By Aaron Cahall and Jennifer Williams
Harford County residents hotly anticipated the opening of the new Wegmans grocery store in Abingdon for months. But when the day came, Mindy Kretschmer wasn’t going to let any of them beat her inside the doors.
The Bel Air resident was in line just before 4 a.m., along with a handful of others who ventured out on an early fall morning Sunday to be the first to enter the megastore. Before the store even opened she had already picked out the first items, a pair of purple dahlia plants.
“I’m just so proud it’s here, I’m so excited to be a part of this grand opening. It’s going to bring a lot of wonderful things to this community,” she said.
Kretschmer and more than 200 people stood in line just after 6 a.m. Sunday. But the numbers swelled in the minutes before the store’s grand opening, as hundreds more joined in lines eventually stretching around both sides of the large Box Hill building. Greeters worked the lines, signing up new shoppers for Wegmans discount stores and passing out the company’s in-house magazine along with a map—really—of the new store.
Inside, the store’s employees made last-minute preparations to their departments and tried to work ahead on making items to stock later in the day, as the crowds grew even larger.
“There’s sometimes hundreds waiting, sometimes thousands, but it always gets busier as the day goes along,” John Emerson, Wegmans executive chef for sushi, said as he prepared a shrimp tempura roll at the store’s sushi station. “It always gets busier through the day. It settles down for a few weeks, then picks up again as the word really gets out.”
Emerson prepares a sushi roll shortly before the store’s opening.
At the store’s bakery, bread artisan Nickolas Greco worked ahead on bread he guessed would be in a basket and out the door by noon. He thought the biggest crowds would descend at about 2 p.m. Sunday.
Greco prepares bread dough early Sunday morning.
Emerson and Greco were members of the Wegmans corporate staff on hand for the grand opening to help the store’s staff get the swing of things—but many more of the staff are local residents. Among them was Kathy Beck of Bel Air, who chopped mushrooms for packaging just minutes before the store opened.
Beck said she graduated culinary school in December and went to work for Wegmans in their Hunt Valley store in March before eagerly accepting a transfer to the Bel Air store, closer to home.
“We’ve been working really long, really hard to get to this point,” she said, adding that her training had taken her to the company’s stores in Frederick and Fairfax.
Beck prepares a mushroom blend tray for sale later in the day.
The store’s employees gathered at the front 10 minutes before the official 7 a.m. opening to listen to a few final words from store manager Al Jackson. Jackson and other managers then led the group in the “Wegmans cheer” (“Give me a ‘W’…give me an ‘E’…”) as the first customers were led into the store’s foyer and, moments later, the store itself.
Store manager Al Jackson, far left, leads managers in the “Wegmans Cheer.”
The store’s employees participate in the Wegmans cheer as the first customers gather before them in the store’s foyer.
Noticeable among them were a group of young girls in tie-dyed “I [Heart] Wegmans” shirts. Amanda Shultz of Perry Hall, Heather, Melissa and Becky Higgins of Riverside, and Brianna Smith of Bel Air, a collection of cousins and their friends, also created signs to celebrate the occasion. The group said they hadn’t intended to make such a big deal of the opening, at least at first.
“It kinda started out as a joke,” Smith said. “But it got kind of serious.”
From left: Smith, Melissa Higgins, Heather Higgins, Shultz, Becky Higgins.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Gatza, priest in charge of Emanuel Episcopal Church in Bel Air, stopped in at the store “on my way to work.” Gatza said he was a longtime upstate New York resident who is very familiar with Wegmans and also attended the grand opening of the Hunt Valley location.
“For me, it’s about two things,” Gatza said. “One, the quality of the food is superior to anywhere else, and two, they have upstate New York specialties I used to have to bring home when I visited up there.” Those specialties, he said, included State Fair chicken barbeque sauce and Spiedie marinade, two favorites.
Fortunately, Gatza said, “all my friends at Giant have retired, so I don’t feel like I’m cheating on them.”
