Wegmans, the high-end grocery chain that has built five markets in the Philadelphia region in six years, said yesterday that it would hire about 600 workers for a store in Collegeville due to open in October.

Hiring for the new 132,000-square-foot store - which will feature what is being billed as the first pub in a Southeastern Pennsylvania supermarket restaurant - will begin this month, with interviews taking place the final week of March, said Blaine Forkell, a 26-year Wegmans veteran who will manage the store. (Application information is at www.wegmans.com.)

In addition, site work has begun on a store in Malvern that is expected to open in the first half of next year, Forkell said.

Wegmans generally hires about 600 workers for each store, compared with 150 to 200 employees at a typical Giant supermarket measuring 50,000 to 100,000 square feet.

The 72-store chain, based in Rochester, N.Y., has been aggressively growing in the Mid-Atlantic region, typically opening two to three new locations each year, said Jo Natale, a company spokeswoman. In addition to its stores in Downingtown, Warrington, Mount Laurel and Cherry Hill, Wegmans operates in upstate Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Virginia, and recently announced sites in the Boston suburbs.

The company's ramp-up in this area comes amid the doom and gloom of announced closings by businesses from retailers to car dealerships.

Encouraged by its local stores' success in bucking the trend, Wegmans decided to capitalize on Philadelphians' appreciation for good food, Forkell said. "We think it's an area where people have a high food interest," he said. "Secondly, the population and demographics fit our model."

The Collegeville store, on Commerce Drive near Routes 422 and 29, will feature both the chain's Market Cafe restaurant and the pub, unique among Wegmans' local outlets, "as long as our restaurant liquor license is approved," Forkell said. "It is the first design of its type in the Philadelphia region." The chain prides itself on high customer service and low prices, he said, with the perishable side modeled after European markets, prepared foods in what's called the Chef's Case, and baked goods in a patisserie.

Wegmans "positions itself as a supermarket that also provides meals and does a little bit more," said TD Bank chief economist Joel Naroff. "Like any store, they'll pull from all groups, but they attract a somewhat higher demographic because they tend to have a lot more of a product mix that's geared toward a higher income."

But "they are not recession-proof," said Naroff.

"The reality is that in a recession, people buy down in quality. Whether that hurts or helps a supermarket depends upon the spread they make for name brands versus off-name brands.

"When people stop buying expensive discretionary products at the supermarket, earnings are clearly hurt," Naroff said, "and it is likely a supermarket makes less on ground beef than steak."

But a store like Wegmans can make up for lower sales on higher-end items by having an increase in volume on lower-priced commodity-type items. "The economy does impact us," Forkell said. "We are a retail business."

He said he was seeing more Wegmans regulars buying ingredients to make their own meals at home, rather than buying the higher-priced meals prepared by Wegmans.

"They are willing to spend the time to do it themselves, rather than us doing it," Forkell said. "We have seen a slight impact there."

Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.