WOODBRIDGE — Customers gave Wegmans the thumbs up at its grand opening Sunday, but not everyone is happy with the privately-owned supermarket.
Protesters from the United Food and Commercial Workers International were toting signs on a picket line outside the store Sunday. They often are seen outside several of Wegmans’ existing locations.
"Wegmans operating a non-union store is in fact lowering contemporary community wages and benefits," said John Niccollai, president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union Local 464A, which is a part of the food and commercial workers union.
Woodbridge manager Scott Payne pointed to Wegmans’ placement on Fortune magazine’s "Top 100 Places to Work."
Payne, who managed Wegmans’ Bridgewater store before transferring to the Woodbridge store, said his employees are happy.
"We’ve been on Fortune’s top 100 for six consecutive years," Payne said. "We pay comparable wages and have terrific benefits packages for our employees.
"I think the best we can do here is to provide an environment that makes it a great place to work and to shop, and that’s our top priority," Payne said. "We’ve been in New Jersey for four years now. Our workers know by now what kind of employer we are."
On Sunday, union members were the only people doing any protesting.
"I liked it a lot. This is my second time here today," Laurie McClellan of Woodbridge said. "And I’m definitely coming back."
McClellan said she was glad Woodbridge now has a Wegmans, despite the amount of traffic a large store like Wegmans may produce.
"I’m glad it’s in the area," she said. "The traffic is so bad anyway, hopefully with the new road improvements it will be OK."
As far as prices go, McClellan said they are a little more than she is used to paying, but the quality of the food is worth the price.
"I’ll be spending a lot of money here. It’s expensive but it’s good food," she said.
"It’s unbelievable," Avenel resident Marina Letcsh said. "The size of it and everything that they have, it’s amazing."
Since this is only the fourth Wegmans to open in New Jersey, Letcsh, like other shoppers, had only heard about Wegmans before Sunday.
"This is my first experience," Letcsh said. "My sister-in-law has been to a bunch of them and she said if you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you won’t be able to."
Letcsh said she agrees with her sister-in-law.
"There are fruits in there I’ve never seen in normal supermarkets before," she said. "And the bakery and all the breads are unreal. They’re very tasty and very fresh and that’s what I like."
Part of what makes the bakery so "unreal" is a 2-ton brick oven that must be heated three weeks before it is even used.
"Because it’s stone, we have to be careful not to heat it too quickly or it will crack," Payne said. "So we can only increase the temperature a few degrees a day."
Payne said freshness is one of Wegmans’ first priorities.
"You can tell whether [food] is fresh in the taste and the texture," Payne said.
So Wegmans throws away its food products at the end of the day. To avoid wastefulness, he said, Wegmans is in the process of setting up programs with two or three local food banks.
"We’re in the process with local organizations of setting up a daily pickup. If we threw away everything every day, it would be a lot of waste," Payne said.
On Sunday, Wegmans’ newest customers were treated to free samples that focused on seasonal foods like apple cider raisin bread and roasted chestnuts throughout the store.
"Shoppers can always sample tastes of all the foods throughout the store," Payne said. "[Today] we have fun things like cider with mulling spices. We’re really getting into the fall harvest and allowing people to experience that inside the store."
Some shoppers sympathized with the protesters from the union, but said it’s not enough to keep them from shopping at the store.
Vivian Toporek, an Edison resident, said she didn’t see the protesters on Sunday, but she may have had second thoughts about shopping at Wegmans if she had.
"If I would’ve seen them, it probably would have had an effect," Toporek said. "I’m a teacher and I would never cross a picket line."
But the selection at Wegmans is just too good to pass up, Toporek said, pulling a bottle of hairspray usually found only in salons out of her shopping bag.
"I’ve looked for this everywhere. I can’t even find it in a beauty supply place. I’m thrilled with that," Toporek said. "It’s about a dollar more than what I usually pay, but now I can at least buy it.
"I feel for [the protesters]," she said, "but a lot of people found jobs here. I’ll definitely come back."
Alice Acevedo, a Colonia resident, said a picket line won’t stop her from shopping at Wegmans.
"It only makes me think it will keep prices down," Acevedo said. "I think it’s going to blow away the competition. The prices look very good, the people are very helpful and polite."