Late in January, when the Wegmans grocery chain confirmed that it planned to build a store in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill "Triangle" area of North Carolina, local residents got excited—really excited.
"The best Christmas present ever. Wegmans is coming to North Carolina," tweeted one fan. "If they don't move all the way down to Florida, I might just cry," added another.
North Carolinians were "rejoicing" over Wegmans, said the Buffalo News (the paper on Wegmans' home turf in upstate New York), while Carolina Parent promised its readers that the new store would be "a haven of heavenly goodness."
In search of cooler heads, the Triangle Business Journal commissioned a reader poll asking if Wegmans was worth all the hype it was getting—and 70 percent of respondents said "yes."
They say you never forget your first love. And I never will. I love you, @Wegmans.— Dan (@dan_prechtl) January 23, 2016
What's going on here? It's one thing for a luxury brand like Louis Vuitton or a tech-cult brand like Apple to have fanatical customers, but a supermarket?
It's true that Whole Foods has 1.9 million Facebook fans. But then again, Whole Foods also has 431 locations across America. By comparison, Wegmans is pretty tiny. Its whole system is just 88 stores. And yet the chain still boasts close to 314,000 Facebook fans, an exuberant Twitter fan base (check out #Wegmania), and even online "Love Letters" from devotees—including the Ohio resident who said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was nice and all, but what Cleveland really needed was a Wegmans.
As Wegmans continues its slow but deliberative expansion down the East Coast (it will open three Virginia stores and one in Maryland this year), many who are new to the phenomenon will wonder: What is it about Wegmans that transforms weary American grocery shoppers into superfans?
That turns out to be a complicated question. There are the obvious answers: The average Wegmans does stock 50,000-70,000 items, many of them organic and/or locally sourced—and at prices that do not shock. The chain is also the top seller of gluten-free products.
Wegmans' admirers also rave about the stores' atmosphere, the elaborate displays that evoke the old-world feel of an open-air market. A standard Wegmans comes with a bakery and a cheese shop, a pasta station and a sushi bar, a pizza shop, a sub shop, an organic salad bar, and even a flower section and a sit-down restaurant.
These days, many grocery chains have these features. But according to culinary trends expert and Food Trend TV founder Dana McCauley, Wegmans was a pioneer.
"They were the first grocer to work from the customer's point of view," she said.
Instead of simply displaying aisles of packaged products that shoppers might buy, McCauley explains, Wegmans made grocery into theater—not just with specialty food stations, but also by preparing food in front of customers. Wegmans understood that, to a younger generation, "shopping" didn't mean filling your cart with canned peas, it meant hanging out, learning about food and eating it.
"Wegmans was prescient," McCauley said. "They were aware of what millennials wanted before the millennials even got there."
But no matter how fresh and pretty it looks, food doesn't cook itself. Key to Wegmans theatrical feel (and key to its fan base, too, apparently) is the employee in the apron.
"Wegmans feels like a European food hall—and you understand that the people who are selling you the food are passionate about it," observes global food trend expert Christine Couvelier, founder of Culinary Concierge. "Customers know more about food than ever before, so smart retailers like Wegmans put the right people in the right roles. They involve you in it."
In fact, while employees might seem secondary to the store's culinary scenery, workers are actually Wegmans' secret sauce—according to Wegmans, at least.
"I wish there was something else I could point to, but we know what it is—it's our employees," Wegmans media relations vp Jo Natale told Adweek. "Beyond anything, that's what people tell us about Wegmans. The stores are beautiful, the selection's wonderful and the prices are low—but our employees are the point of difference."
Spoken like a good publicist, of course. But the reviews back her up. When New York fromager Sean Patrick Kelly wrote about Wegmans on the Grub Street blog last year, he lauded the lavish selection, but added that Wegmans "was really my first experience with top-to-bottom customer service: fully stocked shelves, interesting merchandising, big displays, constant sampling, all that. The way they laid the store out and had their staff act in a way that made you feel like it was more than just a shift or a chore for them."
It's worth noting that Wegmans' extremely modest expansion rate of four stores per year isn't due to a lack of capital (the chain did $7.9 billion in sales last year) or a lack of demand (in 2015, it received 4,000 requests from 48 states to build stores). It's because the chain puts such a premium on recruiting and training. Wegmans spends several months training each employee about its culinary offerings. "They like to be able to share information," Natale said, "and it's more fun."
More to the point, it feels genuine—which helps create fans, and helps create the kind of freaked-out, I-can't-wait reception the chain recently got in North Carolina.
It remains to be seen how the locals will respond when the store actually opens for real—going up against Publix, another "super retailer known for service and a very loyal employee and customer base," according to Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru. Both chains, he said, "will be playing their best hands as they move into a market that has attracted the food-obsessed millennial generation."
But Wegmans will be new and novel, and it will no doubt draw a crowd.
Things might even get as crazy as they did in 2011, when Wegmans opened its first store in Massachusetts. Not only did 2,000 of the faithful line up at 7 a.m. in Northborough (a few of them had slept in the parking lot over the previous night), the local high school celebrated by staging a play called "Wegmans, The Musical."