When I was a student at Ithaca College in Upstate New York, I didn’t have as fun a time as I’d anticipated. I was lonely, depressed and more homesick than expected for nearly all four years. Watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer in bed with a massive bag of white cheddar Smartfood popcorn helped, but only one ritual would make me feel (sort of) like a person again when I was at my lowest: going to Wegmans. Yes, the Northeastern-based grocery store chain.

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wegmans essay exterior
Wegmans

Leaving campus helped me remember that life beyond college was a thing—that most of the time, I was in a sad, sealed-off bubble of circumstances that weren’t exactly “real life” and eventually, it’d burst, and I’d get to turn the page. I’d spend hours perusing the store, turning the mundane chore of grocery shopping into a field trip. As a self-identified emotional eater and snack connoisseur, no salve for my depression was as reliable or effective as a Wegmans visit.

There are more than 100 locations across Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, so only shoppers in select parts of the East Coast can visit on the reg. If you’re from outside the region, odds are you’re wondering what all the fuss is about and how a grocery store can have bonafide healing powers. Well, allow me to be the first to say that’s it’s not just any grocery store. It’s a supremely special place, and it’s garnered a hyper-regional cult following for a few reasons.

wegmans essay interior
Wegmans

Wegmans is sort of like an amusement park for foodies, or if a mini mall, open-air farmers market and Epcot had a supermarket baby. They’re well-organized and less rigidly designed than other grocery stores. The chain is a little on the fancy side à la Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, but they also have all the big brands that their competitors consider too lowbrow to carry. Even better, they have killer store-brand products that are generally more affordable than those of their competitors. The employees are also incredibly knowledgeable and friendly, and seem to genuinely love their jobs (seriously—Wegmans ranked third in Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2019, and ranked first on their list of Best Workplaces in Retail for the last six years.)

But those aren’t the only things that make it great—at least not to me. Once you explore the following six sections of the store, you’ll understand how a supermarket became my accidental happy place (and I’d be willing to bet it’ll become yours too).

1. The Positively *Massive* Cheese Department

I made too many makeshift charcuterie boards in my dorm room to count, thanks to Wegmans’ 300+ cheese roster. The store has its own climate-controlled cheese cave where all their cheeses are aged and stored. There’s even a room exclusively dedicated to Brie. I only needed one teeny cube of the store-brand 8-month Manchego to realize: I’d found my people. If you like olives, don’t leave without scouring the olive bar for just the right pairing, and add some salami and crackers to your cart while you’re at it. Oh, and the best part? Free. Samples. Galore. (Well, in pre-pandemic times, anyway.)

wegmans essay bakery
Dasha Burobina

2. The Bakery

Yes, much of Wegmans’ fish is sourced from local suppliers and shipped to the store within hours of being caught. Yes, their $5 oven-roasted chickens are a quick, affordable way to feed your fam. And yes, their flower department, famous for its customized bouquets, is unparalleled to those of other grocery stores. But I was a college student—I was there for the good stuff, in this case, their individually packaged slices of fresh yellow cake with vanilla frosting.

This was my equivalent to the proverbial Ben & Jerry’s pint that sad women are always forced to eat in movies. I may or may not have even drunkenly expressed to my roommate that I wished I was a carnival while eating this cake, because carnivals are fun and loved by the masses. Yeah, these were dark times—but none a few rainbow sprinkles couldn’t fix. Don’t even get me started on the fresh bread.

3. The Ever-Delicious Market Cafe

If someone took me on a dinner date to the Wegmans eat-in cafe, I’d be smitten—and even more so if we stopped by the bakery for dessert to-go. The hot bar has something for everyone, but personally, I’d make a beeline for the sushi counter or the pasta bar basically every time I ate there. The pizzeria is a solid cheap option, and while you won’t find a real New York slice there (you’d be surprised how wide the gap is between New York City pizza and New York State pizza), it’s cheesy, greasy and soothing in a bad-pizza-that’s-still-good kind of way.

4. The Holy Grail of Craft Beer Selections

Sure, Wegmans slings $6 bottles of vino like nobody’s business, but I was wholeheartedly there for the overflowing craft beer—once I was 21, that is. In fact, my first legal drink was a UFO Raspberry Hefeweizen purchased at Wegmans, which I sipped in my dorm alongside a raspberry-topped slice of chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream, a “we’re sorry” dessert gifted to me by Buffalo Wild Wings after a particularly heinous meal. There are rows and rows of craft beer and cider to sift through, many from regional favorites like Southern Tier, Ithaca Beer Co. and Thin Man Brewery. And it’s not just strictly IPAs either, because Wegmans knows the people (er, I) need goses, wild ales and stouts, too. Might I suggest pairing your picks with wings from the hot bar?

wegmans essay PQ
Dasha Burobina

5. The Cottagecore-Quality Produce Section

Just like everyone else, I’m not leaving Wegmans without a tub of caramelized onion hummus and mini pitas for dipping. But there are times when you’re living in a dorm room when you literally need something that was actually grown in the ground to make it to your 9 a.m. Shakespeare class. (I tried my hardest to live on Nutella and Snyder’s Honey Mustard & Onion Pretzel Pieces, but alas.) That’s where Weggie’s top-notch produce section came in, as it was always teeming with local fruits and veggies that were sure to zap me back to life.

Black plums and nectarines were my go-tos, and I’d also buy sliced Granny Smith apples and berries to snack on between classes. If I was feeling adventurous, I’d hang out by the exotic fruits, trying to determine if the disposable plastic knives in my room would be able to cut through them. (Starfruit yes, dragon fruit no.)

6. The Bulk Candy Store

I’d mosey over to the bulk candy section all adult-like, as if I’d come for the vanilla-almond granola (which is exceptional, BTW), but if I’m being honest, it was for the nostalgia. Picture tall pillars filled with gummies, chocolates, candied nuts and more, lining a sky-colored, three-walled room. Think massive tubs of sweets, waiting to be snatched with a garden trowel-like scoop and poured into a to-go bag, just like those candy stores we millennials used to frequent at the mall as kids. (Unless that’s just a Jersey thing…) Best of all, there’s a toy train that rides around the entirety of this tiny corner of heaven, solidifying the childlike, fairytale vibe that I’d braved the Ithaca cold to bask in.

A baggie of chocolate-covered pretzels and Swedish Fish in hand, and I could finally see the light at the end of the academic tunnel. I’d head back to the parking lot with the sound of an imaginary steam engine reverberating in my head, chugging along to who knows where, and I no longer felt so stuck.

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