Wegmans started hosting live music in its stores on Friday nights as a test, and about a decade later, the events have spread to so many stores the company uses a booking agency to handle requests from local musicians.
But music is only the beginning of what’s being offered at grocery stores. There are beer tastings, cheese nights, meatless Mondays, crab feasts, summer cookouts. The Whole Foods markets in Plymouth Meeting and Exton have rooftop yoga classes.
At the Weavers Way Co-op in Ambler, about 400 people show up each week for “$4 Fridays” to buy complete hot meals sold at a discount price. Some customers opt to stay and eat in the store, sitting at folding tables set up in the freezer aisle and visiting with friends.
Jon Roesser, general manager of the Weavers Way co-ops, said $4 Fridays were aimed at making the nonprofit into a place where locals could feel plugged into their community. The store recently served its 20,000th such meal.
“That, to me, is what grocery stores should be in the 21st century,” he said.
But such events are also a crucial way to get people into the grocery store — something that has become more challenging in the era of meal-delivery kits and online shopping. In a way, the events are an acknowledgment that an in-store Starbucks or sushi case is no longer enough to encourage in-person shoppers, who tend to spend more money than online buyers because they make impulse purchases.
Roesser oversees cooperative stores that are sustained in part by membership fees and that don’t have to turn a profit. The goal is to break even financially, but in order to do that, the Weavers Way locations in Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, and Ambler still depend on in-store sales.
“Brick-and-mortar stores are trying to retain our relevance," Roesser said. "We’re all trying to evolve as the industry evolves. Years ago, you had to go grocery shopping as a chore. Now, the chore is gone — you can get it delivered. So anyone who’s selling food has to give you a reason to come here.”
Kevin Lang is manager of the Wegmans store in King of Prussia, where Friday night concerts are a reliable draw, particularly in the summer, when the performances move to the outdoor patio and tables. There, people can buy food and drinks from Wegmans and eat or order from the Pub, a connecting restaurant. The setup works for families with picky eaters, he said, and often the performances are attended by friends of the bands, too.
“I think there’s a lot of people who see grocery shopping as a task," said Lang, who has worked for Wegmans for 30 years. "But I think if we can make it an enjoyable experience, something people look forward to, it goes a long way toward changing that attitude.”
Wegmans in King of Prussia also hosts a crab fest with picnic tables and demonstrations by experts. On Saturdays, local breweries offer samples and educate people about new products. There are “meet the farmer” events to introduce customers to local produce and the people who grow it.
“It’s a great way for them to build their business," Lang said. “Because, let’s be honest, not all of our customers have the time or ability to visit their local farm stand once a week.”
That lack of time has also led Wegmans to create more products designed for customers who might be drawn to meal kits, such as ready-to-cook meals that can be prepared in oven-safe bags.
“We’re constantly innovating as a company, but I think you miss some of that innovation by only going online," Lang said. “It’s pretty simple: If you see something new and you can taste it or learn about it, you’re more likely to buy it.”
Whole Foods has long supported in-store tasting events and demonstrations, often featuring local businesses. Every store in the Philadelphia region offers tastings on Saturday afternoons, and some stores also host cheese nights, weekly live jazz concerts and, in the summer, yoga on the roof.
The Devon store hosts Thursday night cookouts in the summer with beer tastings and live music designed for families who go away for long weekends.
“They don’t want to cook and clean the night before they leave,” store team leader Ken Letherer said.
At Weavers Way in Ambler, the $4 Friday meals always include a main course and two sides — a recent menu was pork vindaloo, green beans and coconut, and rice — and there is always a vegan option. The dinners draw all kinds of customers, Roesser said.
“We’ve got people who come in once a week for their meal, and that’s perfectly fine,” he said. “That’s great. Because, otherwise, those folks aren’t coming in the door at all.”
Friends often come together or bump into each other there. On a recent January evening, a few tables of seniors clustered at the front of the store near the live music, while families with toddlers took seats at folding tables in the freezer aisle.
Christopher and Alexandra Lee, who live near the store, often come and bring their year-old daughter, Lyla. “It’s so convenient for us,” Christopher Lee said. “We can sit and eat, and she likes walking around. It’s a safe place for her to explore.”
On that night, they ran into one of Lee’s coworkers, Travis Whitmer, who was picking up meals to take home to his family.
“I tell everyone about $4 Fridays,” Whitmer said. “People ask what I’m doing — I tell them to come with me.”
The dinners don’t make money, Roesser said. The goal is to break even (an advantage of operating as a nonprofit, he added). But the bargain meals may pay off once diners start browsing the aisles, he said. And keeping the dinners priced low allows the store to combat a common misconception: that a co-op is an expensive place to shop.