WEGMANS TAKES VARIED FRESH COURSE IN PRINCETON

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Wegmans Food Markets crossed the border into New Jersey last week with a fresh approach that showcases open production, highlights local products and features a Market Cafe menu that runs the gamut from traditional to ultra-gourmet.The fresh message is sent more boldly in the new 109,000-square-foot store here than in any of the Rochester, N.Y.-based chain's other stores that SN

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Wegmans Food Markets crossed the border into New Jersey last week with a fresh approach that showcases open production, highlights local products and features a Market Cafe menu that runs the gamut from traditional to ultra-gourmet.

The fresh message is sent more boldly in the new 109,000-square-foot store here than in any of the Rochester, N.Y.-based chain's other stores that SN has visited.

Opening day, Aug. 8, staffers could be seen cutting fresh vegetables, shucking corn, tossing pizza dough and pouring gazpacho into huge soup tureens at a newly spotlighted soup station in the store's Market Cafe.

The boulangerie visually dominates the left side of the fresh-food aisle here. It has been expanded in width and the profile of the cases has been lowered to allow a full view of a huge brick oven. The bakery production area was opened up a few months ago at the chain's Pittsford, N.Y., flagship store, as well. Here, staffers, right in front of customers, cut corn fresh from the cob for corn bread.

At a demo station nearby, an associate grilled baby vegetables and offered samples. She handed out recipes and pointed to a display of petit pan squash, baby zucchini and baby green beans alongside her station. She noted, too, that you could buy a grill right there for $59.

Seafood is big at this store. One display on ice featured a whole dolphin fish (mahi mahi) and a whole tile fish positioned to look head on into the aisle.

Value-added meats take a back seat here to value-added seafood in myriad forms from marinated swordfish ready for the grill to steamed lobster meat pulled from the shell. Enormous Thailand shrimp, twice as big as jumbo shrimp, are offered here, too.

The right-side entrance opens into the Market Cafe. SN noted that the ambiance falls somewhere between the elegant feel of the fresh aisle/Market Cafe at the 59-unit chain's Pittsford, N.Y., flagship store and the more utilitarian, more brightly lit presentation at a recent remodel in Amherst, a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb. This one's different, said veteran Wegmans watchers.

"The remarkable thing about Wegmans is that they have a format that's flexible enough so they can make it work in just about any neighborhood," said an industry source in Rochester.

The Market Cafe menu on opening day here offered three dinner entree choices: a salmon dish, beef tenderloin with gorgonzola butter, and chicken pizziole. Intriguing side dishes as well as entrees are the work of a team of chefs, several of whom were drawn from the restaurant industry.

Even the rotisserie chicken here has an upscale twist. It's available with corn and pepper spoonbread right in the container with it. The price: $8.99. For that same price, traditional stuffing can also be had with a whole chicken. A whole chicken alone in four flavors, was $6.99. A prep area behind the hot food lineup runs at least 25 feet deep.

The menu board in the Market Cafe is a real board. On it glossy, bordered sheets list the menu choices, categorized by antipasti, entree, sides and desserts. Significantly there are no prices posted.

The very high-end French patisserie sits in line at Princeton. The pastry counter, which the chain introduced earlier this summer at Pittsford, sells tiny "Nicolette" cookies at 70 cents each and individual pastries such as fruit tarts and tropical tortes starting at $4.50 each (see W Patisserie at Wegmans Brings Taste, Look of Paris, SN, June 28, 1999).

At this store, W Patisserie has been moved in line with the regular bakery. It runs 15 feet, but it can't be seen until a shopper is halfway down the fresh-food aisle. It's not paired with the coffee bar as it is at Pittsford. Instead, here the coffee bar, upfront, leads off a lineup of more traditional fare with traditional prices. Inside the middle entrance of the store, there is the coffee bar to the right, then hot pizza by the slice. There is a self-service wing bar. The price: $4.99 a pound. The new store also offers sub sandwiches station, self-service Chinese at $4.99 a pound.

The "Chef's Case," a service counter with chilled prepared foods, presented a wide range of prices as well as some unique items. "Portabello pizzas," pepper-corn cakes, sweet potato-almond cakes and cheese-pesto quesadillas all were $2.99 each. A huge platter of attractively arranged roasted vegetables, which included whole roasted corn on the cob, was $6.98 a pound; creamed spinach, $6.98 a pound.