The story of Wegmans humble beginnings over 100 years ago and eventual success feels familiar, and yet still inspiring and extraordinary (with a few deliciously bizarre interludes). Unlike many other families who have found themselves riding the classic American rocketship to success, they seem to have kept their feet firmly planted on the ground, despite their 49,000 employees, annual sales of more than $9 billion, and 99 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.
Wegmans has successfully forecast, curated, and leveraged food trends and philosophies with staying power for generations, introduced high-tech innovations that change the way we shop for and consume food, while still making helping others in obvious and subtle ways part of their corporate culture.
A CART START
Walter E. Wegman founded his grocery empire from a pushcart. He and his brother John used to peddle fresh produce to Rochester housewives in 1915, taking goods from their parents’ store on Fernwood Avenue. A year later, John opened the brick and mortar store Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Company, launching the beginning of Wegmans Food Markets, and Walter joined him the following year.
MOM-AND-POP GOES MEGA BUT STAYS ROOTED IN FAMILY
Through the booming 1920s, the Wegmans scaled up their business step by step, adding retail groceries and bakery operations. While many businesses crumpled during the Great Depression that began in 1929, the Wegmans’ essential service — everyone needs to eat after all — and innovations ensured their continued success.
In 1930, they took what was, at the time, the revolutionary step (akin to drone deliveries from Amazon and FedEx today) of opening up a 20,000-foot retail store that included a cafeteria large enough to seat 300 people. During the 30s, they also introduced refrigerated display windows and vaporized water sprays on produce to keep things fresh and pretty. In the 40’s, Wegmans brought in frozen foods, circular checkout counters, sophisticated in-house processing and production systems, and expanded to the burbs with their ninth store in 1941.
Walter’s son Robert joined the company in 1937 and assumed leadership of the company in 1950.
Through the decades, Wegmans has continued to “keep up with the times,” with nutrition and cooking classes, recycling programs, frequent shopper discounts, natural food health centers within certain superstores, a 50-acre organic farm in Canandaigua, seafood and (gasp) a cheese cave with its own room for Brie.
Family members keep rising up the ranks and maintaining the company’s “hometown” culture and values. Danny Wegman succeeded his father as CEO in 2005, and Robert became chair of the board until his death the following year. In 2017, Danny announced that his daughter Colleen Wegman would succeed him, and he would then assume the title of chairman. Colleen began working at Wegmans in 1991 and served in many roles (including store manager, director of ecommerce, developer of Wegmans’ Nature’s Marketplace departments, and senior vice president of merchandising) before being named president by her CEO grandfather, Robert, in 2005. Nicole Wegman, Colleen’s sister, serves as Wegmans vice president of perishable foods and wine.
In order left to right: Danny Wegman, daughters Nicole and Colleen Wegman, and late father Robert Wegman in 1997. Photo: Democrat & Chronicle
HOLLYWOOD KNOCKS, BUT KLEIGLIGHTS NOT WEGMANS STYLE
In the 1950s, Wegmans had a bitcoin moment when it gave out novelty currency that customers could use during the taping of the regional favorite auction show, Dollar Derby. (The show let members of the studio audience bid on real merchandise with the fake money).
Otherwise, the family has avoided the tabloid-ready drama many family-run corporate empires have engendered, such as the Vanderbilts, the Kardashians, and the Trumps. Instead, to date they are still inspiring gee-whiz attention and imitation. Wegmans, unlike most other consistently successful companies, still manages to get unwavering support and recognition from the media, including being named the “Most Family-Friendly Supermarket in America,” by Child Magazine, and being called the chain that has changed the way we shop by the Food Network, among many other accolades.
SELLING GROCERIES, GIFTING KINDNESS, AND VALUATING WORKPLACE
The company has always represented a culture of giving, kindness, and community, both within its corporate structure and beyond. Several family members who lead Wegmans also spearhead philanthropic causes that champion early education.
The chain is also unafraid of taking stands they see as important. In 2007, Wegmans stopped selling cigarettes and tobacco products and introduced a smoking cessation program.
