Owings Mills resident Beth Rosenwald drives across county to Hunt Valley regularly to grocery shop at Wegmans. Soon, she'll no longer have to make that trek.
On Sept. 18, Wegmans will open its eighth Maryland store at Foundry Row, a new 350,000-square-foot retail center at the intersection of Reisterstown and Painters Mill roads, previous home of Solo Cup's manufacturing site.
The 130,000-square-foot Wegmans market will anchor the new development, whose other key tenants will include LifeBridge Health, L.A. Fitness, Ulta Beauty, Bar Louie and DSW, according to the Foundry Row website. Thus far, feedback about the impending opening from the surrounding residential and business community has been mainly positive.
"It's exciting," Rosenwald said. "I hope it continues in the same structure [as at Hunt Valley]. I have my lanes down."
The company's lengthy resume — it was founded in 1916, actively participates in the communities it serves and has a reputation for service and quality food — is reflected in its existing 90 locations. That the company begins building rapport with its new neighbors even before officially moving in also earns it goodwill.
"Wegmans is a corporate member of our chamber and is already a contributing member of our chamber and the community," said Mary Ellen Morrison, president of the Reisterstown Owings Mills Glyndon Chamber of Commerce.
"They have sponsored and donated to our events, and the executives from Rochester [Wegmans' New York corporate headquarters] have met with us and other members of our community to determine and assess our needs and how Wegmans may contribute to positive involvement in the goals of the Owings Mills community and beyond."
A lot of planning goes into opening a Wegmans. Company spokeswoman Jo Natale says the chain is always looking for new opportunities, particularly in the six states it serves (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts).
It researches new locations with certain criteria in mind: The sites must be large enough to accommodate a typical Wegmans, generally 15 to 18 acres; plus, they must be easy to find and access due to the store's draw as a "destination."
The new Owings Mills site, says Natale, met these benchmarks as well as less measurable ones.
"It's a booming area. It's the kind of development we like to be a part of," she said.
Once a prime location has been identified, it takes about a year from construction to store opening. One of the most critical and time-consuming parts of the process, said Matt LePore, store manager for the new Owings Mills Wegmans, is hiring and training employees.
By early August, all 475 employees had been hired; 425 are new to the company, and most are local hires.
"Wegmans' secret is to make sure people are well trained before the store opening," LePore said.
LePore has spent his entire professional life at Wegmans, starting as a cashier and a "helping hands" employee at age 17 in Rochester, N.Y. After being awarded a Wegmans scholarship — the company's employee scholarship program provides $4.5 million in tuition assistance to its employees annually — LePore continued working at Wegmans during his years as a commuter college student.
After graduating, he accepted a position at a Wegmans in Leesburg, Va., as an entry-level manager. "I was able to teach people about our values and vision as a company," he said. LePore is continuing on that trajectory at the Owings Mills location.
According to Natale, LePore's story is not unusual. "I haven't done an exact count in a while, but more than half of our store managers started as teenagers part time. We promote from within."
Customers notice the commitment from employees during store encounters.
"It's a huge store, but they've always been very approachable, whether it's in the meat market or the prepared foods section," Owings Mills resident Rosenwald noted.
The chain is known for its fresh produce, says LePore, who notes that Wegmans started as a produce cart in the 1800s.
Today, Wegmans offers a fruit and vegetable station that includes fresh-squeezed juices. Area growers supply locally grown produce in season. An abundance of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables round out the produce section.
True to its destination nature, Wegmans offers a Market Café, with prepared foods for either takeout or dining in. Wegmans Owings Mills Market Café will provide indoor and outdoor seating for 300. The indoor café has a fireplace and expansive windows. LePore says one of the store's features that he's most excited about is its burger bar combo: made-to-order burgers and other prepared foods combined with a full coffee bar.
The store's prepared foods will be overseen by executive chef Tom Schwarzweller, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has been with Wegmans for more than a decade.
Mostly positive reactions
Ranked as the nation's top grocery chain in 2015 by a Market Force Information consumer survey, Wegmans has a reputation as a formidable food shopping experience that can be tough to beat, said Craig Rosenblum, senior director at Willard Bishop and Inmar Analytics, which describes itself as a company that integrates "shopper-based analytics and cost modeling to identify ... hidden opportunities."
In addition to its broad offerings and service, Wegmans has another factor working in its favor, Rosenblum notes: "Where they've made a leap is their private label. The Wegmans brand is actually very good quality and is inexpensive."
Further, Rosenblum says that although Aldi may not feel the pinch from Wegmans because of its own unique low-cost model, that won't be the case for Safeway and Giant. "The other two guys are going to feel it … They'll have to figure out how they are truly going to compete," Rosenblum said.
Some members of the surrounding community believe the Owings Mills Wegmans will have an impact on the entire area.
"I think it will add a burst of new energy into that whole stretch of Reisterstown Road," said Keith Scott, president and CEO of the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce.
He envisions a "Hunt Valley-esque" type of impact as the store draws shoppers regionally, employs a significant number of local residents and offers consumers a new reason to stop at a part of Reisterstown Road that formerly housed a manufacturing plant.
But there have been some dissenters to the area's addition.
Vote No On Solo was a community group that actively opposed the development, but appears to have disbanded. On Facebook, Vote No On Solo wrote: "…we oppose rezoning the Solo Cup Site from manufacturing to entertainment and retail. It will hurt local and regional small businesses, increase traffic through the valley and on Reisterstown Road and kill our chance to redevelop the Owings Mills Mall."
It's unclear who funded or originated the group. Most recent posts on the social media site were dated 2012. Calls and emails to the group went unreturned.
As the new Wegmans prepares to open, even LePore, who spends countless hours at the store working, looks forward to walking through the doors of the chain's newest Maryland location — as a shopper.
"Now that my two daughters will be in school all day for the first time ever, my wife and I plan to come and shop together sometimes," he said.