The first time I heard of Wegmans, someone — a friend, a college roommate — mentioned it in a group conversation, and the reaction went something like this: "Oh my gosh, I love that store! It's the greatest grocery store ever. Seriously. Best. Store. Ever." Suddenly I felt like we'd just spotted Brad Pitt: voices got shrill, heart rates sped up. Words like love and amazing and can't live without it flew around the group. It was frenzied devotion — and all for a grocery store that I at the time had never even heard of!
It took me 10 years to visit the store, which I finally did for the first time this past weekend. Over the years I'd heard Wegmans compared to Trader Joe's (both have extremely enthusiastic devotees) but beyond that I still knew virtually nothing about it. Could Wegmans make me into a fangirl? I was about to find out.
A Quick History: What is Wegmans?
If you don't live in the Mid-Atlantic region, Wegmans may be new to you. The privately-owned company, which began in 1916, operates 82 grocery stores in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and its list of accolades is long and growing: In 2014 Fortune ranked Wegmans #12 on its list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For (it's the 17th year Wegmans has made the list). Consumer Reports also named it the #1 supermarket in the country not once, but three times, in 2009, 2012, and 2014.
And don't forget about the many articles devoted to Wegmans' awesomeness. Here are just a few examples:
Also, there's this.
So, what's it like stepping into a Wegmans for the first time?
Wait, Is This a Supermarket or a Restaurant?
The first thing I saw when I walked through the automatic double doors was an extensive prepared foods marketplace. At least two dozen buffets serve everything from salads to sushi, subs, pizza, and Asian cuisine. You may come to Wegmans intending to buy ingredients to make lunch yourself, and end up leaving with a plate of food already prepared for you. From where I was standing, I couldn't even see where the marketplace ended and the regular supermarket began!
That's another thing: Wegmans is huge — and apparently the store I went to is half the size of a regular Wegmans due to its city location.
Ok, so massive market cafe, check. What else have we here?
Ah, yes. Seafood galore, all of which is apparently sustainably-sourced, a key tenet of Wegmans. Having visited Alaska last year to learn more about the state's sustainable seafood program, I was thrilled to learn that for a portion of its fish selection, Wegmans partners with small, independent fishermen in Alaska. Wild halibut and salmon are air-shipped to Wegmans within 24 hours of the catch!
A Butcher, a Baker, and a Candlestick Maker
Ok, there's not a candlestick maker, although if there were, I wouldn't be surprised. Once again, I hadn't even hit the supermarket yet, aka shelves with food items on them. Nope, I was in the meat market, which is right across from the bakery. And yes, both of them might as well be their own stores.
At the butcher counter, long rows of glass display cases showcased cured meats of all kind, rotisserie chicken, and premium cuts of meat. In the refrigerated meat section, I found organic, grass-fed beef, which Wegmans sources from a small family farm in Uruguay. Across the way at the bakery, I spotted freshly-baked breads made from ancient grains, and a readily available list of all the store's flour suppliers. (As a bonafide bread fiend, I was all about the bakery.)
My first interaction with a Wegmans employee was at the cheese counter, where an enthusiastic cheesemonger gave me a taste of Plaisir au Chablis, a lovely, flavorful Burgundy soft cheese. (I bought a small round of it on the spot.)
I could have spent an hour at the cheese counter, surveying and sampling the vast selection, but I had to move on — not before learning, however, that Wegmans recently built a 12,300 square-foot space specifically designed for aging cheese. The building houses a dedicated room for brie, and seven "caves" for aging soft, washed-rind cheeses. Ok, then!
I was finally getting close to the supermarket area, although not before first passing the build-your-own trail mix bar...
... and the olive bar, where my husband put together a tray of Mediterranean tapas goodies, which we enjoyed for lunch.
The Supermarket: How Were the Prices?
