by Brandon Fox
Let me make one thing clear. This post isn’t for all of the smug folks who trek north and make regular stops at Wegmans or the Northern Virginia transplants who can’t believe we’ve never been inside of one of its stores. This is for the newbie — the Wegmans virgin, if you will — and the rest can peruse the story and roll their eyes — quietly, please.
First of all, you, the newbie, will be overwhelmed. Expect that. The store is enormous, 115,000 square feet — which is a lot — and as everyone has told us ad nauseam, you really haven’t seen a grocery store this large before. Remove all the clothes and other nonfood items from a Wal-Mart or Target and then imagine that space filled with a bakery, sushi bar, a coffee shop, a full-service restaurant and many other things and you have an idea as to its size. Add a lighting design akin to a theater, and you will be dazzled.
When I visited this morning, a crowd of workers was making handmade signs out of bakery paper, Styrofoam packages and whatever else was on hand to mark where different products were to be placed before Sunday. There was also a training session about to begin for the produce department. Exotic purveyor Melissa’s Farm Fresh Produce was introducing the group to the more unusual items that the store will be selling — things such as gai lan, rambutans and dragon fruit. Things, in other words, that Richmond doesn’t normally see outside of an Asian market.
The business that started in 1916 remains family-owned and run by the third and fourth generations of Wegmans. Right now, the chain clocks in at 89 stores. And with 500 employees, the single store in Midlothian is on the scale of other small companies. Store manager Jerry Shelly moved to Richmond last March, and began working with groups such as FeedMore, awarding scholarships to local schools, all the while setting up a hiring office and preparing for the upcoming opening. When asked how many people he expects at 12501 Stone Village Way on Sunday, Shelly simply said, “A lot.”
The prepared food section is enormous and there are two Asian hot bars, one for barbecue, a vegetarian bar, a fresh fruit bar, a bar for summer salads that changes seasonally, a pizza station and a sub spot. I could go on and on. You’ll find things such as pork florentine, stuffed peppers, jerk ribs and brown-sugar salmon ready and waiting to take home for dinner.
Executive chef Craig Haines, whose wife Kathy is director of restaurant operations, moved to Richmond around Thanksgiving. He likens the prepared food setup to that of a hotel — and he should know, he spent 8 years working for Hyatt. "The chef’s pace and style of the production is very similar," he says. Having everything ready to go on Sunday will be Haines' biggest hurdle — after that, he and the staff can tweak and modify the production process to fit the store.
Wegmans is committed to local craft beer. Stacked cases of beer from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and Strangeways Brewing are front and center when you move into the dining area, and, along with Center of the Universe and Stone Brewing, you'll find that they're the first brands you see when you go to the massive section in one corner of the store — long glass refrigerators on two walls are packed with every different kind beer of you can possibly think of.
The wine section is even larger. It’s got a sizable Virginia presence with major and minor wineries well-represented. In the wood-lined, humidity-and-temperature-controlled area that houses the store’s most expensive wines, I try to imagine the person who would buy the $1,300 bottle of 2010 Haut-Brion or even the 1969 Volnay Santenots in the $200-plus range. Hopefully they aren’t the same people who snag all the cast-iron oyster pans that are for roasting the bivalves on your grill — I’ll be back for one myself on Sunday.
And, as my guide, Jo Natale, vice-president of media relations, told me, “We do have groceries!” And Wegmans does. Large, large quantities of grocery items. But what else would you expect?