A High School Musical for Grocery Geeks
When cult supermarket Wegmans took a New England suburb by storm, it inspired a local drama teacher to pen a tribute.
By Matthew Boyle, Bloomberg Businessweek
Apr 12, 2019
The spring musical at Algonquin Regional High School in the Boston suburb of Northborough last year was in many ways your typical teenage mélange of singing, dancing and overacting. The closing number of the first act paid homage to “One Day More,” the rousing hit from Les Misérables, but with some lyrical tweaks:
To-mor-row’s shift from two to eight,
I wish that it would last forever.
One more day of helping shoppers,
One more day of selling food!
Instead of a barricade on the streets of Paris, the sparsely decorated set included a pallet of paper towels and a shopping cart. Most theatergoers might be confused by a musical about a supermarket, but the Algonquin audience ate it up. In fact, some of them had seen it before—the show was originally staged on a smaller scale in 2012, just months after an upstate New York grocery chain called Wegmans opened its first New England location in town. On its first day of business, the store attracted 25,000 people.
Wegmans took the area by storm, literally: During a winter blizzard, it was one of the few places with power. Then a local couple got engaged there, adding to the cult appeal that’s helped Wegmans become America’s favorite supermarket. Algonquin drama teacher Maura Morrison wove those tales together, set them to music from hit Broadway shows like Hamilton and The Book of Mormon, and Wegmans… The Musical was born.
“I didn’t write it because I thought Wegmans needed the business,” Morrison says. “I wrote it because nobody talks about any other store the way people talk about Wegmans.”
If a drama class decided to stage a production about the wider American retail industry today, the result would likely be a Shakespearean tragedy, not the peppy musical that Morrison wrote and directed. Vaunted icons such as Sears and Kmart are slowly receding, malls are replacing their vacant storefronts with medical clinics and coworking spaces, and thousands of entry-level jobs are at risk of being supplanted by robots that can scrub floors, scan shelves, and never call in sick.
Supermarkets have avoided much of the industry’s pain thus far for the simple reason that while Americans can put off buying a new blouse or big-screen TV, they still have to eat. But Amazon.com Inc.’s 2017 purchase of upscale grocer Whole Foods Market sent shock waves throughout the $840 billion grocery sector, prompting big chains like Walmart Inc. and Kroger Co. to spend billions upgrading their digital operations, sprucing up their stores, and lowering prices.
Wegmans Chairman Danny Wegman, whose grandfather and great-uncle founded the chain in 1916, says the Whole Foods deal was a “wake-up call.” But it’s not the first time he’s seen his industry upended. In 1969, Wegman wrote his Harvard senior thesis on the threat that mass merchants like Walmart posed to food retailers. His response to those threats—then and now—is to make Wegmans a shopping experience like no other. From the quality of the cave-ripened cheeses to the encyclopedic knowledge of the staff, “it’s like the food court at Harrods,” says one fan of the chain.
In other words, Wegmans is retail theater.
So when Wegmans announced it was opening its first Massachusetts store in 2011, drama teacher Morrison mentioned it in passing to a friend who had grown up in the company’s hometown of Rochester, N.Y. “She totally freaked out, she was hyperventilating—it was bizarre,” Morrison recalls. When Morrison learned that people had camped out the night before the Northborough store’s grand opening, it intrigued her even more. So she drove half an hour to check it out.
“I don’t expect much from a grocery store,” she says...