In any town big or small, the opening of a new supermarket is typically a welcome event. But nothing was quite like the emotional outpouring that accompanied the debut of a new Wegmans supermarket last week in Brooklyn, NY. The media swarmed. Customers swooned.
What is it about Wegmans? The family-owned company, one of the largest privately held corporations in the U.S. (2018 sales: $9.2 billion), has built a reputation on vast product selection, low prices, and excellent customer service at its 100 locations from New York to North Carolina.
Yet there’s something more to the story that could be instructive to other companies. Reported the Wall Street Journal in the days leading up to the Brooklyn opening: “More than anything, Wegmaniacs say, the grocery store makes them feel good. ‘There’s an association that becomes ingrained in you as a kid that gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling,’ said Megan Clegg, a product designer who grew up near Syracuse and lives three blocks [from the Brooklyn location]. Ms. Clegg, 31, said she likes how the store forgoes fluorescent bulbs in favor of warmer lighting and uses store signage to celebrate employees’ work anniversaries or college acceptances.”
For its coverage, the New York Times tapped a staffer named Jesse Wegman (no relation, but an affinity for the store chain nonetheless), who reported from the scene of the opening: “I had heard about the emotional connection people have to Wegmans, but I had never seen it up close. I can report that it is a real thing,” he wrote.
He continued: “So what explains this level of passion for a grocery store? Some of it is the natural loyalty that attaches to a family-owned business, which Wegmans has been for more than a century. Some of it is the fact that Wegmans predated the current trend of massive, well-stocked, high-quality supermarkets. But what struck me most in the end was not the range or quality of the food options …. It was the sense of community, of shopping for food as reaffirmation of a shared civic life in which everyone looks out for one another. This sense seems to exist between the owners and the staff (Wegmans consistently ranks as one of the best workplaces in the country), and between the staff and customers.”
Times urban columnist Ginia Bellafante, a Brooklyn resident, weighed in as well on the sources of Wegmania. “Wegmans counters some of our disaffection with retail capitalism,” she wrote. “The business is family run, still after several generations. There is no Jeff Bezos figure at the top holding on to his money as if it were a handgrip that would kill him if he let go.”
As a civic matter, Wegmans was welcome in Brooklyn in part because of the location of its new store in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is now a thriving tech hub but is adjacent to a neighborhood that includes many low-income residents who need jobs. The company hired about 200 of its 500 new workers from outreach events at nearby housing-authority buildings. “That is why, nearly a decade ago, when supermarket chains submitted proposals to the city for the chance to open in an area serving both gentrifiers and thousands of public housing residents, Wegmans won,” she wrote. As it turned out, the new Wegmans was delayed years in arriving, but the outpouring of affection indicates that the wait was worth it.