Last Monday, Wegmans launched a three-week interview process for those applicants at an office in King of Prussia. Fifteen human resources representatives are each conducting half-hour interviews from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., six days a week. Later, the store will begin sifting through candidates for 400 part-time slots.
The stories of some of those interviewed last week offer a glimpse of how people are struggling after losing their jobs. Others gave them up, and now want to return to the workforce after taking a break or exploring other ventures. Some are seeking work in a different field.
To those desperate for work, a job at any company would do. But Wegmans is seen as a place that can provide more than a regular paycheck. Many people want to work there because of its reputation for honoring both customers and employees.
When Wegmans announces plans for a store, job seekers usually come in droves. Recently, when a new Wegmans in Fredericksburg, Va., put out the call, 5,000 applications poured in. Even so, the Collegeville response has exceeded expectations. Blaine Forkell, the new store's manager, attributed it partly to the dismal economy.
Wegmans, a family-owned company based in Rochester, N.Y., consistently ranks at or near the top of Fortune magazine's list of the best companies to work for. The company is recognized for generous benefits, but mainly for the way it treats people. (It will not disclose what it pays, saying only that it is competitive.) Even during rough patches, Wegmans, with more than 37,000 employees, has never resorted to layoffs.
"Our philosophy is that if we take care of our employees, they'll take care of our customers," said Forkell, 41, a 26-year Wegmans veteran.
That approach has paid off. Wegmans racked up sales last year of $4.8 billion, largely because of spectacular stores that resemble culinary cathedrals and customer service that seems nearly telepathic.
The Wegmans in Collegeville, the company's 74th, will be the size of nearly three football fields and feature a full-service restaurant and pub, pending license approval.
Last year, Wegmans received more than 4,000 requests from people asking the company to open a store in their community. Wegmans is able to expand because it has stewarded its resources and grown at a slow, deliberate pace, opening only two or three stores a year.
"We don't want to be the biggest; we want to be the best," Forkell said. "We don't want to lose the culture we've built."
Those seeking jobs at the Collegeville store are mostly from Pennsylvania, Forkell said. But people have applied from New Jersey and Delaware and from as far away as New York.
Those awaiting their interviews at the King of Prussia office quietly rehearsed their lines and buffed their first impressions. Some were as anxious as a dental patient facing a root canal. Clutching their resumes, they sat in a small anteroom where the walls were adorned with Wegmans banners and posters describing the company's history and values.
Among them was Christine Kane, 31, of East Greenville, who has experience in a convenience store. She wants full-time work so that her husband, a service-station mechanic, can devote himself exclusively to the garage he recently opened. "He can't do it full-time unless we have a source of income," said Kane, a mother of three who has spent the last six months looking for a job without success.
Karl Castor, 57, of Hatboro, a seasoned retail manager, has been searching for full-time employment since July 2007. Meanwhile, he has been earning money by helping out part time at two running-gear stores. But now his unemployment checks are dwindling, and he and his wife, Maggie, who runs a pet-sitting business, lack health insurance.
"I have tons of experience and lots of confidence, but it seems no one . . . needs me," Castor said. "Some days it gets to you."
Another person angling for a management job was Sal Serago, 56, a Pottstown resident laid off in December by Aetna Inc., where he was an information-technology manager.
"I came here because I want to do something challenging and fun," Serago said. "I'm tired of corporate America."
In November 2006, Dennis Vodopija, 38, of Spring City, quit his job as a forklift operator at a trucking company because he wanted a break. Last December, his savings running low, he began looking for work. So far, he has applied for more than 50 jobs, with no luck. "I picked the wrong time," he said. When he sought work at the trucking company where he formerly worked, the line of job seekers was so long he could not even get an application.
Jonathan Zeigler, 38, of Harleysville, a member of the apple-cider family, recently withdrew his investment in a Jenkintown restaurant where, as managing partner, he kept punishing hours. He was drawn to Wegmans by its commitment to restaurant-quality fare and regard for its human resources.
"You can't be as big as Wegmans and do as well as Wegmans without doing things right," he said.
Those who ace their interviews will be called back for additional sessions. Beginning in May, 150 will receive job offers. Shortly thereafter, they will report for training. In late summer, they will travel to Rochester for a tour of headquarters, a meeting with Wegman family members, and a full orientation in the Wegmans way.
For those who are not chosen, all is not lost. Wegmans plans to open a store in Malvern next spring and another in King of Prussia in 2011.
"It would be cool to be part of a company like that," said Leslie Kriebel. "Right now, all I can do is hope."
Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-696-3249 or email@example.com.