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Road Trip: Wegmans or Bust

If you're used to walking home with the groceries, there's novelty to visiting New England's largest supermarket.

When it’s just a carton of milk you need, a 35-mile drive is definitely out of the way. But if you’re up for a pilgrimage, the new Wegmans in Northborough is New England’s largest supermarket and the chain’s first store in Massachusetts. 

There is some psychology behind wanting to see 138,000 square feet of produce and everything else the modern American grocery sells, in a box so big that there are 30 check-out lines and a red phone right by the yogurt case, connecting you to customer service – just in case you get lost, or have a question.

But it’s not just me: Wegmans’ reputation for superior customer service, as well as their competitive price-quality-choice mix, drew 25,000 visitors to Northborough last October 16, breaking opening day sales records for the 79th store in the chain. The family-owned company has earned a place on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list 15 times, every year since the list was created. “It can only be a great place to shop if it’s a great place to work,” says Jo Natale, director of media relations.

That expectation of service led me to ask anything I felt like asking in the store. More than 600 full- and part-time employees provide big doses of friendly. Of course, our dearly loved neighborhood Trader Joe’s store crew is equally nice. But the novelty of thousands of choices is just as freeing a feeling for this city dweller as being in a place where the professionalism of the employees means that my day is more pleasant for having shopped there.

Many of Wegmans’ competitors also offer things like prepared ethnic foods (mostly $8.49/lb. here), fancy bakery sweets, wine and liquor, and café seating. So while I might prefer the quality of some of the offerings at Whole Foods (also a 15-time “Best Companies” employer), that place still gives me sticker shock on occasion. And Wegmans’ supersizing means there are choices you can’t find elsewhere. Kosher hot or cold, anyone? And home cooks –when were there ever turkey tenders in your neighborhood poultry case? Or pearl-sized, fresh mozzarella cheese?

I would still shop Wegmans (if I lived nearby) for the loss leaders and great prices on some key items: Organic grass-fed ground beef, 1 lb., $5.29. Gallon of 1% milk (not organic), $1.99. I might only have the patience to clip one coupon a year, but if I really need to justify shopping there, I can easily use the Wegmans website to search for current prices on thousands of specific items.

I’m not sure which of two fun finds I was most excited to see: The “My Friends Tigger and Pooh” toothpaste that my preschooler swears by and which I thought was no longer made – since no store in my five-mile radius carries it anymore; or the great display of “Fenway 100 Years” Coca-Cola 8 oz. glass bottle six-packs. (The Coke deliveryman I talked to at Boston’s Huntington Ave. Shaw’s says that, ironically, the bottles are hardest to find closest to Fenway. The small stock is almost hidden at that Shaw’s, as if to reward only the most observant Coke and Red Sox fan. The bottles are showing up on eBay as well.)

Wegmans’ other small touches signal to consumers that someone actually put  thought into what makes a supermarket – which, admittedly, is not a leisure destination – a place where you can more comfortably spend more time and thus more money.

The television is tuned at low volume to the Nick Jr. channel, right in front of the kid-sized tables and chairs in the café; a little break for children who might otherwise dread the shopping trip. There’s a microwave oven and sink close by. A Step n’Wash stool in the restroom means I don’t have to lift up my daughter to help her wash her hands.

Based in Rochester, N.Y., Wegmans plans new stores in Newton, Burlington, and Westwood, Mass., but there are no updates for openings or even construction yet. At a proposed 70,000 square feet, the Newton store also promises to be smaller than any new construction the 96-year-old chain has undertaken in recent years. Judging from , residents are both looking forward to the new store and are worried about future traffic snarls on Route 9. 

When CEO Danny Wegman was in Boston in March, supermarket watchers were tantalized by his statement that he’d be interested in locating a store in Boston itself. That could be years away, considering the pace at which the company is comfortable growing.  In the meantime, my road trip to Northborough was worth the look, and when the Newton store opens, here’s a promise to the locals: If I go, it will be late on weekday mornings, when traffic is lightens up.

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