Why Are We So Obsessed With Wegmans?
Why do suburbanites go completely bonkers when a new grocery store comes to town? It’s less about what we want to eat and more about who we want to be.
What the hell is wrong with people, including me? A new supermarket is coming to Lower Makefield, and folks are losing their minds, like we never had food up here in Bucks County before. Wegmans circled this area for two decades. The township approved its landing as the centerpiece of a new residential development about two years ago. That’s when my friend Rich eagerly started mapping out the three-mile route he’ll drive to get there when it opens next year.
Rich is excited because he normally drives half an hour to the Wegmans in Warrington. It’s farther from him than hundreds of other perfectly fine places to buy groceries. “It’s a more user-friendly store,” he’s rationalized to me.
My own occasional drive to the Princeton Wegmans up Route 1 is a road-rage threat, but for me, it’s a vision quest. It’s my moment to venture beyond the shopping list, the way Dr. Seuss discovered the letters FLOOB and QUAN when he went past Z in the alphabet. On my last Wegspedition, I came home with artisanal muesli, a curated pack of multi-colored mini “snacking tomatoes,” ready-to-eat Indian meals in foil pouches that resemble Army rations of chana masala, hard-to-find Fuller’s London Pride amber ale, a pound of lobster mac-and-cheese, two pounds of pistachios, blue kombucha, Wegmans-brand cave-aged goat cheese, a bag of Himalayan pink salt popcorn with organic extra-virgin coconut oil that weighed a little more than a helium balloon, a tub of cannoli shell chips sprinkled with powdered sugar (with dip!), some bars of cruelty-free Castile soap, and, at checkout, Sour Rainbow Bites, purely as an impulse buy.
As usual, the big decision was what to munch in the car (powdered sugar everywhere). When my wife requested an explanation, I gave my usual excuse: “I am the Wegg Man.” Koo-koo-kachoo.
A petition to bring the Wegmans here gleaned 1,721 signatures. A petition that led to the end of Lower Makefield’s alcohol sales ban earned around 900. When I recently posted a Wegmans query on a Facebook page for local residents, within a day there were 170 comments, 71 thumbs-ups, 11 love hearts, one laughing face and one crying face. Some people warned about traffic nightmares, the threat to nearby supermarkets like the locally owned McCaffrey’s, and the threat to our privilege of driving past undeveloped farmland.
But others admitted they just couldn’t wait. Brian Balazsi told me his family moved to Newtown from New Jersey but never stopped getting in the car religiously on weekends to shop at the Princeton Wegmans. “My wife was a Whole Foods person, but I converted her,” he told me.
Rachel Lesser, who manages the data for clinical trials for a pharma company, called herself a Wegmaniac. “It’s sad to say that I’m more excited for the grocery store than I am worried about the traffic,” she told me. What’s the attraction? “The quality and the variety of the products is amazing. The employees are incredibly helpful. And the price isn’t outrageous,” she said. “My husband is a convert. He makes this dish with pomegranate molasses. Where else can you find pomegranate molasses?”
I started wondering what sort of mania we’re talking about here. Is our civic anticipation really just about the transplendence of Wegmans? Or are we so bored in the suburbs that any novelty can create a ruckus until we move on to the next attraction? (In Gladwyne — hardly a food desert — the buzz has been about the fancy new McCaffrey’s.) Or maybe there’s something about the untold possibilities of a new supermarket that agitates us on a primordial level.
The best supermarkets provide what I call a Lack of Restraint Experience, by which I mean permission to transgress sensible shopping norms. I think that’s why we treasure them. They are edible expeditions. Hippeas Bohemian Barbecue-Flavored Chickpea Puffs are four dollars for a four-ounce bag! It makes no sense in a normal world. But as a way to live a little without consequence, what more could you want? Where else can you try something new and exciting for four dollars? For those of us who aren’t rich, it’s a way to splash in that pool. I can’t drive your fancy purple Tesla or jet off to ritzy Swiss Alp ski vacations like the wealthy hedge-fund lawyers who roll carts past me at the Princeton Wegmans. But I can eat their snacks.
In the course of my pondering, I reach out to Benjamin Lorr, who wrote the 2020 book The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, a terrific investigation in which he reveals the secret phrase that Whole Foods employees are trained to say when customers complain: “Sounds important!”
“The first supermarkets were very much structured as attractions,” Lorr tells me. “They were designed as almost carnival-like halls of abundance. People would drive from hundreds of miles around just to see them.”
That allure had worn off by our generation; grocery shopping became a to-do-list chore. But Wegmans, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and even Aldi brought back the wonder. “Now, they are very much like an identity marker,” Lorr says. “They’re targeted to a consumer sense of value. There’s a subset of the shopping demographic that is Wegmanic because the products in Wegmans excite their sense of value — with low cost and high taste and unique offerings. On a very sensual level, a very unconscious level, when you walk into a place like that, it’s just exciting and relaxing and comforting all at the same time.”
It’s not hard to find examples of the cultlike Wegmans following. A high school in Northborough, Massachusetts, created and performed a musical about the store, with tunes adapted from shows like Les Misérables and The Book of Mormon. Buzzfeed has played to its strength with a listicle titled “25 Reasons Wegmans Is the Greatest Supermarket the World Will Ever Know.”
