By PAT CARROLL

Of The Patriot-News

The Wegmans store on Carlisle Pike doesn’t open for two weeks, but
its new employees have been working all summer.

For Jacob Zimmerman, that’s meant riding the company van to the Allentown store every workday to learn all about seafood — from checking the trucks when they pull in with fresh fish from New Jersey to learning how to fillet and cook them.

Rick Mikulski’s days have been spent with the best cheese shop managers in the company. In his future are trips to meet with American and European cheesemakers.

That’s training, Wegmans style.

“It’s because of the complexity of their training needs,” said Jeff Metzger, an industry analyst with Food Trade News.

“The footprint of their typical store is more than two times the size of an average supermarket, so there are significantly more employees — and if you’ve been in a Wegmans, significantly more specialty departments.

“The expanded bakery, confectionery, prepared foods and expanded seafood departments not only involve more personnel, they typically involve a higher level of training to make it all work.”

The employees of the Silver Spring Twp. store have been working side by side with experienced people.

“We rented a dozen vans from Enterprise,” said Wegmans front-end manager Ben Reed, who has charge of the checkouts.

“Employees come here at 8 a.m. and they join a van going to Williamsport, for instance. They get there around 10, train until 2, come back in the van and get back here around 4.”

Back here is the Wegmans hiring office in Gateway Square shopping plaza, Hampden Twp., which started interviewing job seekers in February. One of them is Zimmerman, 23, of Mechanicsburg, who has been working in another nearby grocery chain since he was 16.

He trained in Allentown this summer with the fish crew.

“They’re teaching me all the different filleting techniques, how to clean soft-shell crabs, a lot of little things you need to know.”

Zimmerman has been on the receiving dock, too, checking weight and condition of the fresh fish delivered every day from the Jersey shore. When the new store opens, he’ll be the assistant seafood manager.

Meanwhile, in the Warrington store, veteran Wegmans manager Mikulski has been honing his cheese skills.

Training starts with classes about the families of cheese, the different taste profiles and lots of tastings. It then goes on to dealing with curious customers face to face.

“And there’s a lot more that the company does that I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet,” Mikulski said. “They send people on yearly visits to Wisconsin to see the cheesemaking process and to Europe.”

Bringing the bakery up to speed are two pastry chefs from the most prestigious cooking school in the nation, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

“I’m responsible for all the breads,” Steph Jaffie, the bread team leader, said. She started out in bread after the culinary institute, went to the create-a-cake department, and came back in charge of bread for the new store.

Bakery manager Sue Olson had a career in advertising and graphic design, but wanted to change.

“I went back to school, to CIA, got my bachelor’s in baking and pastry management and, after I graduated, I joined Wegmans.”

No matter the knowledge or experience level of the employee, however, they all know how to run a cash register.

“We like to get everybody cashier-trained,” front-end manager Reed said. “When the front end becomes busy, we pull from other areas to come jump on a register, even if it’s only for five minutes. We get that customer flow going.”

Trainer Julie Loughlin makes sure new employees focus on customers as well as the cash register.

“We emphasize customer service, that’s our number-one priority when we train.”

That means making eye contact and listening to what customers have to say.

Seth Kimmel of Enola has had several jobs in his young life, “and this is the most intense training I’ve had.”

Training teens well is important.

“More than half of our store managers started with the company as teenagers,” said Jo Natale, Wegmans public relations manager. “Including Kevin Lang.”

Lang will manage the largest grocery in the Harrisburg area at 132,000 square feet of food and other stuff.

“There will be things in this store that are fairly new to the company,” he said. “They’re only happening in a few stores.”

One is a seafood bar, “where customers can actually come up and order their meal, watch it be prepared and sit down at a bar and eat it right there,” Lang said.

The cafe at Wegmans will have seating for about 250, and eventually might have a restaurant license to serve wine and beer. Besides groceries, the Wegmans have been in the wine and spirits business for 40 years. It was a good investment, but the company also has invested heavily in its workers.

During the past couple of decades, Wegmans has contributed $60 million for college scholarships to more than 20,500 employees. As one result, annual turnover for Wegmans employees is just 6 percent, a fraction of the industry average.

This year, Wegmans marked its 10th year on Fortune magazine’s “List of 100 Best Companies to Work For.”

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Bonjour!

In culinary school and getting ready to trade the writing life for the cooking life. Or not. Might do both. At the moment I'm a feature writer for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. My name is Pat Carroll.

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