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Town Haul Podcast / Episode 8

Town Haul Podcast


Welcome to the Town Haul Podcast


Rubicon’s first and only podcast where we share advice for techies, earth lovers and for penny pinchers!


People, Planet, and Peanut Butter Pretzels: Wegmans

Introduction to the Town Haul Rubicon Podcast

00:10 AK: Hey, guys. My name is AK and I’m your host for the Town Haul, Rubicon’s first and only podcast where we share advice for techies, for Earth lovers and for penny pinchers.

00:20 AK: As much as I love the sound of my own voice, this broadcast is going to rely heavily on guests who are subject matter experts on everything ranging from how to get your small business up and running, interviews with some of the brains behind your favorite apps and even how to remove garbage from outer space.

00:37 AK: You never know who’s going to pop up and join me next in the studio, so make sure to subscribe to the Town Haul on iTunes to get our episodes downloaded directly and if your boss is making you work through lunch or your commute is just too short and you miss something awesome, don’t worry we’ve got your back. You can check out our blog for recaps, reviews, and all things Town Haul. Hi, everyone and welcome to another episode of the Town Haul. I’m joined in the studio today by JW the manager of sustainability for Wegmans. Thank you so much for being here.

Jason Wadsworth Introduction & Background

01:13 JW: Thanks for having me.

01:13 AK: I just want to say before we get started that I really am such a fan girl of Wegmans. This is the 12-year-old me meeting the manager for the Backstreet Boys, I’m freaking out. I love Wegmans. Obviously, we don’t have one down south, but that’s what Amazon is for and I would be lost without my peanut butter pretzels and my salad dressing.

01:33 JW: They are so good.

01:34 AK: They are unbelievable. So let’s get started. Wegmans is an institution. Wegmans is a partner of Rubicon’s. Wegmans is a regional supermarket chain with a cult following. For those who don’t live up north or who have never seen the office, explain a little bit to our listeners about what is Wegmans, what’s the brand and how is Wegmans different from the traditional grocer?

About Wegmans Grocery

01:59 JW: Wegmans started back in 1916 as a fresh vegetable cart in Rochester, New York. It was the Wegman family, Robert Wegman is uncle and dad and it really transformed into this destination experience that you see today.

02:14 JW: Wegmans, our stores are big. To people that haven’t been to Wegmans before I try to equate them to, if you’ve been to a Whole Foods, it’s a Whole Foods the size of Costco, but way better.

02:26 AK: … explain the [inaudible 00:02:28]

02:29 JW: The folks down here.

02:30 AK: Totally.

02:30 JW: We’ve really built our brand on trust and customer loyalty, high standards, caring respect and these are the values that the Wegman family has carried on and continues to live by today.

02:44 AK: How did you get started working for Wegmans? Tell me a little bit about your path with the company and how long have you been there and stuff like that?

02:53 JW: I’m coming up on my 29th year at Wegmans. I started when I was 14, officially. My family history and the Wegman family history goes back a little bit. My grandfather and my dad worked for Wegmans, so I’m a third generation.

03:09 JW: Beyond that I’m also a fourth generation farmer. Wegmans actually purchased my family farm back in the 1960s and so I grew up on a farm and I grew up with my grandfather and my dad, but also as a Wegman really. Wegmans was always a part of my life because my dad and my grandfather [inaudible 00:03:31] so those values, not only the Wegman values, but family values kind of played a part in where I am today.

03:40 AK: Living on a farm obviously you were kind of ahead of the curve in terms of sustainability, is that what really sparked your passion for sustainability at such a young age?

03:50 JW: I think so, farmers have to think differently and we have to innovate and you have to take care of the Earth or the Earth will not take care of you, right?

03:58 AK: Right.

04:00 JW: Yeah, I think that that’s where really that passion for doing the right thing, not only for the environment, but for our company was instilled in me.

04:10 AK: So now you manage sustainability for the whole Wegmans brand, what does that look like?

Corporate Sustainability at Wegmans

04:15 JW: We tend to kind of break it up into pieces, that’s the old saying, how do you eat an elephant? Back in 2007 when I started doing sustainability for Wegmans it was a pretty new concept. Before that it was called environmental recycling; reduce, reuse, recycle. Those were the terms thrown out in the late ’80s, early ’90s so when sustainability came out it was really educating about what is sustainability and learning what we were already doing at Wegmans that would be considered a sustainable business practice.

