|Cheese, glorious cheese!|
Wegmans opened in Columbia, and it changed the scope of food in Howard County. But, in my house, Wegmans did the impossible and turned Mrs. HowChow into someone excited to grocery shop. What did it? Variety, flavor, and samples, samples, samples.
Until this year, food was my job. I cooked, so I shopped. But then Wegmans arrived and started hitting on my wife. Across the store, they'd scatter people with pickup lines like "Do you want to taste the mozzarella?" Mrs. HowChow drove there alone for yogurt, and she came home with three loaves of bread, two cheeses, and a 12-inch apple pie.
That's why she actually felt disappointed when we shopped late on a Sunday night. At 9 pm, they're restocking and cleaning up. No crowds, but no samples. No one offers to pair a slice of apple cider bread with the perfect soft brie. Mrs. HowChow arrived in great spirits, but slowly deflated when she realized that she was just walking around a grocery store.
Of course, Wegmans is the big news of 2012 because it's more than a grocery store. Detractors complain about price or size or employee pay, but no one can deny that the right half of the store is a revelation -- breads, bakery, prepared food, seafood, deli, cheeses and produce. The food is delicious. The offerings are vast and seasonal. The people want to help.
|It's Wegmans', so I'll try it.|
To me, the heart of Wegmans remains the cheeses, breads, deli and seafood. I find myself going for one department, then rounding out the trip with the rest and some produce. Just a few interesting supplies make weeknights easy to throw together. All summer, we cooked around the CSA from Gorman Produce Farm, and little Wegmans treats like kalamata rolls, gouda, or thin-sliced speck rounded out the meals.
This food is fun. Ten different rolls. Hundreds of cheeses. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Weird olives. All kinds of different fish. It's fun to discover stuff. I bought Cheerwine soda. I discovered burrata cheese. I sampled roasted Hatch chiles. I even tried a little of the $100/pound ham. (Bottom line: I recommend the speck.)
None of this is cheap, but I choose what I grab for the cart. Much of the time, exotic items pile up with Wegmans house brands -- tomatoes, beans, chips, that burrata, lemon sodas, rice for risotto. They're cheaper, and they have been so regularly delicious that they color my view of the entire store. Supermarket sushi has never grabbed me -- mostly because I'm cheap, not because I'm looking down at the fish. But we bought Wegmans' sushi on the assumption it would be worth the price, and we really liked the rolls.
That balances out against all the gourmet sections. Organic grains. Exotic dried fruits. A million kinds of soda, water and iced tea. It's truly a series of stores within a store, and I hear people frustrated with the organization -- tomato sauce in one aisle, organic tomato sauce in another, tomato sauce from Italy all the way across the store. Last weekend, I hiked a quarter mile because Xochitl tortilla chips aren't in the chips aisle. I wandered the store like Magellan only to find them stocked near the cheese.
But again, that's my choice. I could have hit the chip aisle and gone home. The Xochitl just seemed important at the time.
(Update: It's just after 7 am, and I stumbled on a plastic bag on the kitchen counter. Last night, Mrs. HowChow went to Wegmans for dinner. The bag holds a bread and a pie. And there's a cheese that goes with the bread.)
This week, I'm posting a series of "best of" posts starting with best restaurants and best food experiences. Then some posts about best food shopping. You can click for all the "best of posts" going back. Wegmans is just part of the improvements around Howard County -- for example part of the recent revolution in bread.
What have you thought about Wegmans? This is all my posts. I wish there more sausages. They seem to go all over the map -- as long as the map is northern Europe. I'm waiting for the Whole Foods to fill that gap in 2014.