Supermarket supersized The gigantic new Wegmans in Cherry Hill leaves shoppers dazzled - or dazed - and competitors ringing up their own changes. A mammoth new market in Cherry Hill

Posted: June 22, 2006

The Wegmans experience has come to Philadelphia.

OK, to Cherry Hill. But that's as close as the showcase supermarket is likely to come considering its size - 125,000 square feet, compared with supermarket "superstores" that average 50,000 square feet.

With Wegmans, which opened a week ago on Route 70 at Haddonfield Road, come more semi-prepared and prepared foods. It's the prevailing trend in markets - take-out, eat-in, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook foods.

Wegmans also brings what one exhausted opening-day shopper described as "sensory overload."

The store combines a selectively well-stocked supermarket with specialty areas comparable to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Kitchen Kapers, a European bread bakery, a French patisserie, a cheese shop, a pizzeria, a coffee bar, a florist, prepared-foods take-out, a sit-down cafe - with 250 seats - and more, all in a layout designed as separate shops. It takes some getting used to, but has an old-world marketplace feel with new-world style.

Think Martha Stewart-gone-mad marketing. For some, it's a lifestyle. For others, simply too much of a good thing.

At the seafood counter, gaper delay had Delores Lambert of Pennsauken and two other curious shoppers stopped in their tracks.

"That's unbelievable! I didn't know shrimp came that big," said Lambert, awestruck by the supersized U-4 shrimp (under four to a pound, at $24.99).

At a cooking station nearby, lush jumbo lump crabcakes ($9.99 each, $10.99 in a sandwich with a side) tempted hungry shoppers. (And yes, they rank among the best I've tasted.)

"Cooking coaches" regularly demonstrate recipes from Wegmans quarterly magazine, Menu (free with shopper's card), and interact with customers for teaching and tastings.

Meats and seafood alike are marinated, seasoned, skewered or otherwise prepped and ready to cook, from beef or chicken kabobs with vegetables ($8.99 a pound) to wasabi-crusted tuna steaks ($21.99 a pound).

Back at the patisserie, regal glazed fruit tarts ($4.50 to $26) sparkle like the crown jewels. In the bakery, a wood-fired brick oven gives artisan breads authentic European flavor.

In the produce section, Evie Katz was delighted:

"They have a better selection of organic foods than any place I've seen, even Whole Foods. I could hardly wait for them to open here," Katz said as she moved two pints (two for $5) of organic grape tomatoes to her cart.

The store practice of stocking organic produce side by side with the conventional makes it easier to compare prices, said Katz, a Philadelphian who became a Wegmans fan while visiting a friend in Scranton.

Wegmans excels in produce, offering about 700 items most days. This day, 183 of those were organic, a tidbit posted daily by the store entrance.

Produce has been the store's forte since its founding as a produce company in 1916.

It is the area where demand for convenience has grown "astronomically," manager Joe Sofia said.

"Prepared salad mixes and chopped vegetables for stir-fry are now more than 15 percent of our produce sales," Sofia said.

Potatoes now come precut, precooked - shredded, diced, cut in wedges and mashed - stocked in bags next to the salads.

There also are vegetable combinations, designed for convenient use in featured recipes. The goal is to take the drudgery - the washing, peeling, chopping and such - out of cooking, Sofia said.

Wegmans' standard produce includes baby and fingerling spuds in Purple Peruvian, Dutch Yellow, Ruby Crescent, Russian Banana and Ruby Gold strains (12 ounces, $2.99).

And, for mushroom lovers, there are exotic varieties, from woodears ($6.99 a pound) to morels ($39.99 a pound), with beech, bluefoot, chanterelle, maitake, oyster, pom pom, and shiitake in between.

"There's definitely a higher cost to maintaining that variety because demand is limited," Sofia said, "but a particular customer may be looking for that, and when you get a reputation for having certain things, you have to be consistent."

Part of that reputation is based on its store-brand products.

"Our penetration of private-label items is one of the highest in the industry, and we aim for quality, not just a lower price," Sofia said.

Wegmans is competitive with Whole Foods on price, and with other markets on variety, but stocks only a handful of the best-known brands of any type of food. You won't find 20 different brands of yogurt or every known cake mix in the Western world.

Cherry Hill is the seventh store Sofia has managed in his 16 years with Wegmans, including Manalapan, N.J., and Princeton. He opened the Mount Laurel store, then came to open Cherry Hill.

The Rochester, N.Y.-based chain first moved beyond New York's borders in 1993, reaching Princeton in 1999, Downingtown in 2003, and Mount Laurel (Centerton Road) in March. The Cherry Hill store is the 71st Wegmans, the seventh in New Jersey, and close enough to draw Center City shoppers. Another Wegmans, the 11th in Pennsylvania, is due to open in Warrington, Bucks County, by the end of the year. Development of a Turnersville site has yet to be scheduled.

Located in the still-rising commercial-residential complex that was Garden State Race Track, Wegmans brings a cult following and enough hype to carry it through the completion of Towne Place at Garden State Park, planned by developers to provide a heretofore nonexistent downtown hub in Cherry Hill.

Meanwhile, the competition already is arming itself with renovations, coupon deals and promotions to attract and keep customers.

