The Wawa Experience
Growing up in Delaware County or anywhere in Southeastern PA is probably like growing up in many places in America I would imagine. Like many other cities and towns we have “things” that might be foreign to some but just part of life for us. It’s the same way that Philadelphians understand how a Cheese Steak is supposed to look and taste where in other parts of the country people believe it’s this sort of meat sub with green peppers, onions and provolone cheese. It’s a strange opening for someone who is about to talk about a chain of “Food Markets” but Wawa holds a dear place in our hearts. Whenever someone is visiting from out of town I always find myself asking “Have you ever been to a Wawa?”
Wawa started in 1964 in Folsom, PA and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. By 1969 they had stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Now they have added additional stores in Virginia, Maryland and Florida. Yes, Florida and they look a little different by the way (I’ll add some pictures next time I visit Florida). For the complete history of Wawa check out their timeline on the Wawa website. This is a private company with over 9 billion in sales per year, yes that’s Billion. They were named on Forbes largest private companies list at #36. The other standout that I love is that part of the company is indeed employee owned and there are over 22,000 of them.
I’m not sure why this is such a standout to me but recently I asked myself these questions… ” What makes this little market different? Why is this such a staple in this area? Why did they topple other markets like Turkey Hill and Sheetz (in some places)? Why are there 3 Wawa’s near my house within a 5 mile radius?
To answer some of these questions I did something very simple… I watched one. I followed one of my many morning routines by going to Wawa in the first place. While leaving my car unlocked and running, I walked in and grabbed my standard Wawa morning beverage which is a Java Monster “Mean Bean”. This is basically a coffee energy drink…yup that’s how I roll. I went in, walked past the lottery vending machine which seems to always have at least one person waiting in line, grabbed the beverage from the bottom shelf and walked down the next isle which has two “no fee” PNC ATM’s that always seem to be occupied. I walk up to the counter that has a register at each of the 4 corners and hand them $3.00. The same 2 ladies have been at this Wawa taking my money for 10 years and they always call me “hun”. The coin thingy spits out 4 cents which I throw into the charity box right next to it and I go back to my car. If there is a line and things seem to be getting out of hand it takes seconds before someone new takes a register to say the magic words “I can help someone here!“. Efficiency at its finest.
When I went back to my car I decided that I wasn’t going to leave right away. Even though I have been a customer at this Wawa for 10 years, I am going to really just watch the behavior that happens here. As someone who stops by a lot you don’t notice it. What did I see?
- I saw 2 people eating some breakfast sandwiches (Sizzli’s) at a table placed right next to the trash can. Eating near or on the trash can is a Wawa thing.
- I saw the double doors being held for the next person so many times it made me wonder why this doesn’t happen in more establishments. Watching the entrances to Wawa is mesmerizing. You watch people hold the door, smile and and genuinely fall into the routine of door holding 95% of the time.
- I watched people get angry when the leftover 5% didn’t hold the door like “Oh my god, I can’t believe they didn’t hold the door for me, how rude“
- I watched multiple construction , landscaping and blue collar workers leave with what seems like the “Wawa breakfast with daily hydration combo” which includes: A Sizzli breakfast sandwich or two and at least a 1/2 gallon of Wawa Iced Tea. Many times it was a full gallon and no they do not use a cup.
- I watched multiple people meet up by the trash can to have a conversation and smoke.
- I watched at least 2 cars pull up with the window partially cracked and a dog barking.
- I watched more Wawa coffee cups come out of this place then you could ever imagine. Its mind blowing how much coffee this place sells.
This was all in a span of 20 minutes but it’s something I really have grown accustomed to and just don’t notice any longer. Wawa is sort of a human meetup and daily starting point for locals. You might not know everyone but you have this one place in common.
As far as whats actually inside, this has changed drastically over the years. When I was younger Wawa was much smaller. These were simply small little places to buy cigarettes, drinks and snacks but today things are very different. The introduction of Hoagies years ago changed everything. Once Wawa got into the fresh food business, words like “Shorti” and “Classic” became household names. For those reading this that do not live here, those are hoagie sizes. Fast forward to now , Wawa has numerous items including: Paninis, Burritos, Quesadillas, Bowls, Soups, Salads and more. With the introduction of the touch screen ordering system years ago (The first place I ever saw this was a Sheetz) they took their food business to a whole new level. At any given time there are 4 people assembling sandwiches behind the counter.
