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The Boston Globe

Business

Wegmans sets goal to open in Boston

Grocer chain hunts sites; says Hub poses challenge

Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press/File 2011

Wegmans chief executive Danny Wegman says he wants a Boston market, but that it would probably be smaller than most in the chain.

Wegmans Food Markets scouted properties in the South End and Fenway neighborhoods on Wednesday as possible locations for its first grocery store in Boston, according to several people briefed on the matter.

Wegmans chief executive Danny Wegman confirmed he was “looking at a couple of sites’’ in the city that did not include Downtown Crossing or the South Boston Waterfront, but he would not identify the properties.

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“We believe we belong in Boston, not just in the suburbs,’’ Wegman told an audience earlier in the day during a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Wegmans, the family-run supermarket chain popular for its expansive selection and friendly atmosphere, launched its first Massachusetts store last fall in Northborough. The 138,000-square-foot food emporium’s grand opening attracted huge crowds, setting a record for the company.

Wegmans’ officials on Wednesday toured sites in the Fenway, including those owned by Samuels & Associates, one of the neighborhood’s major developers, as well as the former Boston Herald location in the South End, according to people briefed on the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Ted Tye, managing partner at National Development, which is redeveloping the South End property near the Southeast Expressway, would not comment on specific retailers, but said, “We’re talking to several different grocers who are interested in the site, and lots of people are getting in touch with us.’’

The Newton real estate company has plans to demolish the two-story newspaper facility and replace it with four new buildings with 475 apartments and 85,000 square feet of retail space between Harrison and Albany streets. The Globe reported last year that the Whole Foods supermarket chain had considered opening a store in the new complex, but is no longer interested and has since opened a market in Jamaica Plain.

Michelle Sheppard/Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Wegmans opened in Northborough, then looked to Burlington and Chestnut Hill.

Wegmans, a New York company with 79 stores in six states, already has plans to open a large supermarket in Burlington, and a scaled-back, 70,000-square-foot version in Chestnut Hill. That store - which will be the smallest the company has built in a decade - would probably be the model for a Boston location.

At the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event, Wegman said he is fascinated with the Boston region because it is the most highly educated and densely populated market the chain has entered. But he added that because the region is different, the company has to tinker with its successful business formula, something Wegman said is unnerving.

“In some ways, coming to Boston is terrifying,’’ he said. “Going from 130,000 feet to 70,000, you’re making an enormous amount of guesses. This is a big deal for us.’’

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he called Wegman on Wednesday after the chief executive publicly expressed interest in bringing his brand to the city.

“I left a message for Danny and said I’d like to have a conversation. I’m excited that he wants to be in Boston, and I’m going to be aggressive on this and try to work on turning his statement into a reality,’’ Menino said. “I’ve been to Wegmans, and I’ve seen what a great store it is. They’d fit right into the Boston area, and I think they’d do very well.’’

Menino said there are a number of locations he’d like to show to the grocer, including the former Filene’s property in Downtown Crossing and other sites in the South Boston Waterfront, the Fenway, and North Station, where a longtime promise by Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. to bring a supermarket has not materialized.

Kevin Griffin, publisher of The Griffin Report of Food Marketing, a Duxbury trade publication, said Wegmans has plans to open six or seven stores across New England in a short period of time.

Supermarket and drugstore chains across the country, including Walmart and Walgreens, have focused on opening urban grocery stores as a new avenue for growth, Griffin said. Most such stores are considerably smaller than their suburban counterparts.

“Boston is a great fit for Wegmans. It will increase brand awareness and bring more traffic,’’ Griffin said. “It means more competition for the other supermarkets. Wegmans is a world-class organization. They don’t do anything half-baked.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.
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