ShopRite, just a mile away at an older section of the race-track complex, is adding an organic-food section, having more attractive sales, and promoting them more vigorously. Last week, it matched Wegmans' large cantaloupes at 99 cents, whipped its rival with bing cherries at $2.98 a pound and U-15 (under 15 count) "colossal" shrimp at $7.98 a pound, while honoring Wegmans store coupons.

Reciprocating, Wegmans is taking ShopRite coupons. Both stores double manufacturers' coupons to 99 cents.

(Coupon shopping at Wegmans is limited, however, as the store has fewer national brands, the core of couponing.)

Closer to Wegmans in products and style, the nine-year-old Whole Foods Market in Marlton is nearing completion of an expansion/renovation that began 18 months ago.

With an 11,000-square-foot addition, the now 42,000-square-foot store will have a pizzeria, store-made gelato, coffee bar, patisserie, carving station (for custom platters), European sandwich station, barbecue smoker, and new products such as specialty eggs - ostrich and quail.

The thrust, says Mike Litka, store team leader, is toward prepared foods and convenience.

"People are time-crunched. We need to provide more meal solutions for them," Litka said.

"That means oven-ready items you can finish by baking or broiling. Or, prepared meals, fully cooked, to take home and reheat."

By Litka's estimate, convenience - prepared and semi-prepared - items already account for about 50 percent of his store's food sales.

"We don't have all the new in-house venues up yet, so we can't say how much that may grow," Litka said, "but this is the next generation of Whole Foods Markets."

As for the impact of two neighboring Wegmans markets, Litka remains optimistic: "This is a well-populated area and competition is good for everyone."

Will Wegmans drain business from ShopRite and other markets? Or, will it draw new customers into Cherry Hill and bring more business to all?

Time will tell. But this savvy shopper, on one visit, spent more at ShopRite than at Wegmans, and will go back to both. For Wegmans' competitors, success long-term may depend on older stores' sprucing up and becoming more consumer-friendly as much as being competitive in price.

Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or mmarter@phillynews.com.

Quick and easy how-tos

Roughly between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., Wegman's offers "meal coaches" in the produce section, to suggest dishes made with fruits and vegetables at the height of their season. They also offer "cooking coaches" who provide recipes and demonstrate preparation with pre-chopped or pre-mixed ingredients available in the store.

Grilled Sweet Onion and Tomato Salad

Makes 4 servings

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil,

divided

2 Vidalia or other sweet

onions, (about 1 1/2

pounds) peeled and cut

crosswise 1/2 inch thick

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pint grape tomatoes,

stems removed, rinsed

and halved

12 medium basil leaves, torn

or cut in thin, matchlike

strips

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1. Coat grill lightly with olive oil.

2. Preheat grill to medium.

3. Run two parallel skewers approximately one inch apart through each slice of onion, lollypop-style; brush with 1 1/2 tablespoon oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

4. Grill the onions, turning once, 10 to 12 minutes, until streaked with grill marks.

5. Transfer the onions to a cutting board; cool slightly. Remove the skewers. Cut the onion slices in half and place in a serving bowl; toss to separate the layers.

6. Add the tomatoes, basil, remaining oil and vinegar; toss.

- From Wegmans Menu magazine, summer 2006.

Per serving: 145 calories, 2 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 14 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Grilled Salmon With Cucumber Dill Salad

Makes 6 servings

4 seedless cucumbers (about 3 1/4 pounds), peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut on the bias into 1/4-inch slices

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt,

3/4 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Juice of 1 lemon, divided

1/4 small (8-ounce) red onion, peeled, cut in thin, match-

like sticks (about 2 ounces)

6 wild Alaska salmon fillets (about 6 ounces each, skin removed)

2 tablespoons basting oil, or other oil

1 package (5 ounces) spring mix salad greens

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the grill on high for 10 minutes.

2. For the Cucumber Dill Salad, toss the cucumbers with 1 teaspoon of the sea salt (to draw out moisture); let stand for 30 minutes. Squeeze and drain off the water. In a large bowl, combine the cucumbers, sour cream, dill, remaining 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, and the red onion; set aside.

3. Clean the grill with a wire brush and, using a soft cloth, coat the grill grate lightly with vegetable oil.

4. Season both sides of the fillets with salt and pepper to taste; drizzle both sides with basting oil (too much oil will cause flare-ups). Sear the fillets on the grill until they change color to about one-quarter of their depth from the bottom, 1 to 3 minutes. Turn and baste with basting oil. Sear 1 to 3 minutes.

5. Turn the fillets, baste and cook 1 to 3 minutes. Turn again and baste. Reduce the heat to medium; close the grill cover. Cook fillets 1-inch thick or less for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. For fillets 1 inch or thicker, cook 5 to 6 minutes per side on low. The internal temperature should reach 130 degrees on a quick-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the fillet. Transfer the fillets to a clean serving platter; let rest at least 2 minutes.

6. Toss the spring mix with the olive oil and the last tablespoon of lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Place each fillet on a bed of greens and top with 1/3 cup of cucumber salad.

- From Wegmans' Menu magazine, summer 2006.

Per serving: 300 calories, 23 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrate,

2 grams fiber, 18 grams fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 460 milligrams sodium.

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