On Sunday morning, in an inky predawn darkness, chilly with rain, hundreds of shoppers waited in quiet anticipation for the doors to open to the public, for the first time, at the Wegmans supermarket in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The store was announced four years earlier, the high-profile anchor tenant of a massive redevelopment plan for the complex that represented the end of a decade-long struggle between Steiner N.Y.C., the Navy Yard leaseholder, and preservationists who were fighting to save a row of Civil War-era officers’ houses from demolition. The news that the historically significant houses would get the wrecking ball was divisive, but any grumbling was largely eclipsed by the news that they would be making way for a Wegmans, which was met with nothing short of ecstasies.
Wegmans, a jewel of western New York, inspires in its customers an uncommon passion. In September, when Wegmans opened a store in Raleigh, its first in North Carolina, more than three thousand people lined up to be among the first into the new supermarket. When I arrived at the Navy Yard, fifteen minutes ahead of the 7 A.M. opening time, the numbers were considerably smaller—a casualty of the rain, most likely, or maybe New Yorkers’ jadedness. Wegmans offers no door prizes, no first-hundred-customers discounts, no exclusive day-one specials. The prizes are the prices, and they’re low, as New York City supermarkets go: the cost of a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs is more on par with Trader Joe’s than with Fairway or Whole Foods. The people setting their Sunday-morning alarms and shimmying into upstate-pride sweatshirts (R.I.T., ’Cuse, “Ithaca is Gorges”) were driven by love. Even in the drowsy predawn morning, onlookers stopped to gawk. A couple dressed in matching pirate costumes—she in lacy white, he in a natty frock coat, seemingly on their way to or from a scandalously wee-hour Halloween party—gazed with undisguised bafflement at the queue, which wrapped around the building and stretched two more blocks into the darkness behind.
Wegmans started life in 1916, as a produce shop in Rochester, New York. A century later, it has ninety locations stretching from North Carolina up through New York State, and, in virtually every region where it has a presence, it’s more than a store: it’s a place of delight and obsession, regarded with the sort of fervid, identity-entangled consumer allegiance that is more familiarly associated with dedication to a sports team, or a particular car manufacturer, or Wawa. Friends of mine who hail from Syracuse and Buffalo have looked forward to the opening of the Brooklyn Wegmans the way I imagine rural farmers in 1936 looked forward to the arrival of the New Deal electrician. The enthusiasm of the Wegmans stans is contagious—when I finally made it through the long darkness of the line and into the dazzling brightness of the store itself, it felt like an awakening. Near the fish counter, where a cook in a tall white toque boogied to “Let’s Groove” while offering samples of seared scallops, a couple in matching Wegmans sweatshirts told me that they hadn’t bought produce for two weeks, holding out until they could buy it today. In front of the oat-milk endcap, a young man in a blue baseball cap turned to his friend, pushing a cart bearing a giant tub of chocolate-chip cookies and a long tray of nigiri, and said, with emotion, “I’m finally home.”
In virtually every region where Wegmans has a presence, it’s more than a store: it’s a place of delight and obsession.
Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty
For fans of things organized neatly, a brand-new grocery store minutes after it unlocks the doors is nothing short of heaven: a glittering tessellation of salmon fillets, endless rosettes of deli meats, purple shallots, and shiny October tomatoes piled up like jewels. It’s a crescendo of plenty, a shameless play directly to the lizard-brain beauty of abundance. The yogurt array is dazzling; there’s a customizable-pizza station and a burger bar; there are oceans of Wegmans-branded products and a tidy little selection of upstate beers. The only time I saw any of the throngs of Wegmaniacs seem anything other than fully elated was when they realized that all the deli sandwiches are premade. “And there’s no Wegmans Assorted,” one shopper despaired, as he rooted fruitlessly among the plastic clamshells for the store’s beloved ham-turkey-roast-beef combo. A meat-department employee stepped in to help, offering a “Danny’s Favorite” instead: hot ham, capicola, genoa salami, and provolone with lettuce and tomato on a chewy, egg-enriched bread. The Danny of Danny’s Favorite is Danny Wegman, a grandson of the store’s co-founder, the chairman and former C.E.O. of the brand, and the patriarch of the billionaire Wegman family. “He’s around here somewhere,” the employee said to the disappointed shopper, soothingly, pressing a Danny’s Favorite into his hands. “Show him that you got his sandwich.”
