The buildings at the Midtown East shopping center on Wake Forest Road are going up, employees are being hired and trained, and Wegmans fans across the Triangle are more excited than ever about the new Raleigh grocery store scheduled to open this fall.
So, what’s the big fuss over Wegmans? We talked to Wegmans fans, a former Wegmans employee and a Wegmans store manager to learn all we could about the grocery store with the cult-like following.
Jane Fowler and her partner Ann Stinely are firmly in the fan category. They moved to Cary from Silver Spring, Md., two years ago, where they had five Wegmans stores within a 20-minute drive in any direction.
“I would say, ‘Hey I’m off tomorrow — let’s go to Wegmans and have lunch at the Burger Bar and do our shopping and have fun,’ ” Fowler said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
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“One of our friends lives in Charlottesville (Virginia) and every time we go north, we make it so that somewhere along the way, we can go to Wegmans,” she said.
As she spoke on the phone, Fowler opened kitchen cabinets and listed some of the Wegmans house brand products she stocks up on when they go. Olive oil. Jams. Balsamic vinegar. Chips. Sugar free biscotti. Gluten free products. Laundry detergent.
Their Wegmans love doesn’t come strictly from a food snob place, either. Fowler also touts the affordability.
“When we moved here I went to Harris Teeter and thought, ‘oh my God, I’m going to go broke if we have to shop here,’ ” Fowler said.
Fowler said she currently splits her shopping between Aldi, Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s and an occasional trip to Costco. Publix, she said, is “way too expensive. If I’m gonna spend that much money, I’m gonna go to Whole Foods.”
Looking for a ‘values match’
The store on Wake Forest Road is the first of five Wegmans stores announced for the Triangle (there are two coming to Cary, one to Wake Forest and one to Chapel Hill) and the company is making a big push to lure workers.
An 8-page “now hiring” pamphlet landed in mailboxes across the area several weeks ago, and Hallie Johnston, manager of the Wake Forest Road store, said the company has already received more than 3,000 applications.
Johnston credits the company’s reputation as a great place to work. (Last year, Fortune and Great Place to Work ranked Wegmans No. 2 on the list of best workplaces for women.)
“Many people start as part time and it becomes their career,” Johnston said in an interview at the Wegmans temporary office on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh this week. Johnston started as a cashier at Wegmans in Erie, Pa., on her 16th birthday and has been with the company for 25 years.
“Our philosophy is that if you treat employees great, they’ll treat customers great,” she said.
The store on Wake Forest Road will hire about 470 employees and about 150 of them will be full time. The company offers full benefits — including medical and dental insurance, 401K (plus a separate Wegmans retirement plan), paid time off and tuition assistance — to full-time employees and part-time employees averaging 30 hours a week. (You can apply at jobs.wegmans.com)
“We’re looking to hire a diverse group of folks from all ages and backgrounds,” Johnston said.
They have gotten applications from some former employees for Kroger, which closed its Triangle stores last year, and applicants from other grocery stores as well, Johnston said. Those not hired at the Raleigh store will have opportunities at other Wegmans stores set to open in Cary, Wake Forest and Chapel Hill.
Johnston said she is looking for people who have experience in specialty areas like sushi preparation or floral arranging, but experience isn’t necessary for most positions. The company offers in-depth training of its hires and most of that takes place inside other working Wegmans stores. Most full-time employees for Raleigh are paid to travel to the Richmond store for training in food production, safety standards, preparation of Wegmans recipes and more.
But the emphasis will be on finding employees who love people and love food, Johnston said.
“If there’s a values match, we can teach everything else.”
‘It was wonderful’
Kellie Ford lives in Raleigh now — conveniently, about a mile and a half from the new Raleigh Wegmans — but she grew up in upstate New York and started working at Wegmans when she turned 15. She worked there all through high school and college, transferring from her hometown Liverpool store to a store in Buffalo and then back to the home store during summers. Her sister worked at Wegmans, too.
“I have a 15-year-old son who will start working next year, and that’s where I would love for him to work,” Ford said.
She moved around the bakery department throughout her time there, baking bagels, decorating cakes and learning to deal with customers.