04:50 JW: We came up with a mission statement and very shortly it’s reducing our emissions, that’s our current footprint, reducing our waste to landfill, and providing sustainable packaging and product choices for our customers. That’s really where we’ve tried to focus these last 11 years.

05:12 AK: Do a lot of large grocers have managers of sustainability, is this a newer concept in that field? You spoke about how you started in 2007 and how environmental issues obviously have become a big deal for Wegmans, but have you seen that kind of across the board with all grocers? Is this kind of the norm now?

05:33 JW: Yes, it’s more commonplace now, absolutely. I think in the food retail industry I might have been the first name to sustainability person.

05:42 AK: That’s pretty cool.

05:43 JW: Definitely in the minority, right? It is definitely more commonplace now. Back in 2007, the Food Marketing Institute, which is the trade association we belong to formed the Sustainability Task Force which has now become the Sustainability Executive Committee so it’s definitely more permanent and it really started about learning what is sustainability, how can we all get around it, and work towards that common goal.

06:08 JW: That’s one thing that Wegmans in the industry we don’t see sustainability as competitive, it’s really pretty competitive. There’s a lot of innovation and best practices to learn from each other that we shouldn’t be competing at.

06:19 AK: I want to get in now, I took some notes and did a little bit of research and I want to tell the sustainability story of Wegmans. I came up with five points to hit and you hit a couple of them already and I just wanted to go into more detail because I find it so fascinating that a grocer is doing all of these wonderful things for our planet and for their people.

06:37 AK: The first thing I want to talk about is how is Wegmans reducing emissions?

How is Wegmans Reducing Emissions?

06:45 JW: Emissions come from a few different places you know? Purchased electricity, and we don’t generate those emissions, those are generated by power plants, etc. They come from using natural gas for cooking and for heating our buildings. They come from fuel we use to transport product. So each one of those emission points translates into carbon and so we track our carbon footprint from those emissions, we’ve been doing that steadily since 2009 it’s very complicated to keep tracking those emissions, but once you can measure them you can have plans in place to reduce them.

07:21 JW: A number of initiatives across the company to reduce electric consumption, to reduce our refrigeration impact and we think about Wegmans, remember I mentioned it’s the size of a Costco, right?

07:33 AK: Right. How big is the average Wegmans store?

07:38 JW: We’re in the 120 to 130,000 square foot on average.

07:43 AK: And there’s restaurants in there too, correct?

07:45 JW: Yeah, restaurants and burger bars and pubs and-

07:48 AK: Yeah, unbelievable.

07:50 JW: A lot of different formats that are going on, but we’re moving towards 100,000-120,000 square foot.

07:57 AK: That’s a lot to manage.

07:58 JW: It is. Two-thirds of the store is refrigeration, perishable produce, prepared foods in those restaurants you spoke of, that’s a lot of refrigeration load. Refrigeration is our largest part of our carbon footprint.

08:15 JW: Working with … And this is how one person Wegmans can manage all of this is working with all the great people that own these different responsibilities in the company and we’re really … our sustainability department’s there to help advise and be a subject matter expert on the environmental side of things. The business owners are the ones that drive the projects, reduce electricity, reduce refrigeration use in those things. It’s a partnership, a true partnership with those folks so you’re going to move onto probably reducing waste in landfill?

08:48 AK: I was and I was going to talk about I think we in the sustainability realm and I talk about this all the time. I started at Rubicon about 10 months ago and before that I knew very, very little about sustainability. Since then, obviously, I’ve researched and learned a lot. I actually moved to a farm which is crazy to think about a year ago, but I think we take the educational piece for granted in our industry.

09:15 AK: One term that gets thrown around a lot is zero waste. So someone who doesn’t know about zero waste might think like … Someone who’s zero waste might not even throw away a gum wrapper.

09:27 AK: Wegmans diverting waste from landfills and there’s a zero waste story there, will you explain that a little bit, and start with what exactly is zero waste?

Zero Waste Grocery Store

09:36 JW: Yeah, the true definition, I guess, for Wegmans anyway is no waste. We’re taking it to maybe the gum wrapper example, which is kind of like a zealot, right?

