Columbia Wegmans opens to waiting throngs

When the sun came up Sunday morning, Tim Altaner was sitting on a folding chair just off Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road, waiting for a store to open.

A strange way to spendFather's Daymorning? His wife and two daughters thought so.


"They think I'm crazy," said the 50-year-old North Laurel man.

Thousands of others, however, would disagree. This was the grand opening of Wegmans in Columbia, an opening that has been anticipated since the New York-based grocer announced five years ago it was building a supermarket in Howard County. And while Altaner, who arrived at midnight Saturday, was the first in line, he was only one of an estimated 2,000 customers who, when the store opened at 7 a.m., was waiting to get in.

"It's even bigger than we expected," store Manager Wendy Webster said as customers streamed into the store shortly after 7, only moments after Webster and other Wegmans' managers led the employees in the traditional grand opening cheer, in which they shout out the letters in Wegmans while forming them with their arms. "Bigger and better."

The opening of the giant Wegmans — 135,000 square feet in size, twice the size of the area's typical supermarket — has raised concerns about traffic on Snowden River and the store's impact on nearby supermarkets.

But such worries were far from the minds of Wegmans shoppers Sunday.

"We've been waiting on Wegmans in Columbia for so long," said Altaner, echoing many others in line. "I'm just so glad it's actually going to be here now."

While this was Altaner's first Wegmans' opening, others had far more experience. Right behind him in line, in fact, were three women who have made attending Wegmans' openings a tradition.

"This is opening Number Six for us," said Jill Greene, 54, of Greenbelt.

She and her two friends, Kim Harris, 43, of College Park, and Paula Hopson-Stanley, 50, of Bowie, wore matching white slacks, pearls, and short-sleeved knit shirts that proclaimed them as "Women of Wegmans."

The women clearly were no strangers to many of the Wegmans' employees, with whom they shared hugs and well-wishes as opening time approached.

"They've grown to expect us here," Hopson-Stanley said.

"We love Wegmans," Greene said. "We just think it's the greatest thing."

Only a few feet from the Women of Wegmans, four young people from Columbia were lying together on the sidewalk, one sleeping bag beneath them and another on top. One of the four, Samantha Lash, 23, sat up briefly as opening time approached, explaining that some Wegmans employees were in Frisco Taphouse in Columbia, where she works, the night before. They invited her to the opening, she said, it sounded like fun, so she and her friends spent most of the night on the sidewalk.

"I've never been to a Wegmans before," Lash said, sipping a cup of fruit juice. "I am so excited."


The crazy scene outside the store was no surprise to people who follow Wegmans, a New York-based company that has developed something of a cult following and whose grand openings have become events.

Nine months ago, opening day at the Wegmans in Harford County was jammed all day long and police were called in to handle traffic. Eleven months before that, some 1,500 people were in line when the Wegmans in Prince George's County opened.

Anticipating the same crowds in Columbia, a squadron of Howard County police were on-hand to direct traffic, supplemented by scores of Wegmans employees. (The bulked-up staff when the store opened numbered 350, Wegmans managers said.)

At 6:30 a.m., as the line reached McGaw Road and cars continued to stream into the parking garage, Wegmans employees wheeled carts loaded with muffins and cans of fruit juice along the line, handing them out to the waiting multitude. Other employees wheeled a cart with a computer, signing people up for Wegmans shoppers cards.

There were hiccups, of course. By 8 a.m. there were lines at nearly all of the main floors checkout stations and in the food court, and a much-ballyhooed cart conveyor that hauls shopping carts from the store on the first floor to the parking lot on the second, had broken down.

"I really didn't think it would be this mobbed," said Nick Nowicki, of Columbia, as he left the store shortly after 7:30 with a couple of bags of groceries.

But most shoppers, expecting the hordes of opening day visitors, didn't seem to mind the crowds or the hiccups.

The Roberts family, also of Columbia, didn't buy much more than Nowicki — "just some muffins and yogurt, and a newspaper," said Ellen Roberts, who was there with husband Jim and daughters Erin, 8, and Beth, 6.

Asked why they came to the opening so early, she motioned at her husband. "This was his Father's Day Gift," she said, and Jim Roberts nodded in agreement.

But their first visit, she added, is unlikely to be their last.

"We'll probably be regulars."