A few years ago, my sister Susan, who lives outside Boston, took me to a gigantic place where the bakery and meat and prepared-foods sections seemed endless. There was an acoustic guitarist playing in the wine department, and even the other shoppers looked great. It was a Wegmans. She and her husband Doug go there often, even though it’s out of their way.
“It’s like a date night,” Susan told me. “I always think about how I look or what I’m wearing. It’s right near a super high-end fitness place. All these beautiful girls go there after they work out, with their perfect bodies and Lululemon leggings and crop tops. So should I wear my Lululemon leggings and Veja sneakers? Bring my Kate Spade purse? I think about it. And that’s really sad. I’m going to the supermarket.”
What gets me in the mood is the first entrance to the Wegmans, where instead of bathing you in fluorescent glare, the lights are low. Spotlights dramatically illuminate glowing hills of nectarines, tomatoes and berries. It feels like some kind of after-hours fruit club. Lorr notes that Wegmans isn’t purely upscale, though.
“They do a really good job at being both craft and mainstream,” he says. “You see that in all their categories. You can have your Budweiser, and you can have your Voodoo ale. It’s very purple-state grocery store.”
Remember the bizarre campaign video that carpetbagging U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz made in 2022, inside a grocery store he accidentally called “Wegner’s”? He was trying to blame President Biden for high prices by walking around a bland-looking produce department gathering vegetables and salsa for his “crudités.” Oz clearly wasn’t in a Wegmans. In fact, amid the social media uproar in response to the video, one Twitter user posted a photo of a much more affordable veggie plate and salsa available at actual Wegmans stores.
Waiting for Wegmans is such a phenomenon that the company has a “Please Build a Wegmans Near Me!” page on its website, explaining its deliberate site-selection process that adds maybe three stores a year. Bill Platt, who will manage the new store here, tells me they look for areas with population growth and highway access. They need 15 to 18 acres. He says that frankly, local competition isn’t much of a factor. The Rochester, New York-based company, which has 110 stores and is one of the largest private companies in America, really had been eyeing this area for close to 20 years. In 2020, they sent letters to Lower Makefield voters encouraging them to vote for the repeal of the township’s alcohol sales ban.
Undoing the booze prohibition removed a big obstacle for the new store. But because Wegmans builds its stores from scratch and often comes in as part of large developments, there were zoning issues to overcome. Bryan McNamara, a longtime area resident who opposed the new development, suggests to me that Wegmans anticipation is such a powerful force that it helps property developers win approval for unprecedented zoning exceptions.
“It’s the carrot,” he says. “The developers put out this shiny star of Wegmans to get this major rezoning. They’ve been trying to put those apartments there for years before Wegmans was even in the picture.”
“We knew they were looking,” acknowledges Vincent DeLuca, whose DeLuca Homes is the project’s co-developer. “We made a phone call. They expressed interest. I do believe that Wegmans was a positive factor in helping us attain the necessary zoning. There was a tremendous amount of support going through the process for the site because of Wegmans, I believe.”
This Wegmans-first development strategy isn’t new. In 2011, a Wegmans was the anchor and first thing built in the Village at Valley Forge, a 122-acre miniature city with 2,500 residential units, a million square feet of office space, bars, restaurants, gyms, medical offices and internal roads. McNamara suspects the big farm across the road here will be next to request special rezoning, and the nature of the area could change forever. “I have nothing against Wegmans, but nobody thought through what will happen next,” he says.
Wegmania, like any diagnosable condition, has its causes and its effects. Earlier this year, when the town council in Bridgewater, New Jersey, voted to allow alcoholic beverage sales starting at 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, one councilman dubbed it the “Wegmans ordinance.”
The new mixed-use development here is called Prickett Preserve. It’ll be one of those fake villages they plunk in the middle of nowhere. They’re filling 200 luxury apartments, which start above $2,000 a month. Residents will be able to stroll to a clubhouse with a pool, a co-working space and a Starbucks; a bank; a CVS; Firebirds Wood Fired Grill; and a Duck Donuts. Renderings show the Wegmans right there at the core of the community, with its signature clock-tower spire, like an old-fashioned town hall or church.
When I ask John B. Lewis, the lone Lower Makefield supervisor who voted against the development, if Wegmans was a Trojan horse for an expansive development that might not have been greenlighted otherwise, he laughs like I’ve figured something out. “Supervisors represent their community,” he says. Had the developer said the new store would be a Super Walmart, he says, “It would not have gotten approved.”
My feelings about what our Wegmania could unleash are mixed. Once you start paving over farms and woodlands to make Verizon stores and LA Fitnesses, you get a multi-generational scar, like a face tattoo that somehow shows up on the skin of your descendants. It’s hard to reforest the old Bed Bath and Beyond site or repurpose dying shopping malls that have had their glory days.
On the other hand, trying to hold back the manifest destiny of the marketplace tends to be futile, like blocking smoke. Popularity is its own argument. Traffic happens because a lot of people want to get somewhere. I’ve never met anyone who likes traffic, but we all make our own choices about what we’re willing to endure it for.
Last time I drove near the Wegmans construction site, crews were at work adding an extra lane to the Newtown Bypass, a roadway that cuts between old farms. The roadwork, in anticipation of added traffic, is partially funded by the state. It looks promising. My friend Rich may need to revise his route. And I’m starting to get curious about this pomegranate molasses I heard about.
Published as “Wegmans Fever” in the September 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.