09:50 AK: Exactly.

09:51 JW: You’re not going to get there overnight, it’s a journey and again you have to piece it up, break it up and to manage little bits. For Wegmans we had a challenge from our senior executives. Let’s take a store as far down that path of zero waste as we can. Like everything we’re talking about here measurement is key. That’s where Rubicon really helps us with measurement.

10:13 AK: You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

10:16 JW: Absolutely. We started to come up with a baseline for the test store that we were going to pilot. They were at about a 62% diversion rate. For folks out there diversion is you calculate it by what you recycle, by what you throw away, that’s how you get your recycle rate and then we just came up with a plan to try to tackle the things that were going to make the most difference.

10:38 JW: Food waste is one of those things that when we measure the recycle rate, weight adversely affects your recycle rate. If you’re throwing out heavy things that is going to upset your recycle rate more than anything. Food waste is very heavy especially if we’re talking produce waste and those kinds of things in a trash compacter that’s a lot of weight and so that’s bringing your number down.

11:02 JW: If you tackle that first and that’s where we focused on food waste first and foremost is to try to get that number up. I believe there is some organizations out there that believe you should focus on reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce is first for a reason. You should focus there.

11:21 JW: I believe that recycling hands on, diverting food waste, source separation is an education piece to your point about education. Get your hands dirty, get in there, get out. You’re going to see where the true waste is and it gives you a better appreciation and a better direction on going back upstream to be able to reduce waste in the first place, so I’m a firm believer in that as an education tool.

11:44 AK: Yeah, how will you know what to reduce unless you know what you’re recycling?

11:49 JW: Right.

11:50 AK: So how did you guys reduce food waste

Reducing Food Waste at Wegmans

11:53 JW: We have a few different programs in place. In the store we’re able to use a lot of different produce and food for cooking and that’s a great way to ultimately not waste it in the first place.

12:05 JW: Use the example, if you have a blemish on an apple or something, we can use that apple in many other ways, right?

12:12 AK: Yeah, that ugly produce trend and now you guys have the outlets for them.

12:17 JW: Right. We don’t really have to worry about trying to sell ugly produce, we just use it in other ways in the store.

12:22 AK: Use it in the back.

12:23 JW: If we can’t use it in the store, we’re able to donate it to our communities. Every store at Wegmans, we have 95 stores, there’s multiple donation agencies coming every day to pick up perishable product and we also send dented cans and those things that are nonperishable through our distribution channel and have a couple different outlets for that.

12:45 JW: The third step is if you can’t use it in the store, if you can’t donate it, then you’re able to recycle it in one of our food waste diversion programs. We’re either sending in about 80 stores out of our 95 stores we’re able to partner with Anerobic Digesters or composters and we’re able to recycle that food into either healthy soil [inaudible 00:13:06] or make electricity from it.

13:08 AK: One other that you spoke about and then we’ll move onto the ones that I researched was the multiple, sustainable packaging solutions at Wegmans. What does that look like? I know when we go into our grocery stores it’s pretty much paper, plastic, or now a canvas bag. I’m curious to know about other solutions.

Sustainable Packaging at Wegmans

13:27 JW: Yeah, grocery bags continues to be a hot topic, right?

13:29 AK: Yeah.

13:31 JW: We firmly believe using a reusable bag is the best way to reduce plastic use, but the plastic bag gets a bad rap I think, pun intended. Science has shown that the plastic bag if recycled is actually a best practice. You can use your reusable, that’s the best, plastic if you recycle it is the second best, actually paper is the least desired option for the environment. Papers heavy, you’re chopping down trees to do it. It takes a lot more trucks to transport the same amount of paper as plastic.

14:04 JW: There’s an environmental tale there that most people don’t think about and making paper is pretty dirty. You use a lot of chemicals in that water, discharge water, it goes on and on. Using plastic, as long as you recycle it, that is an environmentally friendly way and what we do at Wegmans is we collect plastic bags from all our customers, combine that with what we collect in the back of the store from shrink wrap loads, grocery loads, shrink wrap and then we’re making brand new bags right out of that material. Each one of our plastic bags has 40% post-consumer recycled content and it’s all our stuff.

