On October 27, Wegmans will open its first New York City location on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn’s Admiral’s Row development. It’s not the only cult grocery store in the U.S., but its fans will tell you there’s something special about it. Maybe it’s the extensive cheese selection (the Brooklyn location will have 350 varieties); maybe it’s that it has “the look and feel of a European open-air market,” as the Wegmans website puts it. Or maybe it’s that consumerism is our most cherished pastime, a source of entertainment, delight, and self-identification that only becomes more beloved when its object is something as mundane as grocery shopping.
Whatever it is, I count myself as a fan. In the grocery wars — as long as Wawa isn’t in play — I’ve taken the side of Wegmans.
I visited my first Wegmans in 2009. It was a gleaming outpost on a hill in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, in the nice shopping center, the one with a Movie Tavern and a P.F. Chang’s. The produce department had vegetables I’d never seen before, the hot bars were spilling over with pasta and curries and soups, and it was positively hopping all the time. Maybe we were just a little bored, but it became a topic of conversation among the people I knew, and it wasn’t unusual for me to run into my chef sister in the international foods aisle. It also had a pub, allowing it to skirt Pennsylvania’s bizarre liquor laws and sell six-packs in an adjoining store (at the time, you could only buy them at bars that served food).
going to wegmans together is the peek of romance— culera (@viviunuu) October 16, 2019
It was incredible. “It was the first place I bought Brussels sprouts,” as my sister puts it. “And Brie. It felt so fancy.” The bounty is undeniable: Wegmans has loose tea, bulk bins, knockoff Cinnamon Life cereal, and a skin care aisle. Brooklyn’s location promises Impossible Burgers, made-to-order sushi, craft beer from local breweries, and a rotating oven that can cook a pizza in 90 seconds.
The gourmet cred is part of what makes Wegmans a cult grocer, but it’s different (and more affordable) than Whole Foods: Alongside the latest all-natural curiosity, you’ll find the trashy chips that you may also require — actual Lays and Cheetos, not some oven-baked approximation of your true desire. And while Trader Joe’s is snack-food heaven, Wegmans offers store-brand items to lose your shit over (it sells its own kombucha), but also all the normal brands familiar from your Key Foods and your corner store. There’s no need to compromise between high and low grocery items; if you only eat Bush’s beans, that’s also okay at Wegmans.
It’s difficult to say whether Wegmans will make an impression on New York. We have plenty of specialty grocers; lobster mac and cheese may not impress us. And it can be so challenging to get around New York that a trip to a grocery store — especially a grocery store in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which necessitates a walk from most public-transit options — might not seem worth it. Most of us do our grocery shopping bit by bit, at a number of stores throughout the week, each offering something different: fresh fish here, good spices there, canned goods at the shop closest to our apartment.
But Wegmans is about more than just groceries. At the company’s Raleigh, North Carolina, store, 30,000 people showed up on opening day. Brooklyn resident Brian Kecskemety, who grew up in Pittsford, New York, near the Wegmans headquarters in Rochester, went to the funeral of Robert Wegman, who died in 2006, and described it to me as “certainly the largest funeral I’ve ever been to” — there were about 2,500 people there. Grocery stores are usually gross and frustrating, but Wegmans is tastefully lit and well-stocked. It’s even staffed by employees who supposedly like their jobs; in 2019, Forbes named it the No. 3 best company to work for.
In some ways, Wegmans is like a casino. It’s enormous and distracting, and it makes you happy to part with your money. You might happen upon the most stunning gluten-free aisle you’ve ever seen, or find yourself captivated by a loud popping machine that spits out multigrain discs that you can purchase for a fair price. You can spend an hour there, easy, entertaining yourself by shopping. They maximize it so that you want to hang around.
But in another sense, it’s a community space. “When you’re living in a small town and you’re under 18 and there’s nowhere to go, Wegmans ends up being the spot,” Kecskemety says. “It’s hard to describe, but there is actually a social component to going.” It turns a chore into something joyful — and even a way to build social connections, whether that means attending the well-attended funeral of a hometown scion, bumping into your next-door neighbor at the sub counter, or niche meme-making. If those kinds of bonds are made possible by falling in love with a brand, so be it.