JEREMY PLAUCHE IS A burly, rowdy-looking guy—six feet, maybe 300 pounds, with the bold facial hair of a modern 24-year-old—but he admits that when he was getting the Wawa logo tattooed on his right inner biceps, the second “wa” kind of hurt. It’s just a little more tender in there closer to the torso. Totally worth it, though.
Plauche works night shifts for the rescue squad in Millville, New Jersey, where he also went to high school. It’s a little town about 45 miles south of Philadelphia, with a population of roughly 27,000 and four Wawas within about two miles. He’s made countless Wawa runs. He’s candid about his favorite product: “I’ll be honest with you—the peach iced tea.”
“I’m originally from Louisiana,” he says. “I tried to explain to my friends there what Wawa was and what it means to people who live up here … and they kind of didn’t believe me. Wawa is part of our culture. It’s part of our way of life.”
So he decided to let the body art speak. He photographed a Wawa sign and took the image to a tattoo parlor in Vineland, where they stabbed it into his flesh.
“I definitely proved my point,” he says. And there was a bonus: When Wawa found out, “I got the hookup for a little bit, free stuff for a while. I had coupons out the wazoo.”
By now, it’s obvious that Wawa, our homegrown convenience-store chain, has achieved the level of cult-like customer devotion that every consumer brand on the globe dreams about. To build a world-class cult, you need a core of gung-ho zealots and a mass of zombie followers, and Wawa is fully loaded in both categories. There are the five young women from West Chester who in 2009 completed an almost two-year trek to visit every Wawa in existence (then 586 stores). There are the high-school graduates who choose a college based at least partly on campus proximity to a Wawa, and there are the University of Maryland students who, when the company announced it would close an on-campus Wawa in 2007, flash-mobbed the closing store, “screaming and reminiscing,” according to the school paper. There’s the official Wawa page on Facebook, which has 753,394 “likes,” and there are the splinter Facebook groups, such as “People who miss Wawa” (after moving away from the store’s five-state realm) and one group called “If Wawa was a person I would get married to it.” And there are Scott Gaddis and Cindy Richardson, who in 2008 got married at the Wawa store in Abingdon, Maryland. (They conveniently had the reception there, too.)
Wawa’s cult status became official with a 2006 article about the company called “Convenience Cult?” in the New York Times Magazine (there are no Wawas in New York), which attributed the chain’s unlikely rock-star appeal to its yummy house-brand foods and friendly staff. (CEO Howard Stoeckel tells employees they’re not just making a sandwich; they’re helping their friends and neighbors have a better day.) The Times piece was inspired by a Harvard Business Review article that put Wawa’s customer service in the league of Nordstrom and the Ritz-Carlton.