“It was wonderful working there,” she said. “Very employee-centric, and they were very flexible with my school schedule at the time. I wanted to play sports and they were flexible with that and my class schedule. ... I’ve had a 401K since I was 18 years old, as a part-time employee, and I think they had a match on it.”
Ford, who works in sales now, credits her time at Wegmans for teaching her about customer service.
“That entire company is built around customer service and focuses on it,” she said. “I’m grateful for that. Now I know how to treat customers as an adult. It laid such a foundation for me to know how to treat customers and treat people.”
Even though Ford has lived in North Carolina for 20 years, she never gave up on shopping at Wegmans.
“When I go visit family and friends up north, we have to do the Wegmans run, we have to visit a store,” she said. “In the 15 or 20 years I’ve been here, Wegmans is kind of the one thing I’ve missed. I’m very glad I’m going to get that now. I’ve been waiting a long time.”
‘The Disney of grocery stores’
Grocery store loyalties are fierce, and shopping habits can be hard to break. Shoppers here grieved when the last Piggly Wiggly left the area, and again last year when Kroger closed its Triangle stores. Before Trader Joe’s entered the market, local residents would gather shopping lists from friends and neighbors and make pilgrimages to Virginia, returning with SUVs loaded with Two-Buck Chuck and Triple Ginger Snaps.
But the argument the uninitiated hear over and over is that Wegmans is “just different.”
“People keep asking me why I’m excited and I tell them it’s hard to put into words,” Ford told us. “You just have to go when they open and walk around and experience it. It’s like all the grocery stores down here combined into one, but throw in a restaurant and a bar.”
Just scroll through the comments on any Facebook post about a new Wegmans store opening and feel assaulted by the love:
“No not good. TOTALLY AWESOME!! Dana, it’s the Disney of grocery stores. Just you wait.”
“GREATEST STORE EVER!”
“Wegmans will make you unable to shop elsewhere.”
“As far as I’m concerned, we’ll never have enough Wegmans here.”
“Pulling hard for a Greensboro store, but I’ll likely make the trek to Cary occasionally to shop there. It’s that good.”
Fans praise the food quality, the prices, the customer service, the variety, the food court.
Oh yes, the food court.
“There is a food hall type atmosphere,” Johnston said. “Families tell us the whole family can find what they like and be happy with their meal.”
Some of Wegmans selling points — bread baked fresh daily, fresh seafood, take-home meals — have become standard at other grocery stores. Other features still stand out, such as an elaborate cheese shop with cave-ripened cheeses and a bakery that uses natural colors in its frosting.
Their house brands, say Johnston and the Wegmans shoppers we talked to, are on par with national brands.
But it’s a good bet that no matter how good that Wegmans mayonnaise tastes, many local shoppers will be scanning the aisles for the yellow Duke’s label.
Don’t worry, said Johnston. The Rochester, N.Y.-based company knows when it moves into a new region, that shoppers have certain expectations.
“We will offer local produce and local products,” Johnston said. “We learned a lot going into Richmond as far as products like Duke’s Mayo and Cheerwine. We’ve done extensive research on local products.”
What you won’t find at Wegmans
Something Johnston concedes that local shoppers will have to adjust to is the store’s lack of advertising or weekly specials, an approach used by most other local stores.
Instead, Johnston said, the store sets “consistently low prices.” Instead of weekly fliers, there’s a magazine customers can get in the mail if they sign up for the Wegmans shoppers club card. The magazine, called Menu, arrives four times a year and is filled with recipes, tips, and food and product features.
There’s a Wegmans app that allows shoppers to clip digital coupons. As for manufacturer’s coupons, the store will double them up to 99 cents. (Locally, Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods also double coupons with a face value of up to 99 cents and routinely have special Super Doubles events, for which coupons $2 and under are doubled.)
Many Wegmans stores have pharmacies, but the Raleigh store will not.
The store will offer home delivery through Instacart, which should be available the first week it’s open.
Whether Wegmans becomes the local grocery disruptor or not remains to be seen, but it’s a safe bet that opening week will be crazy.
Store manager Johnston says there’s typically a line around the building on opening day.
Fowler said she and her partner are eager for the store to open, but she isn’t sure she wants to brave the crowd right away.
“Ann will probably go the first week. I’ll probably wait for the honeymoon to be over,” Fowler said.