Lounge chairs, sleeping bags and pup tents — Wegmans has seen it all, and when the nearly century-old, family-owned grocery chain opens its fifth Maryland store in Columbia on June 17 , they expect to see it all over again.
Management is anticipating that a crowd of thousands will begin to gather several hours before the 7 a.m. opening, and has met with Howard County police several times to plan and revise traffic control patterns at Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road, where the new store is located.
Traffic signals at the main intersection and at the store's entrance will be turned off on opening day and both days of the following weekend, to enable police officers to keep vehicles moving.
"I won't sleep Saturday night," predicted store manager Wendy Webster. "It's like having a child. I've watched this store grow for nine months …and I take so much pride in it. I'm just so excited."
Webster said she will be keeping her eyes peeled Sunday morning for an appearance by the Women of Wegmans, a group of six dedicated groupies who make it their business to attend every Wegmans grand opening in every state.
"They're like our Deadheads," she said, referring to loyal followers of the Grateful Dead rock band. "I anticipate they'll also be out on the sidewalk" on Sunday.
The opening has been anticipated by many in Howard County since Wegmans first announced plans to build in Columbia in 2007.
Local supporters who can't wait for Sunday include the writer behind the HowChow blog, which is devoted to Howard County dining and which displays a clock counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Wegmans opens.
A June 11 post titled, "The Last Week without Wegmans," made public a sentiment expressed by many of the store's fans. The posting questioned what life would have been like if Wegmans had opened instead in 2009, a "what if" daydream that refers to the legal challenges over the years that delayed construction.
Cynthia Glover, whose Smart Works company is assisting with Wegmans' local marketing, said management has received many emails over the last several years, first asking the company's owners to consider building in Columbia and then supporting their bid when they made their intentions known.
The June 17 opening is expected to be a hectic affair. Once vehicles get onto Wegmans' property, employees will continue controlling traffic to expedite parking in its two-level, 805 space garage, and at the overflow lots offered for the short-term by nearby businesses. Employees will park off-campus and be shuttled in.
"Shoppers should plan to stay longer than on a traditional shopping day," Webster advised. "We'll do the best we can to get you in and out, but they should anticipate a wait."
There will be some "fun pricing" on opening day that's specific to the Columbia store, though those details are being kept under wraps so that last-minute deals can be struck, the manager said.
Forty-seven cash registers are available throughout the store, she said, including 25 at the main entrance where there are also four self-service checkouts. Wegmans has hired 700 employees, 650 of whom are new to the chain. A number of veteran Wegmans' employees from Maryland and other states have been brought in to provide support for the first few weeks.
The Columbia store is the first to have a "cartveyor," which will transport customers' carts to the upper-deck parking.
Describing Howard County as "very excited for one-stop shopping," Webster said she's personally amped up over the 21,000 consumers who already had registered online for a Shoppers Club card.
"When we opened our first store in Northborough, Mass. — the first one in that state — 26,000 people signed up," she said. "But this is our fifth store in this state. I plan to beat my own record and I'm very excited about that."
There's one other first-day ritual that Webster enjoys.
"It may sound corny, but we have a tradition of doing the Wegmans cheer with our employees right before the doors open," which involves yelling out the letters in Wegmans while forming them with outreached arms, she described. "There is just something unique and special about opening a new store."
What customers will find when they get inside the 135,000-square-foot store — which management estimates to be twice the size of an average grocery store in the area — are specialty departments for nearly everything.
Flanking the produce section are counters where customers can place orders for freshly washed and chopped vegetables and fruit.
In the food bar section, a shopper can purchase chef-prepared foods — some using recipes from India and Thailand — made on the premises for carryout or dine-in. There is also an Asian wokery and sushi and pizza stations. Plated meals range from $6 to $10, and there is a counter with stools where sandwiches and burgers can be ordered.
To accommodate eating on the premises, a total of 400 seats are available in the prepared foods section, on an outside patio and on the second floor, which is accessible by escalator.
On Saturday, the day before the grand opening, employees will be dismissed at 2 p.m. "to decompress" and some will return at 11 p.m., such as the workers in the bakery department.
But the fun won't stop when grand-opening day ends, Webster said.
"Monday lunch will be so fun. It will be interesting to watch people figure out how to get lunch and what to do," she said.
The store will assume its normal operating hours of 6 a.m. to midnight daily beginning June 18.
Glover suggested people may want to come out on Sunday "with the idea that they're not here to shop, but to have a shared experience. People like to gawk, and we like gawkers."
She added that "usually in a month the frenzy dies down and the store develops its own pace. But the first month is a rocket ride."
Webster said Wegmans always has a positive effect on grocery stores in the vicinity, which will benefit all who live in the area.
"Everybody will lower their prices and clean up their stores," she said. "You'll get a better shopping experience no matter where you shop."