At this point, it's clear to me that Wegmans operates in a league of its own. The closest thing I can compare it to are the Fairway stores I frequented in New York, but this is still more extensive. Wegmans is like Trader Joe's, Fairway, Whole Foods, Target, and an open-air market all rolled into one (or, as Buzzfeed put it, it's "a journey through a small, beautifully maintained, self-sustaining city").
Unlike Trader Joe's, Wegmans carries major food brands as well as its own store brand, and unlike Whole Foods, those major brands aren't limited to organic or niche foods. Like any store, I expected prices to vary from competitors' depending on the product, so I didn't think Wegmans would be universally cheaper or more expensive than what I'd find elsewhere. But considering it is a gourmet grocery store, how would prices compare to, say, Whole Foods?
I did a little side-by-side price comparison of a few items, and here's how they stacked up:
- Gallon of house brand organic milk from Wegmans: $5.99
- Gallon 365 Everyday Value organic milk from Whole Foods: $5.99
- Gallon of house brand almond milk from Wegmans: $2.99
- Gallon of 365 Everyday Value almond milk from Whole Foods: $3.49
- 6 ounce container of organic raspberries from Wegmans: $4.99
- 6 ounce container of organic raspberries from Whole Foods: $3.49
- 2 pounds of strawberries from Wegmans: $2.99
- 1 pound of strawberries from Whole Foods: $2.99
- 35.3 ounce container of Fage yogurt from Wegmans: $6.49
- 35.3 ounce container of Fage yogurt from Whole Foods: $5.99
- 5 pound bag of King Arthur flour from Wegmans: $4.49
- 5 pound bag of King Arthur flour from Whole Foods: $4.99
- Can of Eden Organic adzuki beans from Wegmans: $2.39
- Can of Eden Organic adzuki beans from Whole Foods: $2.49
- Raw pumpkin seeds from the bulk aisle at Wegmans: $5.29 per pound
- Raw pumpkin seeds from the bulk aisle at Whole Foods: $5.99 per pound
- Organic millet from the bulk aisle at Wegmans: $2.49 per pound
- Organic millet from the bulk aisle at Whole Foods: $2.19 per pound
- Organic yellow popcorn from the bulk aisle at Wegmans: $2.99 per pound
- Organic yellow popcorn from the bulk aisle at Whole Foods: $2.49 per pound
- Dozen organic cage-free large brown eggs from Wegmans: $3.99
- Dozen organic cage-free large brown eggs from Whole Foods: $3.19
As you can see, there were a few instances where Wegmans beat out Whole Foods, but a few where Whole Foods ended up the cheaper option.
This is obviously a very cursory look at a few select items, and I imagine that as a regular Wegmans shopper, you become attune to the items that are terrific deals for that particular item. I was impressed by Wegmans' produce selection, which I found to be of much better quality than the produce at Trader Joe's (although perhaps not quite as good as the produce at Whole Foods).
The wine and beer shop. These $6 wines appear to be Wegmans' answer to Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck.
I think what you're paying for when you go to a place like Wegmans is sheer variety, quality, and customer service. There are shelves devoted to hard-to-find international foods, extensive dairy, produce, and frozen food areas, and a large pharmacy section that would make a run to Target unnecessary. There are also plenty of family pack options for various foods, which, according to Wegmans, could save you up to 30%.
The store is impeccably clean and well-organized, and employees apparently love working there. Add to that the prepared foods marketplace, meat, bakery, seafood and cheese counters, the wine and beer shop, florist, online price lists and app, and Wegmans looks more and more like the Superman of supermarkets.
And so, at the end of my first visit to Wegmans, I can definitely say I get it. I get why people go crazy over this store. How often do you find a one-stop shop where you can have flowers arranged for you, pick up some salmon that was caught less than two days ago, buy your favorite mainstream brand of toothpaste, assemble a platter of olives, and grab some wine on your way out?
Is Wegmans Your Thing?
For all of you longtime Wegmans shoppers, tell us: what do you love about the store? What products are totally worth buying? Share your secrets with a newbie!
(Image credits: Cambria Bold)