed French chef Pierre Herme, a sushi bar and a hand-built bread oven - along with the mundane grocery items like detergent and paper towels.

"A walk down each and every aisle could be your exercise for the day," says Barbara Tasch Ezratty of Baltimore, who visits the Wegmans store in New Jersey near her daughter.

So what's a produce section with 700 items like? A tour of a Wegmans in Fairfax, Va., reveals a dazzling array of colors of glistening fruit and vegetables. Among the offerings: 12 kinds of bagged potatoes, 10 bins of loose potatoes, 29 varieties of mushrooms, Asian vegetables, fresh herbs and truffles locked in a glass case that sell for $299.99 a pound.

Donna Luti of Fairfax says she used to shop at three or four grocery stores, depending on which had the best deals. But since the Fairfax Wegmans opened in February, she usually shops there. "The prices are pretty good," she says. But most impressive, she adds, is the variety of foods available. "There are only a couple of things I haven't been able to find."

Browsing through the store it's hard to imagine what Luti couldn't find. It's clear that Wegmans offers not only ingredients, but the solutions for those who don't have the time or the inclination to cook.

The meat department offers tilapia with various coatings, including pecans, macadamia nuts and coconut. Cedar-plank salmon is sold with its own board for $9.99 each. Ready-made shish kebabs - available with several kinds of seasoning - are $8.79 a pound.

"I love to cook," Luti says. "But I wouldn't have to because it's all here."

Luti pauses from her shopping trip to sample the pan-seared shrimp and spinach a Wegmans employee is teaching customers how to make in a kiosk between the meat and dessert departments. In addition to offering regular cooking classes, Wegmans has an area set up featuring a recipe of the week with all the ingredients needed to make the dish.

At the end of the meat counter, Trish Burkat is pushing a shopping cart with two small children. She passes several grocery stores in the 10 miles she travels from her home to Wegmans. "It's worth it," she says. Burkat says prices may be a bit higher, but she says the freshness and quality of products are unsurpassed.

Walk past the cheese counter and the gourmet desserts, including homemade chocolates and intricately decorated tarts. Pause at the olive bar with its variety of olives, along with relishes and hummus.

In the center of the store, tables are set with plates, glasses and decorations for the season. Candy bins are lined up beneath hanging pinatas. Behind the checkout counters are newspapers from around the world.

Of course, variety alone cannot guarantee a store's success. Although Wegmans advertises its reasonable prices, even Rusins says the extent to which he patronizes Wegmans will depend on the deals.

"It may very well be worth the traffic aggravation," Rusins says. "It really depends upon their brand selection, quality and pricing."

Dara Bunjon, a food-industry consultant who lives in Pikesville, says some cooks may even be disappointed because expectations are so high. "Some people are going to think, `What's all the hype about?'" she says.

She expects she'll be patronizing the store only occasionally. "I'm not driving to Hunt Valley every week for my shopping unless they have lobster for $2.95 a pound."

A sampling of Wegmans offerings

black truffles (also white when available)

baby arugula

Kaffir lime leaves

morel mushrooms

serrano ham from Spain

Roquefort cheese from caves in France

Norwegian smoked salmon

cappuccino bar

Cuisinart appliances

44-item Asian buffet

French pastries, including creme brulee, chocolate mousse and vanilla napoleon

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