The grand opening of The Fresh Market in Aiken was scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, but management opened the gourmet grocery's doors to the public about an hour before then. Everyone eagerly rushed inside, escaping from the chilly weather while picking up free samples of coffee and free shopping bags.


One of the early bird shoppers was Carl Hawver, who proudly declared that he was first in line at the new store in the South Park Shopping Center on Whiskey Road.


“My mom wanted a free bag, but couldn't be here because she was working, and I was really excited about this place opening anyway,” said Hawver, who lives nearby in Aiken Estates. “I love the kind of food they sell at specialty groceries like this.”


Cars filled virtually every space in the shopping center's parking lot, and hundreds of people jammed the upscale store's aisles. They were treated to free samples of crθme brϋlιe French toast, Applewood-smoked bacon, sausage and other goodies.


The early shoppers also got to witness the cracking of the Parmesan ceremony, which took the place of the usual ribbon-cutting tradition that many new businesses observe. Afterward, Pam Rosencrans, who was representing one of The Fresh Market's vendors, cut pieces from the big wheel of cheese and handed them to smiling customers.


“I've been looking forward to this for months,” said Brenda Guerry, who was interested in the various fresh breads on display. “I've been checking out the building and watching all the preparations, so it's exciting to come to the opening. I've always heard good things about this company and so far, so good. It smells wonderful in here.”


Colleen Lucas dropped some of her children off at school, saw The Fresh Market was open and decided to take a look. Accompanying her was her 1-year-old daughter, Alexa, who was still in her pajamas.


“We're gluten-free, so we're looking forward to seeing what products they have as far as that goes,” Colleen Lucas said. “The store reminds me of a little village, which is great.”


Carol Frasier was glad she didn't have to go to Augusta, to shop at The Fresh Market anymore.


“I could not wait until this one opened; we need it here,” she said. “I'm amazed at all the product lines and love them. I intend to shop here all the time.”


Randy Miles bought three tenderloins while Ruby Lundy enjoyed the opportunity to munch on some tasty breakfast items without having to cook or pay for them.


“Thank goodness I didn't eat before I left home,” she said.


The Fresh Market has five stores in South Carolina in addition to the Aiken grocery, which covers more than 19,700 square feet and has 95 employees in addition to manager John Goodyear.


“We decided to open an hour early because there were people lined up outside and, as you can see, there is lots of excitement,” said Goodyear, who managed The Fresh Market in Columbia and was raised in Chester. “I was here six weeks before the store opened, and I've met a lot of great people. I think what we're all about at The Fresh Market definitely fits their personalities. We're not like a normal big box store. We operate on a smaller scale, and we offer very personalized service and lots of food sampling. There is a lot of engagement with our customers.”


The 2,000 free shopping bags that were available had all been given away by noon, according to a spokesman for The Fresh Market. As of 4 p.m., 1,700 transactions had been completed in the new store's checkout area. There also were reports that many people who wanted to shop at the grocery in the afternoon had to park their vehicles across the street.


Goodyear encouraged job seekers to continue to apply to The Fresh Market because “I'm always looking for great people.” Applications can be completed online at www.careers.thefreshmarket.com.


The Aiken Fresh Market's address is 1400 Whiskey Road. Its phone number is 803-649-7600.


The store is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.