How Wegmans is going to fit into the grocery landscape of New York is not entirely clear. Fans love Wegmans for all the ways it’s better and more exciting than the average fluorescent-lit megamart. Wegmans was a pioneer in selling restaurant-calibre prepared foods (a savvy way to repurpose potential inventory waste) and is particularly beloved for the breadth of its cheese selection and the high quality of its meats, seafood, and produce. Those gourmet options are a welcome ray of sunlight for the good people of Corning, New York, or Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who deserve wedges of wine-soaked manchego no less than do the toffee-nosed grocery shoppers of New York City—but the toffee-nosed New York City shoppers already have fancy cheese shops and exacting fishmongers.
Or, these days, maybe we don’t so much. A city always heaves and groans, but New York’s supermarket culture has been warping more rapidly than usual during the past few years, as the gastronomic and cultural poles of the city itself have shifted to distressing economic extremes. Fairway is still hanging in there, the grumpy grande dame of New York grocery magic, and, as long as wealthy people throw dinner parties, Citarella will never want for customers. But the vivacious specialty stores that defined the epicurean fin de siècle—Balducci’s, Dean and Deluca, Murray’s Cheese, Garden of Eden—have closed entirely, or else curled up into tiny shadows of their former selves. The cramped, grimy aisles of Gristedes, Key Foods, and C-Town quake as every FreshDirect truck rumbles by. Costco is here now, one or more loftlike warehouse in every borough; AirPod-wearers rejoice at every well-greased expansion of national chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Even bodegas, as we know them, are dying: city agencies now offer financial incentives for corner-shop owners to drop their yellow awnings and idiosyncratic hand-painted signage in favor of glassy, anodyne storefronts.
Wegmans is particularly beloved for the breadth of its cheese selection and the high quality of its meats, seafood, and produce.
Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty
To this increasingly non-local grocery landscape, Wegmans adds seven hundred parking spaces to an already high-traffic-congestion area. Then again, it’s also offering some of the city’s most affordably priced groceries to a densely populated neighborhood, including NYCHA’s Farragut Houses, whose residents for years have lacked easy access to a full-service grocery store. The new Wegmans has a few nods to the notion of “Brooklyn,” primarily in the form of a diverse selection of oat milks and kombuchas, but Wegmans as a brand is largely uninterested in adapting to its location. “I feel like I could be inside any Wegmans right now,” one of my new friends in a Wegmans hoodie said, and he meant it as a compliment: his grandmother had worked at Wegmans, he explained to me, and where he grew up, in Rochester, the brand is virtually synonymous with civic pride. “It’s the second most important thing in Rochester, after Kodak,” he said. Wegmans is a famously generous and familial employer, reliably ranking at the very top of lists of America’s best companies to work for. The company pays employees competitively, reportedly well above market rates; it offers generous benefits, including college scholarships; and it invests heavily in its employees’ training and enrichment. “People need not just good food, but good jobs,” Danny Wegman told the Times in 2015, when the Brooklyn store was first announced. “Brooklyn provides an incredible opportunity for both.”
By the time I made it out of Wegmans, the sun had been up for about an hour, and the rain had got worse. The parking lot was a snarl of cars and taxis, and Wegmans employees in safety-yellow windbreakers striped with reflective tape ferried customers to and from their cars, shielding them from the downpour under massive yellow-and-white umbrellas emblazoned with the logo for Helping Hands, the company’s parking-lot customer-service detail. While looking for my ride-share car in the traffic jam, I got half-soaked before one of the umbrella wielders, twenty yards away, spotted me and sprinted over, umbrella arm outstretched. (My haul included two bags of Wegmans-brand potato chips, barbecue and buffalo-blue-cheese, one case of Wegmans-brand passionfruit seltzer and one of mango-lime, and one Danny’s Favorite sandwich.) I paused, before entering the car, unsure where to return my now-empty shopping cart. “Don’t worry, ma’am,” the umbrella man said, whisking it out of my hands. “We’re full-service over here.”