“We have come to this decision after thinking about the role smoking plays in people's health. We certainly respect a person's right to smoke, but we believe there are few of us who would introduce our children to smoking. The main reason we have come to this decision is that we truly care about each of you,” said then-CEO and president Danny Wegman.
The Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For” list celebrated its 22nd anniversary in 2019; Wegmans has been on that list every year (one of only eight companies to acheive that status), in the top ten for 16 out of the 22, and was ranked third this year.
Wegmans introduced unusually progressive employee benefits to its 350+ full-time employees in 1953, and in 1984, it began handing out lucrative scholarships to workers. Since then, Wegmans has given 38,500+ workers more than $120 million to employees whose work performance, academic achievements and goals meet their standards. Each eligible employee can receive up to $8,800 over four years for tuition. Wegmans also partnered with the Rochester City School District to provide academic assistance and part-time gigs to 14 and 15-year-old city school kids who need an extra push to finish high school. The thinking goes, positive role models and work experience will motivate them to stay in school; these kids then receive college scholarships if they “make the grade” at school and work.
In the 1970s, Wegmans began donating food to food banks, and also became the first supermarket chain in New York to offer 24-hour service in some of its stores. Select stores also have a “Kiddie Corner” where parents can leave their kids to play while they shop. Say it with me, parents: “GODSEND.”
THERE HAVE BEEN BLIPS
No success story is without a hiccup or two. In the 1970s, the Wegmans tried to move into the hardware biz and they struggled for a few decades operating the chain under the name Chase-Pitkin. But by 2005, the Wegmans cried “uncle” and closed all of those locations.
They also know that there should be an apostrophe in their store name. (Wegman’s would make more sense). But they ousted the squiggle in 1931 to streamline the logo. Correcting their faulty grammar cost $500,000 or more in updated logos and signage.
The beloved Upstate chain that feels anything but has done what, in retrospect, feels inevitable: it has moved Downstate to Brooklyn’s uber-cool Navy Yard this year. The new store is steam-punk, industrial chic: a shined and buffed 74,000 square feet harboring 50,000 items (2,000 of which are organic); more than 540 newly hired employees; foods like sushi, Italian pizza, burgers, and custom-made salads prepared by Executive Chef Stephen De Lucia and his culinary team of 157; a café-bar serving food, wine, beer and cocktails, and delivery.
The Wegman family doesn’t give interviews or brag about its success; it just does its job and lets the work speak for itself.
While hardened city-dwellers can greet a name-brand retail chain’s entry into New York City, especially Brooklyn, with something between jaded disinterest and derision, disgust and screeches about the Disney-izing of their precious metropolis, enthusiasm for the arrival Wegmans has been, uncharacteristically, almost universally joyful.
One of the hundreds of commenters who responded to the New York Times’ piece on Wegmans arrival gushes: “Wegmans customer service is outstanding, somehow the ‘fake’ friendliness is absent. I hate how big it is, takes a long time to skip all the stuff I don’t need, but because it is far from my home and I visit infrequently, I often need help finding things, and there is always someone around who is knowledgeable and will go out of their way. I’ve also been treated to free items, including 12 dollars worth of chicken because I didn’t want to purchase organic chicken (because of price) and they were out of the on sale store brand, out comes the free sticker! The goodwill that visit produced was more than worth 12 bucks to the company, trust me on that.”
Another enthuses: “Visiting a friend in Buffalo a few years ago she took me to my first Wegmans. A whole other level than food shopping in Ct. or NY. Fast forward to a trip to Lynn, Ma. a month ago-when I noticed a Wegmans sign in Medford. You never saw anyone peel off the highway so fast. The combo of nice employees, every food, organic and exotic, and the airline hanger space-almost made me drop to my knees in appreciation. So what if it's only 130 miles from me! The associate who helped me at self check-out told me this wasn't even the best one-there's a two floor store with a tequila bar not too far away. My new idea of the Sunday drive now.”
Will the euphoria wear off? Who knows. But for now, Wegmans has been going strong for 103 years and counting, and for many it remains the one supermarket in America that truly feels like home.