The impact on that nearby Giant store and the area’s other grocers remains to be seen, though several have undertaken remodeling efforts in recent months.
“I think it is going to hurt them, grocery stores are not doing well,” Kretschmer said. “I wish them all the best, but this is where I needed to be.”
The first shoppers enter the Bel Air Wegmans.
On Opening Day, New Harford County Grocery Store is Easy to Enter, Hard to Leave
To say that I have been excited about the grand opening of Wegmans would be an understatement. My feelings could only compare to that of a child waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. It’s unusual for me to set my alarm for 6am on a Sunday morning (and a chilly one at that!) but I donned my Ravens gear and headed out for some game day food. Everyone in Harford County must have been on the same wavelength because the throngs of shoppers were wrapped around both sides of the building as the sun came up. Local law enforcement was on hand to direct traffic. Surprisingly there were plenty of shopping carts to go around. There were also plenty of Wegmans employees greeting us outside with laptops in hand to sign people up for the Wegmans Shoppers Card. Of course, I had done this on the Internet weeks ago and was able to race right into the store.
Like a deer in highlights I attempted to navigate the aisles upon aisles of victuals. As I passed the Flower Department, someone handed me a beautiful orange rose while informing my husband that he could buy an entire dozen for only $9.99. That definitely got 2 thumbs up from me! And an eye roll from him. After that we became sidetracked in the Greeting Cards and then the Housewares department. Housewares? At a grocery store? This place is going to be much more dangerous for my Visa card than I thought! Keurig machines, dishes for entertaining, Le Creuset cookware and all the other things that put a smile on this girl’s face. Glancing at my watch, I noticed that an hour had already passed and we only had 2 items in the cart. So much to see and so little time before kickoff.
Moving onto the Bulk Candy department, I was thankful that I did not have children in tow. Bins of brightly colored candies and chocolates were a temptation even at the crack of dawn. Next I saw a Trail Mix bar, something I had never encountered in any other store. And then an area where you could purchase freshly chopped vegetables for your home cooked recipes. Very expensive but convenient I suppose. The asparagus was $5.99 per pound versus $1.69 in the regular Produce department.
The crowds were thick but employees and vendors were at each end cap to assist shoppers with tracking down their every whim. Bypassing the cleaning supplies, I moved onto the International Foods. Having just returned from a vacation in New Orleans, I was happy to see items with the Tony Chacheres and Zatarains labels.
Wegmans has a huge variety of prepared foods, so I may never cook again. But I still loaded up my cart with various ethnic bottled sauces to experiment with at home. There were prepared food bars throughout the store with Indian food (which became my breakfast), Sushi, salad, pizza, coffee, Thai, Asian, buffalo wings, southern style barbeque with all the sides, burritos, ice cream, paninis, DESSERTS, you name it. I did not notice a Smoothie bar but I’m sure it was there somewhere!
The Mediterranean Bar showcased every type of olive under the sun, along with hummus and roasted peppers. Next to the Mediterranean Bar was the Cheese Department, an olive’s best friend. A Cheese expert was there explaining some of the flavors, and samples were being handed out of their brie on soft bread (quite good!).
In the Seafood Department, fresh swordfish was being carved into steaks. Grouper, rockfish, halibut and salmon were also featured. The prices were higher than other stores, but remember folks, this seafood was fresh and caught in the good ole US of A, not Thailand or Vietnam or some other far off land.
The deli was not as interesting as some of the other departments. Most of the meats were similar to the Boars Head brand that we have become accustomed to. But surprisingly there was no wait to place an order.
Finally, our last stop was for a homemade Italian Cold Cut submarine for game time. A 14 inch sub with all the fixins’ was only $7.99. What a deal! The bread was fresh, the meat and toppings delicious.
After almost 3 hours of shopping, it was time to say goodbye. There was no line at the checkout, which gave me plenty of time to get to Planet Fitness. I felt like I had gained ten pounds already!
The only thing that would improve the Wegmans experience would be if the Maryland legislature allowed beer and wine sales. But that is a topic for another day.