East coast supermarket chain Wegmans opened its first Boston-area store this morning in Chestnut Hill, Mass., to the ecstatic delight of many shoppers. While I’m intrigued by what they offer, I’m not ready to sign up for the Wegmans cult just yet.
Although I wasn’t one of the hordes of people lined up for its 7am opening, it was still jam packed when I got there this afternoon. Of course, half the people seemed to be employees, bustling around restocking shelves, chopping fresh vegetables, fileting fish, and just gosh darn smiling at me and asking if I was finding everything okay.
Wegmans seems like a cross between a Whole Foods and a Costco, with a little bit of Trader Joes and traditional supermarkets thrown in. Most of the store is filled with colorful graphics and beautiful fixtures, but there are also quite a few warehouse-sized, tall aisles filled with drugstore and grocery items. They also have a lot of private label items, from frozen organic vegetables and Greek yogurt (a good deal at $4.39 a quart) to their own multigrain tortilla chips.
According to their website, they see sustainability as a “community effort to promote the long-term well-being of people and the environment.” In addition to offering a wide selection of organic products (they started their own organic farm in 2007), they’re involved in recycling, reducing waste, and sustainable forestry.
Wegmans prides itself on its produce section, but I wasn’t particularly wowed. Like Costco, their best specials were for folks who buy items like mesclun lettuce, English cucumbers, and peppers in bulk. They seemed to have more of a focus on organic than local. I spotted watermelon from Ecuador. Not what I’d call sustainable. Organic bananas, but no Fair Trade. They did have a nice selection of over a dozen kinds of mushrooms, including some I’d never heard of. What really caught my eye was the imported truffles from Burgundy, selling for a mere $999 a pound. Something for the tony folks of Chestnut Hill to enjoy.
I was particularly excited by the seafood section. You can buy a variety of whole fish, such as branzani and skate, attractively displayed on ice. They also had a beautiful selection of fresh oysters, including local fave Island Creek. Except for the bags of frozen shrimp in the coolers, it was relatively easy to identify whether the fish were wild or farm-raised, domestic or imported.
Wegmans placed #4 (only a few points below Whole Foods, Safeway, and Trader Joe’s) on Greenpeace’s annual survey of supermarket seafood purchasing practices, Carting Away the Oceans 7, which came out in May, 2013. Greenpeace praised Wegmans for continuing to “set the standard’ participating in progressive sustainable seafood initiatives, and has a high level of transparency. But it chastised the chain for carrying 15 “red list” species, including Chilean Sea Bass. (Greenpeace has its own red (“do not buy”) list of species they urge people not to buy, due to low supply, bycatch issues, or habitat destruction.) I’m hoping that Wegmans will get a better rating when Greenpeace publishes their new survey this spring.
Wegmans is particularly known for their prepared food sections, such as Asian hot food bar, a vegetarian food bar, and organic salad bar, soups, sushi, pizza, and more. It was wonderful to go to the vegetarian bar and not have to study the ingredients for each item so I could figure out whether I could eat it. We got some sushi and other food to take home for dinner and it was quite tasty. I particularly enjoyed a vegetarian “pea cake,” as well as some garlicky kale.
Overall, my reaction is mixed. I liked the product selection, but wish they were more creative about sourcing local food in April. I want to buy their seafood, but want them to stop selling red listed species. I love having a vegetarian food bar, but would like to see more whole grains, beans, and simple veggies.
Am I glad it’s here? Yes, I think variety’s good. Will I go out of my way to shop there? Probably not. I’ll go all the way to Somerville to shop at a farmers market, but I’m not likely to drive 20 minutes to get to a supermarket.
I’ll definitely go back when it’s less crowded, so I can make a full assessment of what they’ve got. In the meantime, if you’re a Wegmans devotee, please tell me what you love about them.