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"Perhaps the single most impressive difference between Wegmans and most supermarkets is its bulk foods section, which we couldn't do justice with even a wide-angle camera lens."
If you're from Buffalo, you know it; if not, believe it: there's probably no objectively better American supermarket than Wegmans, a Rochester-based chain with 10 stores in Western New York. Put aside its current #3 ranking in Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list, its 2007 Food Network "Best Grocery Store" award, and the 2006 Consumer Reports survey calling it the #1 supermarket in the country. As a market - not, as we discuss in a separate article, as a restaurant - the sheer breadth and depth of a Wegmans store is almost staggering by comparison with even the mega-sized Albertsons, Kroger, and Safeway locations out there, while still managing to offer the best items found at regional specialty grocers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Gelson's. We felt that Buffalo Chow would be incomplete without discussing this amazing chain of stores; here's just a brief list of what makes Wegmans so impressive.
Size and Scope. Even the newest Southern California supermarkets don't seem to have the footprints - or the smart use of space - found in modern Wegmans stores, which range these days from 140,000 to 160,000 square feet. (That's 50% larger than the average size of a standard Wal-Mart.) Pretend that you don't care about having aisles so large that two big carts can easily pass each other without advanced vehicular maneuvers, or so many different areas of the store that you may well want a cell phone or assistance to find a loved one who went off somewhere. That leaves you with the scope of the individual departments, which tend to have both what you're looking for, and lots of other, related options. The produce department of a given Wegmans may stretch for almost as far as the eye can see, while the deli will have every common sliced meat and sausage in the book, plus some you wouldn't expect to find there. Unlike Aldi's and other stores that readily admit that they're not one-stop shops for food, Wegmans has so much to choose from that you'll only want for the most esoteric of ingredients, and then, not always.
Department Types. Wegmans doesn't blindly follow conventions - or current competitors - when deciding how to allocate its store space. The size of each store's health food section, for instance, tends to be shockingly large: there's a better variety of fresh, bottled, bagged, or frozen stuff in one Wegmans than in two typical standalone health food stores. As with coffee beans and teas, you can choose from more cheeses here - possibly a hundred or more, depending on location - than at virtually any other store, gourmet or otherwise, in the area. And the stores tend to have both pre-prepared foods and restaurants inside, too. All of these departments sit alongside old standards, guaranteeing you access to a florist, a bakery, fresh seafood, boxed, canned, or frozen items of any kind, local specialties, and more than just staple foods from every major world cuisine. Though somewhat short of perfect, a given culture is better represented here than at any culturally inspecific supermarket we've seen elsewhere; so too are the selections of dishware, and the store-branded items, which generally appear to have been picked by people with good taste and an equally good sense of value. There are, of course, exceptions.
Bulk Foods. Perhaps the single most impressive difference between Wegmans and most supermarkets is its bulk foods section, which we couldn't do justice with even a wide-angle camera lens. We've seen markets, even large ones, where there are no bulk foods, or little more than one side of a short half-aisle of bins. At Wegmans, there are literally hundreds of different bulk foods that can be purchased in any quantity you desire. Can't imagine why that might be useful? The candy section alone is amazing, packed with everything from well-known brands to generics and local favorites, such as sponge candy. Buy it by the piece or by the pound, alone or mixed with whatever else you might want. Cookies, nuts, some healthy snacks, and other items are also available. Locals may only realize how much they miss this section, and how impressive it is, when they visit competitors elsewhere in the country.
A Generally Awesome Bakery. Most supermarkets sell baked goods. Many of them do baking on site. Wegmans goes way above and beyond those marks, offering a variety of breads that stretches far past French and Italian classics to include numerous, legitimately delicious options from many places - Asia, sadly, is excluded. Obvious care goes into turning out loaves of everything from challah to baguettes, as well as pastries, donuts, cookies, cupcakes, and other desserts that are generally in the good to very good category. One exception, Wegmans' Ultimate Carrot Cake with Walnuts, is so truly spectacular that we're willing to pay a fairly high price ($8/mini, shown here) to indulge every once in a while. It's the spices, the sweet golden raisins, the thin strips of carrot, and that cream cheese; we have yet to meet a person who doesn't love it.
Great Employees and Thoughtful Little Touches. One of the intangibles of any business is the goodwill generated by the people who work there. Wegmans has been cited numerous times for spectacular customer service, which isn't of the Nordstrom "our commission means we care" variety, but rather genuine investment of the employees in the success of the business and satisfaction of customers. The chain's philosophy has been summarized as "employees first, customers second," whereby Wegmans looks after the well-being of its employees as people, offering careers rather than jobs, and they in turn focus on making the stores better for customers. Full-time employees average more than ten years with the company. Read that again.
The results are obvious. Wegmans stores are clean, well-stocked, and well-labeled. When you approach employees to ask directions, you'll always get them - often, you'll actually be walked over to the right place. They strike the right balance of personnel to department and customer needs, such that you don't see two or three employees milling around doing nothing while things are waiting to be done. And moms will find supervised play areas for kids, as well as bathrooms that are nice, clean, and well-stocked with baby supplies - something that can't be said about the facilities at virtually any other public place.
Movie Rentals, Recycling, and More. Wegmans stores have dry cleaning departments. And though they were amongst the first to transition from staffed movie rental departments to faster, $1 per day video vending machines, Wegmans always offered more affordable rentals than Blockbuster Video and its competitors. The new machines are found in the front of its stores, near large, staffed recycling centers that the chain has maintained for years, enabling anyone to come in and drop off metal, plastic, and other containers. What's interesting, though not novel, is that the stores also actively encourage recycling of their bags, use of reusable bags, and - at least in a small way, with a collection of SIGG's great aluminum bottles - the washing and re-use of drink containers. It's obvious in a number of ways, large and small, that Wegmans isn't one of those companies that tries to squeeze the last cent out of its customers; a store feels like a part of the community.
For all of Wegmans' good and great points, however, it does have a problem: the quality of the food served by its restaurants, at least, the ones we've tried in Western New York stores, is close to abysmal. And this is despite the fact that the chain even publishes its own paid magazine, Menu, and holds cooking classes on site. We discuss the restaurants in Part II.