14:39 AK: That’s amazing.

14:40 JW: You know we have a philosophy at Wegmans earlier guidelines around packaging is we put it in the terms more of, less of, none of. We want more recycled content, more renewable content when we can’t make something recyclable. We want less food waste so we’re trying to actively work shelf life into that and then we would … Don’t want any harmful materials, so PVC and number three plastic, and polystyrene are things we’re actively working to get rid of.

15:12 AK: We spoke a little bit about the Wegmans food donation program. I think one of the things I admire most about Wegmans, it’s kind of like Rubicon, we’re a B Corporation and they’re very passionate about taking care of their people and I know Wegmans is the same. I read a lot of stories from lifelong employees much like yourself, you know people stay there for a really long time and not just taking care of … the employees are also taking care of the surrounding communities where all the stores are.

15:43 AK: One of mine was about the food donation program. What organizations are you guys working with locally?

A Grocery Store that Donates Food

15:49 JW: We work with a lot of local organizations to our stores and we can’t say that we just work with one or two organizations. Most of them are under the Feeding America banner, some are not. We work with many churches and local soup kitchens and pantries. It’s really all about the local community.

16:07 JW: At Wegmans we like to make a difference in every community we serve and this is one way that we can do that and we partner like I said, there’s a number of organizations that come every day to pick up bread and fresh produce and those kinds of things and a lot of those are long-term partnerships.

16:25 AK: What about the Wegmans sustainable seafood program?

Sustainable Seafood at Wegmans

16:26 JW: This actually started before I started doing sustainability in 2007 and we had a person dedicated to Sandal Seafood. It’s really about making sure that there’s seafood around to be able to eat, right?

16:37 AK: Right.

16:38 JW: When we think about the oceans, out of sight, out of mind but there is definitely some best practices that need to be put in place and have been put in place to make sure we have a sustainable fish supply. It’s really about the best product and making sure that it’s going to be around for our grandchildren. Won’t get into all the details, but there’s a lot of different practices out there, [inaudible 00:16:59] versus … I’m not the seafood expert, but a lot of different terms that are thrown out there the lengthy kind, but we focused on it for a long time and have different certifications in place, [inaudible 00:17:10] council, we work with waterway groups. Monterey Bay, done a lot of work there so we have fishery improvement projects underway in again our local communities as well as abroad.

17:23 AK: I love the idea of making big changes in these smaller communities and I think that that’s something that Wegmans does really, really well. Taking good ideas and having the resources to do them and to do them for the places that support and the people that support the stores.

17:39 AK: Sustainability is often seen as a burden, or an added cost for a lot of major companies. What are your thoughts on that? How does Wegmans balance on the tightrope between keeping the product sustainable and keeping prices low for customers?

Cost of Sustainability: A Balancing Act

17:54 JW: That came up early on when we were talking about sustainability. Really we developed this mindset around [inaudible 00:18:01], it’ll be good for the environment, good for our people and our customers and good for our business and there’s that sweet spot in the center. If we’re going after each business practice in that way and it should be a sustained business practice in the future.

18:18 JW: We’re always looking at innovation. We’re always looking at what is the cost of that innovation and sometimes we’re taking a little longer look, food waste in particular is one way that we’ve partnered with local food waste haulers in a way that has not been done before where we’re helping them compete with landfill and taking that longer look, still fits within our business payback timeframes. Building infrastructure. Making sure that there are food waste haulers and processors in our environment regions so that we’re able to do the right thing with food waste which gets us down that road to zero waste a lot further.

18:55 JW: I mentioned zero waste stores started at 62%?

18:58 AK: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

18:58 JW: Well, now they’re at about 82% so we’ve hit that first milestone of 80% in trying to figure out how further down the path we can-

 19:06 AK: That’s unheard of in the supermarket realm. Is this a model that you guys think that you can replicate?

19:13 JW:  We are trying to replicate it right now. We had one store in 2016 and now we’re taking it to five more stores. We took it to five more stores in 2017, four more in 2018. Those stores once they get it right will teach the other stores-

19:13 AK:[inaudible 00:19:27]

19:26 JW: -in their areas.

