With the opening of their new store in Constant Friendship only a month away, Wegmans executives visited Harford County this week to introduce themselves and their company to the community, or at least to local media.
Two Wegmans-employed public relations personnel and Bel Air store manager Al Jackson met with The Dagger not at the still-under-construction building, but at Panera Bread in The Festival at Bel Air. The group spent about 30 minutes in the busy cafe carefully supporting their choice of location and reassuring me, a local resident, of the benefits that the new Bel Air store will bring to the area.
(Note: While the new store is located in Abingdon, the three interviewees and the company’s Web site referred to it as the “Bel Air” store; for clarity, this story will use their geographic label.)
“Fifteen to 18 acres on a great intersection, as we found here, is exactly what we look for,” said Jo Natale, Wegmans’ Director of Media Relations. “Then we look for population density and the potential for population growth, which is certainly the case for Harford County.”
With four stores open in Maryland already, the new location in The Boulevard at Box Hill is expected to be a reflection of their closest store in Hunt Valley, which opened in 2005.
“With the success of that store, we realized that Maryland was a place that we wanted to grow our company, and we began looking for sites,” said Natale. “I couldn’t tell you exactly when we found the Bel Air site, but….we’ve been working at it for a number of years.”
Despite the growing traffic congestion and crime rates that have become an increasing problem for residents of southern Harford County, neither issue was a concern for Wegmans’ managers.
“In markets that are densely populated, we’re near very large cities in some cases, so [crime] is one of the things that you have to deal with as a business,” Natale stated. “But that’s low on the list of things we worry about.”
Although Wegmans’ opening week and the coming winter holidays will be very busy times for the store, the company is also confident that traffic will not be an issue on the surrounding roads.
“Whether their customers can access the new store easily and safely is of the highest importance” to company researchers, said Natale. Traffic studies are conducted at every potential building site to prevent a problem with area transportation.
Local law enforcement will also be on site for the store’s opening on Sept. 18, Jackson added. “They’ll be helping with traffic, they’ll help get our customers into the area, and then getting them out just as easily.”
Despite the potential hazards that come with the new site, the “most pleasant surprise” of the opening process has been the record number of job applications that they have received for the Bel Air location, according to Jackson. With more than 9,000 job applicants to date, his team is coming to the end of the hiring phase and beginning to focus on employee training. Of approximately 520 new employees, 450 will be Harford County residents.
“Generally, our store employees reflect the communities where we have our store. It’s just naturally seems to work out that way,” said Natale. “We try to reach out to everyone and anyone who may be interested in working for us.”
As a part of their community outreach, Wegmans has offered scholarships to both full and part-time employees since 1984. The scholarships are awarded on both employee and academic performance, but there is no limit to how many are given each year.
“Part-time employees receive $1,500 a year for four years and full-time employees [get] $2,200 over four years,” Natale quoted. “We’ve awarded $75 million to 25,000 employees, so it doesn’t target any particular population at all.”
Despite the recent closings of several grocery stores in the surrounding area, the Wegmans company insists they their desire is to create a shopping experience that appeals to everyone.
“What’s very important for us is for our customers to understand [is] that we are not about upscale,” Natale insisted. “We offer a high selection in the stores [and] wonderful customer service…but [we have] lower prices than other supermarkets.”
The new location will feature produce from Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region, using many of the same suppliers as the store in Hunt Valley. Jackson did not have the exact names or locations of the contracted farms immediately available.
Each day, produce from the Bel Air store will be given to local food pantries in an effort to give back to the community. As “a kick off,” Wegmans will donate a truck load of food to the Harford Community Action Agency during the coming month. Cynthia Glover, the owner of Smart Works, a Baltimore area marketing company working with Wegmans, said the exact date for the event would be released soon.
“Lots of folks don’t realize that this is really a bigger time of the year than the holidays… because kids are out of school,” Natale said. “They’re not getting free lunch or breakfast, and they’re going to the food banks and food pantries to get stuff.”
Before leaving our table, Jackson offered a complimentary bag of Wegmans products for me to take home and sample. All of the merchandise, which included both specialty and staple ingredients, will also be donated to a Harford County charity. What was in the bag?
-Infused olive oil