Someday, when we look back and wonder how our region became awash in Wegmans supermarkets, we might trace it back to the time when two old grocery families got together — the Wegmans and the Samuelses.
“My father and I spent days in the car with Danny Wegman and his daughter Colleen touring New England talking about the state of the grocery market,” recalled Steve Samuels, who, before single-handedly remaking the Fenway neighborhood, grew up in the grocery business in Cleveland. His father, Robert, ran First National Supermarkets, which operated several brands in Ohio and the Northeast, before he sold it to Dutch giant Ahold in the ’90s.
Meanwhile, the Wegmans, based out of Rochester, N.Y., carved out an empire in upstate New York and in the Mid-Atlantic region. Danny Wegman’s grandfather and great-uncle started the business, and it was Danny and his late father, Robert, who built it into the 84-store chain it is today, complete with a cult following. Think Whole Foods without the pretense and premium pricing.
The families were never competitors because they operated stores in different markets, but they knew each other from being in the industry. With the market in turmoil and major chains changing hands, the Wegmans wanted to break into New England, but needed a little help.
That high-powered road trip took place nearly a decade ago, and on Sunday the Wegmans will open their second location in New England, in Chestnut Hill. When they opened their store in Northborough in 2011, there were 2,000 people waiting in line by 7 a.m. No doubt Chestnut Hill will be mobbed, too.
By the fall, Wegmans will open its third market, in Burlington, and next year another, in Westwood. But the one that is making Danny Wegman anxious is the store that won’t be opening for three more years. That’s the Wegmans in Fenway’s Landmark Center, which is being redeveloped by Samuels with financial backing from Adam Weiner and others.
It is the first Wegmans in Boston, or for that matter in any major urban center, and Danny doesn’t know what quite to make of it yet.
“It’s such a complicated project,” said Wegman, 67, in a phone interview this month. “It’s in the middle of a city, an urban concept. What does that mean to us? Where we began was rural, really suburban.”
This Wegmans will be around 75,000 square feet — the same size as the Chestnut Hill location and about half the size of a typical Wegmans.
A week later, I caught up with Samuels in the Fenway, and now I know why Wegman may be wringing his hands. What they’ve got cooking is an ambitious, game-changing, foodie haven concept that makes your stomach growl when Samuels explains it.
“We’re putting a marketplace in there that’s going to be best in class food — à la Eataly, shades of old Faneuil Hall, Harrods, Chelsea Market,” said Samuels, 55.
“Not the actual Eataly ,” Samuels clarified, referring to the Italian food emporium created by celebrity chef Mario Batali. Instead, his secret sauce will be Wegman, whom he calls “the best food guy in the industry.”
The marketplace, which will feature food from Wegmans and other vendors, will be connected to a Wegmans supermarket. So you can still buy your own food and cook it.
Then there’s one more thing. Samuels is planning to put the marketplace in the middle of Landmark Center, which will require cutting a hole in the center of the building to allow pedestrians from the street and commuters from the T to walk through to the other side of Brookline Avenue. Preservationists take note — no harm will be done to the historic building; the entrance is just being repositioned.
With his hands full with Fenway, Wegman, who is the chief executive of his namesake chain, said he’s unlikely to open another store in Boston anytime soon. “At this point, we’re probably going to do Fenway and learn on that one,” he said.
But the suburbs are a different story. “We’re always open if there is a spot available,” said his daughter Colleen, 41, who is the chain’s president.
The Wegmans empire is growing, and food may never taste this good in New England again.