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Wegmans preview: What to expect at Sunday's opening in Abingdon

BY MARISSA GALLO, mgallo@theaegis.com

September 16, 2011

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Wegmans employees were buzzing around the new Abingdon store Wednesday, half frantic and half excited for Sunday's opening.

Wegmans' first Harford County store, the company's 78th, has created a lot of enthusiasm from fans of the grocery store known for its massive selection and famous prepared foods. If Wednesday's sneak peek of the store is any indication of what's to come, Sunday is sure to be a big — and really delicious — day for those who've long awaited those open doors. The store, at 21 Wegmans Blvd. in Abingdon, opens at 7 a.m. Sunday.

Store manager Al Jackson said he's feeling "great, goose bumps great" about the opening. There haven't been any major hiccups, Jackson said, but Hurricane Irene did put a small bump in the road.

"We had a little bit of disruption with the weather," Jackson said about food and supplies getting to the new store. "But we recovered, we figured it out."

"We're just very excited to serve this community. Harford County has been great to us," Jackson said.

Last minute touches were still being tended to Wednesday. One man was hanging banners on light posts; another appeared to be putting in giant light bulbs that will soon illuminate the Wegmans parking lot at the Boulevard at Box Hill in Abingdon. Two other employees walked along the entrance's sidewalk, pointing to metal displays that will hold planters of fall mums and writing down notes.

Inside the store was no different. Displays and shelves were still being installed and filled with perishables and other foods. People were at their assigned stations — bakery, prepared foods, deli, etc. — continuing their training and participating in classes, such as the Wegmans employees at the coffee bar learning how to make various drinks.

There was also intense training going on at the sushi counter, where customers will be able to pick up pre-made rolls or order something to be made in front of them. Budding sushi chefs were carefully dicing scallions, placing them in small containers and then weighing them. Adam Bowman, a sushi specialist for Wegmans, was leading the pack.

Bowman, who trained in Japan with other Wegmans chefs and has been cooking for more than 20 years, is at the Hunt Valley store, but has been helping with the training process for the Abingdon store.

"The first week we're a little more hands on," he said about the training. Bowman says Wegmans sells about $1 million in sushi each week, making 1,200 or 1,300 rolls and steaming 120 pounds of rice each day. He anticipates the new store will produce 1,800 sushi rolls opening day.

Bowman also made a point to mention that while Wegmans does make the more traditional sushi rolls, such as California, Boston and Philadelphia rolls, they also use brown rice in some of the sushi, as well as mango chipotle wraps instead of seaweed.

"We're bridging the gap between people's pallets," he said.

Closing that gap even more is the prepared foods bar. Customers can serve themselves foods from different parts of the world — China, Thailand, India — or have the choice between barbecue, fresh foods, vegan or vegetarian.

Once customers have their food, they can either take it to go or eat it at the Market Café, the store's pseudo-restaurant.

The Market Café has seating for 200 and patrons can sit at the counter where food is made, at one of the many high tables (think classy coffee shop), booths, or in the Fireside Room, which has a TV and fireplace. The Fireside Room is typically used for small gatherings, such as book clubs or to watch football games, but is open to the public for any use. There's also a children's area with shorter chairs and tables and a TV that plays child-appropriate videos.

Jackson said he's most excited for customers to see the Italian fall menu, which is featured in Menu magazine, Wegmans quarterly publication. "It's all about Italian, family cooking, weeknight and weekend meals," he added.

He also can't wait for the customers to get the Wegmans treatment, saying he's looking forward to seeing "our employees greeting the community." He mentioned that a good majority of the employees will also be customers and that's why they take such pride in their store. "That's what it's all about," he said.

Chef Eric Hansen, who's been with Wegmans for five years and a chef for 17, said he's been busy setting up the store's kitchen and training.

"It's been a lot of work, but also really rewarding," Hansen said. He mentioned he's been working on a lot of new vegetarian recipes, which has been their man focus lately, and the store's hot foods menu.

The store's charcuterie counter and deli, as well as the bakery, smell just as good as they look. The charcuterie has salami, pepperoni and other cured and salty meats. All pastries sold at Wegmans are made at the store's bakery, including fruit tarts (the fruit is taken from the produce section), bagels and muffins.

Another section of the store that may stop customers in their tracks is the specialty cheese counter, where huge wheels of cheese and smaller wedges are available for purchase.

Like most grocery stores offer, Wegmans has a shoppers club card. While the card won't lower the price of your purchase, the card does track your purchase history so the store can mail you coupons, Menu magazine and other promotional materials. Customers are encouraged to pre-register for the card online (wegmans.com), but kiosks will be set up for the store's opening day to assist in the signing up process. A club card isn't needed to shop at Wegmans. As of Wednesday, 18,000 people in the area had signed up.

What is slightly different about Wegmans opening versus another grocery store's is that the prices aren't going to change once the newness wears off. The 39-cent can of green beans will still be 39 cents a week from Sunday, and most likely even longer. The prices customers see Sunday aren't promotional — they're Wegmans everyday prices. The store did, however, send out a promotional pamphlet to residents within a 10-mile radius of the store with coupons.