NORTHBOROUGH - The first time I walked among the thronging mass of shoppers banging their carriages through the massive produce section of the brand new Wegmans supermarket, a single unimpeachable thought coursed through my impressionable little mind: This is horrifying.
Horrifying as in, what happened to us? Horrifying as in, how can these grocers in overalls from upstate New York show up in Massachusetts and have our sophisticated citizenry quite literally and immediately eating out of their hands.
A very nice spokeswoman from Wegmans, Jo Natale, later told me that this store smashed every possible Wegmans record. There were 2,000 people waiting in line at 7 a.m. when they flung the doors open the first time. More than 25,000 people shopped there on grand opening day, and more than 130,000 that first week.
Some 28,000 people signed up for loyalty cards before the store opened. I’m sorry, but you couldn’t get 28,000 people to sign up for a Red Sox loyalty card right now.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this grocery store has become, in two weeks, the biggest cultural/tourist/commercial attraction in Massachusetts, bigger than any of the grand museums of Boston. And consider that Wegmans sits far from any highway in a little outpost called Northborough, which, oddly enough, is located just west of nowhere.
But just as I was about to declare us an uncivilized collection of lemmings, no better than, say, Georgia or Texas, I noticed something odd around the dry-aged meat locker and the day boat fish counter.
Shoppers were smiling. They were happy. They didn’t even seem to mind the fact they were banging their carts into one another because there was barely a square inch of open space to maneuver. And that’s when it all started coming together for me.
At one level, this Wegmans caters to our last acceptable vice, which is food. You can’t smoke these days. You’re not supposed to drink to excess. It’s socially unacceptable to drive too fast. Even television is starting to get a bad rap.
But we can still eat. The Food Network is all the rage. Chefs are the new celebrities. Cookbooks fly off the shelves. Restaurants, even exquisitely mediocre ones, pack in diners night after night.
And Wegmans brings all this together in grand fashion, with its own burrito maker, gourmet coffee shop, a comfort food bar with baked chicken, Indian food bars, dim sum, Thai, a wokery, freshly baked pizzas, and a little restaurant called The Food Bar that churns out seared scallops that look like they could be served at L’Espalier.
Then there’s the charcuterie and the array of doughnuts, muffins, bagels, and breads made in the store, and the fish case with every creature that’s ever swum in our seas and a cheese shop as big as a CVS.
If food is our last vice, Wegmans is the ultimate house of ill repute, and a stunning one at that. The owners of Stop & Shop and Shaw’s are probably lying in a fetal position with this arrival.
But I suspect there’s also something else driving this popularity. Outside those double doors, the world is an especially chaotic place these days. Unemployment rates will barely budge. The stock market plunges every time a deputy finance minister in Greece gets a cold. There are unkempt protesters to the left, know-it-all Tea Party acolytes to the right. In Washington, politicians spend so much time posturing that they get precisely nothing done. The moment is filled with noise and distrust.
Amid all this, there is Wegmans, a haven, where everything is on display, the prices are fair, and the staff seems happy you’re there.
So I bought a dozen cookies for the ride back to Boston. After the third, I tossed the bag into the back seat, just out of reach, which worked fine until the next rest stop, when I stopped to retrieve it.
If food is comfort, this seems like the wrong time to be deprived.