When City! Newspaper wrote about Wegmans Food Markets a while back, they ventured: “We suspect many Rochestarians would like to live in Wegmans.” They were right. Visit a store and you almost think you‘re at an outdoor market. People in chef hats stop you and ask if you want to try this or that delicacy they've just rustled up. You should always say yes....who would think food could taste so good? So yes, I can’t think of anything cooler than a loft apartment overlooking produce and opening onto imported foods. And now a new store opens in Henrietta this week. A megamarket. Any apartments to lease? Alas, not yet.
There should be most everything else, though. A second floor restaurant and internet café, of course, overlooking the market area. I love when they do that. I‘ll sit up there sipping coffee, pecking away at what eventually becomes a post. Not most of my posts, of course, or even many, but I‘ve written a few at other Wegmans. Maybe there will be a tea bar, like at the Pittsford store. Or a seafood bar and grill, also like at Pittsford. You can dine right there between grocery aisles amidst folks fetching bakery goods, meats or seafood products. How cool is that?
The new Henrietta store takes up 30 acres and looks like a castle, crowned with a 77 foot clocktower. Half of the acreage is green space. There's a pond, spacious lawns, 250 trees, 1,600 shrubs, 2,600 annual plants and two acres of wildflowers. They like flowers at Wegmans. There's always tons of them. From store front along Calkins Road, ornamental streetlights, trees and sidewalks stretch 1,700 feet west to the town’s Senior Center.
In many ways, Wegmans has become the public face of Rochester, which was once a Kodak town. Is there not something vaguely disquieting about a food retailer (now the area’s number two employer) taking the spot once held by manufacturing? But this is new New York. Did Governor Patterson really say the state now exists on a “social services-based economy?” Kodak is a shadow of its former days. Partly it’s moved afar, and partly it’s withered as it‘s mainstay film product has become obsolete. In recent years, they’ve even taken to blowing up their vacant buildings rather than pay taxes on them.
But if Kodak and New York are in hot water, that’s no reflection on Wegmans, is it? Wegmans fields thousands of requests from people asking them to open supermarkets in their communities. But they expand only slowly and deliberately. Founded in 1916, it wasn‘t until the 1990‘s that they ventured out of state; a new store in Virginia and one in Maryland currently represent their most southern point. At present there are about 80 stores. In 2006, Consumer Reports magazine ranked them the top supermarket chain. Fortune Magazine has put them on their ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list for eleven years running; in 2005 they were # 1; last year they were #3. “The best chain in the country, maybe in the world,” is how analyst Neil Stern described it to the Wall Street Journal back in 1994.
As a little kid, I’d go shopping with my mom back when Wegmans offered green stamps, back when no one left shopping carts in the lot but walked them back to the store.
When the WalMarts rolled into town, Wegmans didn’t just roll over and die, but held its own. The company revamped its own pricing structure and sent everyone in greater Rochester a videotape explaining the changes. Mail carriers cursed CEO Danny Wegman for days, but not as much as they would have cursed a….say Home Depot or Sears. Wegmans is local. It gives back significantly to the local economy, runs a large college scholarship fund, and enjoys tremendous good will. "People tell us they like shopping at Wegmans because our employees are happy, and that makes them happy," says CEO Danny. "We have always believed that in order to be a great place to shop, we must first be a great place to work." The Wegmans stores are decidedly upscale, yet without gouging the ordinary shopper. One can stick with the basics and not do too much worse than the huge cost-cutter stores, all-the-while enjoying far better service and happier people.
When Bob Wegman died in 2006, the community paid their respects for days. Civic leaders, food service execs, employees, and plenty of just regular folk crowded in for his funeral. Rival food chain Tops took out a full page memorial ad in the Democrat and Chronicle:
The Tops family regrets the passing of our colleague Robert Wegman. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and fellow associates.
The papers heaped praise upon him for days. He had community spirit, enthusiasm for employees, industry innovation and so forth. And of course, sense of humor. The story was told of an obnoxious industry consultant, a character who rubbed everyone the wrong way. One day he complained to Mr. Wegman “Why do people instantly dislike me?”
“Well,” Bob replied, “it saves time.”
Rochester and Kodak were once synonymous. Growing up, it seemed every other kid’s dad worked for the film giant. (Mine didn’t, though my grandfather had) “The company treats its people so well that the unions can’t get in”…..I heard that refrain constantly. But it‘s been decades since I heard it last. Struggling to thrive (or even survive) in the digital age, Kodak steadily shed the considerable paternalism it once had. At one time it might have ranked high on that Fortune list. But now it is Wegmans' day in the sun.