Often-snubbed Pr. George's scores the grocery grail: Wegmans

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 11:51 PM

There will be plenty of swooning this Sunday over the wheels of Parmesan that roll in from Italy, the tilapia al fornoto go and the posh gourmet butter bar.

That's a given when a Wegmans opens. The grocery store's groupies camp out in the parking lot the night before an opening; they blog about it; they wear their "I (Heart) Wegmans" shirts; they sing the Wegmans' song and dance to the store's special cheer.

If all that didn't tip me off, the Wegmans truck Pez dispenser did. This place is a cult.

But when this particular Disneyland for foodies opens in Prince George's County at 7 a.m. Sunday, the triumph will be far, far sweeter than the fabled grocery store's patisserie section.

Ready, Prince George's residents? Face west, put your thumb to your nose and wiggle your fingers toward Montgomery County with all you've got.

You won!

Montgomery got the Nordstrom. It got the Cheesecake Factory. It got way too many health clubs. But despite Montgomery's online groups, petitions and endless, whiny love letters begging for a Wegmans, Prince George's beat them on this one.

"Finally, finally, we can say we have something that Montgomery County does not have," Arthur Turner told me this week. The community activist who has fought for better restaurants and shops in Prince George's for more than a decade said he's been beaming, "smiling a Kool-Aid jug smile" all week.

This is a big step toward ending the red-lining of Prince George's, he said.

"We don't have a Whole Foods; we don't have a Trader Joe's; we don't have a Clyde's restaurant; we don't have a Sport & Health," he explained.

This has been a point of insult and outrage for one of America's wealthiest predominantly African American communities.

Whole Foods has a warehouse in Landover. "They store their food here, they make their food here, but they won't open a store to sell food to the people who live here," Turner said. "And there is a pent-up need here. People are tired of it."

What happens is, retailers look at neighboring Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which are among the wealthiest in the United States with their median household incomes in 2009 of about $107,000 and $93,000, respectively.

They compare that fertile retail ground with Prince George's, which is above the Maryland state average with a median household income of $71,000.

And though it's among the nation's top 30 counties in wealth, retailers keep taking a pass, and its residents drive across state or county lines to shop, eat and play.

It's as if you drew a big circle around Prince George's on a map and every big chain store, every high-end restaurant and health club has set up camp outside that circle, Turner told me.

Walter Petrie, developer of the Woodmore Towne Center in Glenarden, which will be anchored by Wegmans and Costco, said it was the first time the chain put a store in a predominantly minority market.

They're already seeing the love.

"We have never had a welcome as warm as the one we've had in Prince George's County," said company spokeswoman Jo Natale just a couple hours after landing at the site this week, which has been clogged with people who just want to come and stand outside and look at the store. Adoringly. As though it were a retail oracle.

The chain opens only two or three stores a year. This will be the second and last of 2010, Natale said.

Wegmans gets thousands of e-mails, calls and letters every year from folks beseeching the company for a store in their neighborhood.

"We're very, very selective about the sites we choose," Natale said. They need a lot of space because it's big. Beyond being a fancy-schmancy gourmet store with a wine bar and sushi chefs and a personal pasta expert who blogs, it's also a basic-staples supermarket with very low prices. The one in Glenarden will be more than 130,000 square feet.

And they need it to be accessible. The Glenarden store is right off the Beltway. It is common for people to drive 30 or 40 miles to shop at Wegmans. The clerk at their Fairfax store told me that when I had my first Wegmans experience on a recon mission last week.

The pleas they get can be a bit pathetic, really.

"Please, please be kind and help this great-food deprived family," read one of the letters Wegmans received from a Potomac family that drives two hours in rush-hour traffic to get to the nearest Wegmans.

Or this one from a lawyer in Bethesda:

"I'll drive the 40 miles to [the Wegmans] in Dulles if I must. But please consider opening a store in Montgomery County."

There is a Facebook group, "Bring Wegmans to Germantown, Maryland!"

That effort nearly died when the county introduced legislation to ban all big-box stores. (Oops! We were thinking more, um, pedestrian places like Wal-Mart. Not the kind of place that has ready-to-cook beef braciola - heavens, no.)

Germantown will get one, but not until 2012.

In the meantime, Beltway gourmets, it's about time you get to know Prince George's.

E-mail me your favorite Wegmans item at dvorakp@washpost.com.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company