Awards & Recognition at Wegmans

19:30 AK:  Food Network recognized Wegmans as Best Grocery Store a few years ago. Wegmans is rated number two in best companies to work for only under Google, I mean that’s insane and Consumer Report gave Wegmans top grocery title last year. Why do you think the Wegmans brand resonates with people the way that it does?

19:49 JW: I started a long time ago. I’ve been exposed to this culture for a long time and through every step and turn I feel cared for as an employee. I feel respected as an employee and I trust Wegmans to do the right thing. That is what our customers feel too. They trust Wegmans to do the right thing. They feel cared for, they feel listened to.

20:13 JW: My former manager, Mary Ellen Bruce is our senior VP of consumer affairs and she’s been there over 40 years and listening, just listening to customers with anything they have to offer and trying to make a difference in change is very impactful and it builds trust and I think that’s the largest piece of what we have with our customers is trust. With employees, care and respect we still have high standards and our employees get that.

20:44 AK: Everyone that I told I was interviewing you on the podcast especially my boyfriend’s family and all of his friends in Ithaca, I mean that you would have thought that I had the ghost of Elvis Presley on today. Everyone was so excited. Wegmans touches something for a lot of people and I can’t say that about any other supermarket.

21:08 AK: Okay, Jason, now is my favorite part. This is a very high-performing segment. I’m going to rapid fire 10 questions off at you, first thing that comes to mind. I just want to get to know you a little bit better, have our listeners get to know you a bit better, and I think this is a really fun way to do so. It’s kind of like those icebreakers from summer camp, but in 30 seconds.

Q&A with Jason

21:31 JW: Let’s go.

21:32 AK: : What is your favorite item from the Wegmans hot bar?

21:35 JW: : It has to be sesame chicken over white rice.

21:37 AK: : If you could be a grocery aisle which aisle would you be and why?

21:41 JW: : Beer.

21:43 AK: : What is the last movie that you saw?

21:45 JW:  Black Panther.

21:46 AK:  What was your first job?

21:48 JW:  On the farm at Wegmans, painting actually. I hate painting to this day.

21:52 AK:  What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

21:56 JW:  My grandfather always told me to stay humble and it really also kind of mirrors what Robert Wegman would always say, ‘Never care about yourself, care about others’.

22:08 AK:  I love that. What is your personal theme song?

22:10 JW:  The Imperial March from Star Wars.

22:12 AK:  What is your favorite Rochester restaurant?

22:15 JW:  DaVinci’s it’s an Italian place that me and my wife go.

22:15 AK:  What do you get there?

22:15 JW:  The eggplant parm.

22:15 AK:  It’s my favorite.

22:15 JW:  Always.

22:23 AK:  What is the first concert you ever went to?

22:24 JW:  Ozzy Osbourne, 1996 and Korn opened for them. I play in a rock band and I’m a metal head.

22:31 AK:  I love that. One eco-conscious action that you do every day.

22:36 JW:  This is going to sound really, really weird, maybe a little geeky, but-

22:40 AK:  Try me.

22:41 JW: -dental floss.

22:42 AK:  Okay, explain it.

22:44 JW: When you walk out of the dentist and they recommend these picks that are kind of a one-time use thing. I refuse to use those and go to old-fashioned dental floss, because that’s less material in the landfill.

22:56 AK:  You can recycle dental floss?

22:58 JW:  No, but you can’t recycle those picks either.

23:00 AK:  You can’t recycle those plastic-

23:01 JW:  It’s a lot more plastic.

23:02 AK:  -exactly. What does success mean to you?

23:05 JW:  I just keep my nose down and keep working and doing the right thing and going after those high standards. Again, I feel blessed to be a part of this family company for many generations and success means that I’m moving forward, moving the needle and all of those things we just talked about, that’s really the only reward I need.

Conclusion & Goodbyes

23:27 AK:  Awesome. Jason, thank you so much for coming into the studio today to tell the what I think is an incredibly inspiring sustainability story and kind of a model for retailers in the future. I’m a little bummed that you didn’t show up with a 24-pack of peanut butter-filled pretzels, but I’ll get over it and next time please come prepared.

23:51 JW:  Well, you know that’ll happen.

23:52 AK:  I’m counting on it. Thank you so much.

23:52 JW:  Thank you.

23:52 AK: All right. Bye-bye.