When I lived in Albany, NY, I learned about the great grocery divide in upstate New York. You see, there are two great food store chains – Price Chopper and Wegmans – in upstate New York. According to urban legend, the Wegman family and the Golub family (who own Price Chopper) entered into a gentlemen’s agreement whereby they would not overlap each other’s territories. Apparently, no such gentlemen’s agreement actually exists according to a 2008 article (http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2008/04/02/wegmans-price-chopper-the-real-deal) on alloveralbany.com.
That said, while living in Albany, I thoroughly enjoyed shopping at Price Chopper. The prices were great (compared to DC prices) and the quality of the produce, meat and fish exceptional. Then, I moved back to DC and, low and behold, Wegmans began to expand its presence in the metro DC market with a flagship store in Fairfax. And, that’s when I fell in love with a grocery store.
So, when the Wegmans Alexandria location opened up on June 14th, you could say that this foodie was particularly jazzed. The new store has all my favorites – the most beautiful selection of fresh produce you’ve ever seen, a cheese section that seems to go on to infinity, phenomenal fresh fish, and a cookie bar guaranteed to add an inch to your waist line just by sheer smell alone. On top of all this wondrousness, there is “The Pub” which serves all Wegmans brand items and has a great selection of local micro-brews. Then, I learned that Wegmans Alexandria has an Executive Chef.
Huh? How cool is that!
I sauntered over to the Service Desk in the Alexandria store and had the pleasure of meeting Diane Cullo, who, after hearing my long-winded praise of everything Wegmans and how I’d love to meet the Executive Chef, was kind enough to connect me with the man himself – Executive Chef Joe McCarthy.
Originally from Connecticut, Chef Joe graduated from the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI. His love of food, like most folks I know, came from family. His mom is second generation Italian and everyone cooked. He has fond memories of making pasta, wine and living farm to table.
“The downstairs kitchen was for cooking and the upstairs was for entertaining,” he notes with affection.
He started his culinary career in large hotels and eventually wound up opening flagship restaurants for Hyatt in Chicago and Hawaii. He then worked for a variety of different food industry related companies including Sous Vide, Cuisine Solutions and Norpac, working in R&D and sales.
HH: So how did you come to Wegmans after that variety of culinary, R&D and sales experience?
Chef Joe: “I knew one of the corporate chefs from Wegmans from my Chicago Hyatt experience and through connections. I actually started in the Fairfax Wegmans.”
HH: You lead over 100+ people here at the Alexandria Wegmans and oversee all the prepared food teams as well as “The Pub”. What does that mean from a day-to-day perspective?
Chef Joe: “The company values here at Wegmans are the most important thing. We really look for the right person to fit our culture. We have 135 people who work in the various prepared food areas that we offer. 60% of the folks who work in the kitchens already have really good experience and skills and the rest who we hire, we teach our values and the necessary skills. There are actually some current culinary management trainees who I hired as dishwashers. That’s a really great feeling.”
HH: Sounds like a lot of your day is keeping on the move checking on everything.
Chef Joe: “That’s right. My days are really spent doing a lot of teaching and coaching to help people get better at what they are doing and help them with their personal professional development. We do a lot of rigorous, structured training both on the computer and in the store. We currently have three sous chefs, fourteen team leaders, one café manager and a manager of ‘The Pub’. We’re always looking for all of our folks to be able to talk with customers, regardless of position.”
HH: And it shows. The service at Wegmans is exceptional. So, tell me about “The Pub”. It’s the first in any of your Virginia stores.
Chef Joe: “There are actually five Pubs in our Pennsylvania stores with the first one started about six years ago. Wegmans actually has four restaurant concepts within various locations – Amore (Italian food), ‘The Pub’ (featuring all Wegmans brands and local micro-brews), Next Store Bar & Grill (great all American food) and The Burger Bar (well, you guessed it – burgers!). Some stores still have The Seafood Bar. These will ultimately be revamped as a mini Pub. We also do a significant amount of catering. Actually, today we catered Rotisserie Chicken to Air Force One!”
HH: How awesome is that! Guess the FLOTUS knows where to get the best Rotisserie Chicken! Speaking of great food, what’s your approach to ingredients and menu design?
Chef Joe: “We do a five-season menu here at Wegmans. The extra one is for the holidays. Most of the recipes are driven through our corporate office. However, we’ve developed core recipes depending on the particular season. We also cook a lot in the store to show customers our products and how to use them. We also do special events and receptions like Chili Fest and Sushi Fest, just to name a few.”
HH: Do you have a particular recipe that’s your favorite during the summer months?
Chef Joe: “I love all the sweet onions and mini peppers and great heirloom tomatoes this time of year.”
HH: Sounds like that Italian heritage coming out.
Chef Joe: “Yes! I’ll take all the ripe tomatoes and cut them up with fresh basil, aged balsamic and pepper and buttermilk blue cheese (look for this on ‘The Pub’s’ steak sandwich). I also like to cook at home. I find I grill a lot of fish.”
HH: What else would you like your customers to know?
Chef Joe: “I’d really like them to know how committed Wegmans is to healthy eating and options. Some of this is around our marketing “Live Well/Eat Well.” For example, we now have sushi that is completely gluten free. We are always striving for continuous improvement. In addition, we only partner with sustainable producers for our meat and fish. We have our own organic farm in upstate New York where we teach our local farming partners about our standards and about best practices. It’s really important for me (and all of Wegmans) to source locally. When they are creating something seasonally appropriate, our pantry is the store. We have so many things great dishes that you can create from that bounty.”
If you really need more proof that Wegmans is amazing, then you just need to go. And while you’re there, say hi to Chef Joe and his team.