A long time coming, Wegmans in Abingdon opens to warm reception

One of several Harford County sheriff's deputies helps direct traffic into the parking lots at the Wegmans store in Abingdon Sunday.

The day has finally arrived, Wegmans fans. The chain's first store in Harford County opened its doors to a warm — and packed — reception.

The Abingdon Wegmans has been a long time coming, taunting shoppers that would exit off or head toward I-95 with its giant sign and clock atop the hill at the Boulevard at Box Hill. But the torment is over — the grocery store had its grand opening 7 a.m. Sunday.

Wegmans was prepared for the onslaught of hungry and eager customers. Police cars blocked off certain lanes and employees directed traffic to ease the congestion and the frustration of finding a parking spot. Any parking spot.

Easily more than a thousand cars filled the lots in front and to the sides of the huge store, even parking in what appeared to be a construction area to the far left side. Parking woes did not deter customers, however.

The store was humming with excited shoppers, squealing babies, talkative Wegmans employees offering samples and carts that filled every single aisle. If you combined a grocery store's crowd on the night before a snowstorm plus the frantic feeling of Christmas Eve, you might begin to skim the insanity that was the store's opening day. Despite the crowds and onslaught of carts, everyone was just happy to be there.

Adam and Elizabeth Meier, of Belcamp, didn't walk out with any grocery bags, but they enjoyed the Wegmans experience. The married couple "just wanted to see where everything was" and weren't looking for anything in particular.

"It's just a one-stop shop," Elizabeth Meier, 26, said. The Abingdon location is much closer than the Wegmans in Hunt Valley, which was, until Sunday, the closest store to Harford.

The couple explained that the food was the main reason they enjoy shopping at Wegmans, though "you can't get a cart through the store," Adam Meier, 28, mentioned of the store's current state.

One area that wasn't filled with shoulder-to-shoulder people was the outdoor Market Café seating — only a few people at a time were occupying its 10 to 12 table section.

Patrick Coakley, 39, moved to Bel Air with his family in recent months from Altoona, Pa., and is still looking for a good grocery store. Though Coakley was familiar with Wegmans, he said, "We've never lived this close to one."

Employees were just as abundant as shoppers in the store. Many just walked around assisting customers, others were handing out samples, such as crab cakes, cheese, quesadillas and long-stem roses. All were glad to help and incredibly friendly. Store manager Al Jackson was also walking around and observing.

Pat Schmitt, 82, had a short distance to go coming to the store from her Abingdon home.

"My daughter lives in Hunt Valley where there's a Wegmans," she said. Her brother, who was nearby but looking at the different foods, wanted to come out on its opening day. Schmitt said the store is "nice," and she'll definitely come back another day when it's not as crowded.

The grocery section, as opposed to the prepared foods area, was the most packed. Most people were just out getting their weekly groceries.

"Everything I want is in one store and the [employees are] very helpful," Susie Waber, 36, said. Waber, who was there shopping with her two children and mother, commented that the produce is always fresh and the store has a great variety. Waber expected the large crowd, but was still enjoying her shopping experience.

Heather and Scott Maruschak, of Belcamp, wanted to get their shopping done before the Ravens game later Sunday afternoon. The two, dressed in Ravens jerseys, were anxious for the store to open.

"We love Wegmans," Heather Maruschak, 30, said. "We're just excited." The couple said the Abingdon store is beautiful and they love that everything is clearly labeled and they know exactly where to go.

The Wegmans employees genuinely appeared to be happy to show off their store and their skills. Luke LaBell, a seafood manager at the Fairfax, Va., store who's been with Wegmans for 17 years, was filleting a swordfish at the Best of the Season seafood station. Two whole swordfish were displayed on ice next to where LaBell worked.

Daniel Turner, a sushi chef, was making rolls, carefully cutting the pieces and placing them on small plates to be packaged. Turner, who was still training Wednesday before the store opened, said this was his first culinary experience.

Experiencing the hectic crowd first-hand was Katelin Wiles, who works in Wegmans floral department and was handing out samples of premium long-stem roses to shoppers.

"It's great," Wiles said of the customers' reactions to the new store. She said a woman she gave a free rose to responded that the simple gesture made her day, and that's what the whole day was really about — making the customers smile.