Later Wawa started opening what locals refer to as “Super Wawa” which included gas stations. Wawa normally has the lowest fuel prices I see even if by only a couple of cents. The individuals running Wawa are really masters of retail if you think about it. You need gas so you pull up, slide your card and start the pump. You could wait for it to finish but why not go inside, its only a few steps away. You go in, grab your coffee, grab a bite to eat and by the time you come out, your done filling up. Maybe you realize you need some cash? Good news, there are Wawa’s everywhere so its super convenient to go inside and stop by the ATM. Fees? nah… Wawa uses PNC ATM’s that have zero fees. They know that’s attractive enough to make you stop and surround you with all of their food and snack goodness. Hey since I am in here and I have this cash now, why not break a twenty and grab a coffee? Wawa has figured out how to make you think that you NEED to stop because there is some sort of transaction that should happen every time you drive by. If you see a new Wawa pop up in a neighborhood, there is a reason. Whoever handles there Real Estate should be commended.
Another part of Wawa’s business that is huge , as I previously stated, is Coffee. Back in the day they literally had a nice employee brewing coffee all day in standard coffee pots. I still don’t know how they kept up with the demand. Eventually they moved to a more efficient brewing process with tapped multi-gallon canisters. Each is clearly branded with the variety of coffee such as Colombian, Cuban Roast, Hazelnut, French Vanilla, Dark Roast and good ole’ fashioned Regular.To this day the most popular still seems to be the regular standard coffee. The coffee bar has everything you need to make your coffee the way you love it. They have creamer in multiple varieties and flavors, sugar, sweetener and even marshmallows if you desire. You grab a lid , a coffee cozy and you’re done. Now there is a highly debated choice when it comes to the lid. I know this seems trivial but there is the white flat lid with that little part that peels up OR you have the black lid that extends beyond the rim of the cup with a small hole at the top. I know…tough decisions and plenty of controversy over which is the best choice. The price for all of this magic?…12 oz. for $1.29, 16oz. for $1.45 , 20 oz. for $1.55 and 24 oz. for $1.65. Take that Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. You don’t get the full “experience” but that’s a huge price gap. You want something more designer? Go to the touch screen and order from a huge menu including Hot and Iced Lattes, smoothies and hot chocolate.
Lastly , lets talk about those Hoagies. Understand that there are a lot of places in the Delaware Valley to grab an amazing Hoagie but Wawa made it so incredibly easy that they made it main stream. When you order from the touchscreen they have everything from classics like Italian to Roasted Chicken. They even consider classics like a Meatball sandwich or Cheese Steak to be a hot “Hoagie”. Its the pure convenience of getting your lunch or dinner quickly. The quality? it varies. I will say that the sandwiches are consistent but over the years it seems a little more “processed” than it used to. The turkey and the ham portions are kind of Subway quality which is unfortunate. I will say that one key ingredient to a great Philly Hoagie is the roll. The classic Phily roll tends to come from Amorosos or even the Conshohocken (Conshy) bakery when you visit your standard Steak or Hoagie shop. I am not sure where Wawa sourced there rolls prior but they now bake them on site. I will say these soft and chewy rolls are pretty awesome and sometimes they are warm which adds to the experience. Do I still eat Hoagies from Wawa? ya I do.
Recently they caught up with the rewards trend and introduced the Wawa app. With the app you can pay and get rewards for every .50 you spend at Wawa with a registered gift card. I will say that they could work on the app. As an iPhone 7 Plus user I can tell that it wasn’t made for the big screen super high-res devices as indicated by the stretched keyboard. Time for a new app developer Wawa. Wawa also now offers free WiFi in a partnership with Comcast so you can hop on your laptop while smoking by the trash can. I am sure Wawa has more tricks up its sleeve in the future and I am looking forward to see how they innovate. What do I think is next? not sure but this is a company that could go public anytime it wanted to and frankly it would be a great stock purchase… I’m in. Gotta Have a Wawa!
We would love to hear from you about your feelings on Wawa below in the comments!
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Training & Development Director by day; Daddy, Husband and web junkie by night. For years I have benefited by creating many things including : Web Sites, Logos, illustrations, online training courses , writings and much more.
Also published on Medium.