Saturday, October 2, 2010

Every Day You Get Our Best

You’ve never heard of Wegmans, you say?

All those unfortunates who have never visited this mecca of all that is good and generic should be aware that Wegmans is the best grocery store that ever was. It is a Disneyland for adults. But it's open 24 hours. Wegmans is known for having phenomenal generic brands and organic food, and catering to people with food allergies. Real food allergies, not like when I tell people I'm allergic to onions just because they're vile and I wouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole. The first Wegmans store opened in Rochester, New York, and stores are now scattered throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. It’s often listed close to the tippy top of of Fortune magazine's "Top 100 Companies to Work For."

Since Wegmans has an amazing employee college scholarship program, my father coached me from a very young age to say, "When I get older, I'm going to work at Wegmans." That was about the same time he and my mother tried to get my brother and I to sing "So Long, Farewell" for guests before we went to bed. Wegmans had always been a fun place to go with Mom, since the Wegmans Cookie Club guaranteed us kids a free giant cookie with every visit, but it became less fun when a visit to the store meant that my teenage hands would be covered in money germs and fish juice.

I was excited to be a cashier at first—after all, I was making $4.35 an hour! That was a whole dime above minimum wage! And I could make excellent use of my work hours. I purposely took early weekend shifts so I had time to write my lines for our high school production of Fiddler on the Roof—for which the one Jewish family in school had to teach us about the Sabbath—over and over on the register tape until I memorized them. I liked putting on my costume and going to the store at first...but learning that cranberry juice cocktail was not WIC-approved and waiting while customers wrote personal checks—yes, checks—turned out to be less interesting than rereading Gone With the Wind for the 14th time. Which is what I would have been doing otherwise.

As a picky eater, I couldn't tell a nectarine from a zucchini, let alone memorize the three-digit code that accompanied each fruit and vegetable in the entire store. I would have to stop the line, ashamedly ask the customer the name of the mystery fruit or vegetable, and look up the name on a giant chart printed in teeny tiny type. This greatly slowed down my line and caused irate customers to want to hit me with whatever fruit or vegetable was causing the problem. Clothed in my mom's old polyester dress pants, a tuxedo shirt, a clip-on bow tie, and a maroon apron, I was fairly irate myself. Mostly about the meat blood and chicken juice that always seemed to leak on me. And the prepared food/raw fish/recycled air smell that filled the store and clung to my clothes and hair. Plus, the fact that I got in two car accidents on two successive days on the way to work—I rear-ended someone at an intersection and then got rear-ended by the dog of a family I babysat for—didn't make me want to jump into one of our family's matching Taurus station wagons and drive the two miles to the wonderful land of Wegmans.

After years of front end torture, Wegmans moved me to its one-hour photo lab, which meant I got to spy on birthday parties and baby showers. But never bar mitzvahs (see the above
Fiddler on the Roof note). Suddenly, my job became marginally interesting. But not interesting enough. Since it was the pre-email era, I spent my downtime writing letters to friends on the back of the cherry red photo lab notices that were printed with the following statement: "Wegmans is a family company; therefore, we cannot develop your dirty pictures, moron. Next time, use a Polaroid." I might be paraphrasing.

I was thrilled—thrilled, I tell you!—when I got a job as a day camp counselor at a city park. I traded fish juice and recycled air for water dodgeball* and sunshine! It took a few years for me to go into the store without shuddering. But since moving to Manhattan, I've realized that I took the amazingness of Wegmans for granted. On my first Saturday in the city, I got up early and steeled myself for the crowds I would be sure to encounter at the local Food Emporium. As I crossed the street to go into the store, I didn't see a soul. There were no moving vehicles. A tumbleweed or two blew across the street. The store was empty, there were few generic brands on the shelves, and a box of Funfetti cake mix cost $3.19. In short, Manhattan grocery shopping is the absolute worst.

I still haven't recovered from a Wegmans-less existence. Every time I order Fresh Direct online or go to a so-called supermarket, I know what I'm missing. I'm missing WPop (first made famous by its product launch commercial with happy pop-drinkers shouting, "Woooo!"). I'm missing the most mouth-watering, freshly-prepared garlic and herb cheese spread that ever was. I'm missing a giant bulk candy section with a toy train running above it. I'm missing the feeling of walking into a supermarket and wanting to twirl and twirl and twirl, just like Fraulein Maria on the hillside. The Food Emporium is not, I'm sad to say, alive with the sound of music. In fact, the Food Emporium is alive with…well, I don’t even want to tell you what it’s alive with.

I never did get that Wegmans college scholarship. You had to put in way more hours than I was willing to, and you had to return from college every so often to work at the store. That did not, however, stop me from telling my sorority that I did, in fact, have a Wegmans scholarship and needed to be excused from pledging activities for an entire weekend so that I could go home to "work." So in the end, Wegmans gave me a gift after all--I slept for 48 hours and ate home-cooked food without being at the beck and call of 50 irate upperclassmen. Sometimes, I guess getting a little meat blood on your hands isn't such a bad thing.

*If you’re curious, water dodgeball is regular dodgeball with one of two modifications: You can either soak the Nerf ball in a bucket of water before throwing it or wring a wet rag over the head of a child as punishment for being hit by a regular ball. 
Note: Getting hit by a soaking wet dodgeball can really hurt.


  1. Rosie,

    I totally love this post! Being a past Wegmans employee, I also remember many times not knowing the produce that the people were buying, wearing the wonderful uniform, and most importantly using it as an excuse to leave for a weekend to "work" in order to get out of pledging. Thanks for making me remember the good old days.

    Love in Sigma,
    Justine :)

  2. Justine! So glad you share my pain! You know, I'm STILL slightly cranky that I never got that stupid scholarship...

  3. Wegmans is pretty great - even if you weren't comparing to crappy city supermarkets. My mom always loved the one in Geneseo. I don't know why they never made it downstate?!


  4. I know! It's such a shame! Maybe I should start a write-in campaign...