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Abingdon Wegmans prepared for September opening in Harford

Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.UnionsPublic EmployeesJob MarketPrices

It's almost here: Wegmans' 78th store will open Sept. 18 at the Boulevard at Box Hill in Abingdon, bright and early at 7 a.m. It will be the grocery giant's fourth store in Maryland — other store locations are in Frederick, Hunt Valley and Lanham — and the first in Harford County.

The process to bring Wegmans to Harford County has been a long one, with more than two and a half years passing since the company signed its lease for the property.

"The pace of growth is very deliberate," Jo Natale, Wegmans' director of media relations, said in a meeting Thursday with members of The Aegis editorial staff. "[Wegmans] doesn't build cookie cutter stores."

Natale noted that the company typically builds only two or three new stores each year, which is a lot, compared to past decades when at most one new store was built.

Customers walking into the Abingdon store for the first time, will notice it doesn't look the same as the one in Hunt Valley, or anywhere for that matter. Each store is designed differently.

One aspect that will make the Harford County location unique is a food bar part of the store's market café, which has been tested at different store locations. At the food bar, shoppers can order food off a menu and then watch the chef prepare their meal. Diners have the option of sitting at a counter to eat, taking their food to go or taking it to the café sitting area.

Jackson says the store will bring "as much of the 'sizzle' to customers" as possible. A lot of that 'sizzle,' or showmanship, comes from working with fresh ingredients and showing the customer just how fresh the food they're buying is.

Want to know where the fish in your sushi is coming from and when it was cut? Listen for the bell. Jackson says the store will ring a bell to alert customers to come watch chefs filet whole, fresh, large fish. Shoppers can also order cuts from the fish to purchase.

Breads and other baked goods are also made fresh at the store. Jackson noted that another reason for chefs to cut pieces of meat and cook in front of customers is to show their skill level and build a relationship with them.

Employees and training

One reason one store takes so long to open, Natale said, is because of the extensive employee training. The Abingdon location will have 520 employees — 170 full-time — and most of them, 450, are Harford County residents. This is just a drop in the bucket compared to the company's total 42,000 employees, 20 percent of whom have one or more relatives also working at a Wegmans.

"The hiring's going better than we had imagined," Abingdon store manager Al Jackson said. "The majority of our [employees] is going to represent the community we're serving."

The store is a week away from bringing in food and firing up the ovens, he said.

Employees for the Abingdon store have been primarily training at the Hunt Valley location, with a few in Frederick and Lanham. And it is the employees, Natale says, who make Wegmans so successful. Jackson added that it's the people working for the company that "separates us from our competitors."

"[I was] given one mission on this job and that was to hire the best," Jackson said confidently. An estimated $1.5 million to $1.8 million has been spent on training. This investment seems to pay off, though, as culinary school graduates have applied to the store, anxious to have the opportunity to use their skills.

Wegmans employees are not unionized, and Natale says the reason Wegmans workers are not part of a union is because the company "makes decisions based on the best interest of our customers and employees" and the employees don't feel the need for a union representative. Wegmans, which was founded in 1916 and headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., is privately held, still owned by the Wegmans family and has been on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For since 1998, ranking No. 3 in 2011.

Connecting with the community

Jackson said Wegmans representatives met with the Harford Community Action Agency, which provides financial assistance to low-income individuals and families, and will be dropping off a tractor-trailer's worth of food, wanting to "put that first gesture out there" to connect with the community.

Wegmans donates 16 million pounds of perishable and packaged foods a year to various organizations and foods banks. In addition to food donations, the company has a scholarship program for employees, which has so far awarded $81 million to its workers.

No need for sales

"[Wegmans] has lower prices than other super markets," Natale said.

While Wegmans carries products that other stores don't and therefore can't compare their prices with another store's, Natale says common brand-name items are comparable or lower than other super markets, eliminating the need for weekly sales.

Several years ago the company "abandoned traditional pricing for super markets," she said and went with the motto "lower prices all the time." The company retains these low prices by checking competitors' pricing each week.

The company has also frozen the prices of 40 popular family items, such as chicken, ground beef, Wegmans brand cereals, juices and more, to stay on top of competitive grocery prices. While there will be ads twice a month for the Abingdon location, they won't mention sales.

Customers tend to stay loyal to the stores they have shopped at for extended periods of time. So how does Wegmans, the new guy in Harford County, intend to keep a loyal customer base? "We just hope you're interested to come once and will want to come back," Jackson said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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