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Store manager excited to start a 'Wegmans family' in Columbia

In her enthusiastic speech before the Howard County Chamber of Commerce last week, Wendy Webster, the manager of the Wegmans Food Market set to open June 17 off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia, said the excitement she feels about the new store "isn't about drinking the Kool-aid at Wegmans."

The grocery chain is known for making big splashes in the communities it enters and for its ability to create superfans out of its customers, and Webster certainly came off as a superfan herself.

But her excitement, she said, is about starting a new "Wegmans family" in Howard County.

Webster said she is excited that the store will be unlike any other Wegmans location, will hire more than 700 people in total, and will cater to the desires of local foodies while offering low prices on basic food staples.

She's excited the store will give back to the community through scholarships and partnerships with nonprofits, she said, and that it will operate at such a high standard that other grocery stores and food providers in the area will have to improve as well.

"Everyone has to put their A-game face on now," Webster said of the local competition.

The 225 chamber members who attended the luncheon on March 14 in the Great Room at Savage Mill — a big turnout for a midday event, according to Sandy Alexander, the chamber's communications manager — seemed happy to take in Webster's slides about the company's history and ethos, despite the fact that few new details emerged about the Columbia store.

When one attendee asked for more specifics during a question-and-answer session after Webster's speech, Webster said she couldn't deliver — that she had promised executives with the company that she wouldn't "tip all our cards" at the event.

There will be surprises at the grand opening of the new store — which she expects might draw more than 8,000 vehicles — that will be exciting for new and longtime Wegmans customers alike, but for now, the lid must be kept on, Webster said.

Still, new details or not, attendees said they were impressed by Webster's presentation.

"Wow. Isn't she something?" said Pam Klahr, the chamber's president and CEO, shortly after the speech. "I love her spirit and philosophy. That's why we invited her to speak."

Klahr said the Wegmans' approach to business and employees, which it has been awarded for in the past, sends "a great message for all of our businesses."

Others agreed.

"It's certainly exciting for the community. They sound like they're going to be very, very involved," said Pete Mangione, general manager of Turf Valley Resort.

The chamber member who was perhaps most excited about the arrival of the new store was Marilynn Draxl, of D&D Concepts, who asked Webster about the Columbia store's parking garage design during the question-and-answer period.

"I'm one of those people who keeps driving around the exterior (of the store's current construction site) to see what I can see," Draxl, of Kings Contrivance, said afterward.

Born in 1946 in Wegmans' hometown of Rochester, N.Y., Draxl said her parents used to shop at the original store, and she went to school with some of the Wegmans kids growing up.

She's been a fan of the store ever since, and over the years has made "a side habit out of seeing how many Wegmans I can visit," she said.

Draxl moved to Columbia in 1981, and has been waiting for a local Wegmans ever since, she said.

"I'm delighted they're coming, so I can stop importing Wegmans products across state lines," Draxl said.

There is one down side, though.

Every time Draxl checks out at one of the stores, the clerk asks her whether she found everything she needed, she said, and every time, she responds the same way: "Yes, that and about 50 other items."

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