It’s a Wawa World

Forget Comcast and Sunoco—the most powerful economic force in Philadelphia these days is the one making your Shorti. How our homegrown convenience store went from cult favorite … to superpower

 Not every experiment works. Wawa abandoned a drive-through-store trial in Virginia and ditched online ordering. Though many of its private-label products—notably its bottled water—have crushed name-brand competitors, others, like the ill-fated Mach W energy drink, came and went.

“We will test in one store, work out the bugs. Then 15 stores, to test consumer interest. Then 50 stores, and then we hit the gas,” Johnston told me. “Once we get confident, we hit it hard.”

I met Johnston at a Wawaversary—a goofball party that the company throws about 50 times annually at stores that hit milestone years. In this case, it was 40 years on South Main Street in Doylestown. A dedicated customer-relations crew (including Wally, the Wawa goose mascot) arrived with ribbons, noisemakers and stickers. They strung white paper bells across the aisles and hauled in a giant sheet cake and gave away free coffee. They honored several longtime customers, presented a check for $133,000 to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and tried to get everybody to dance.

Johnston and I tried to find a quiet place to talk, near the motor oil, but we kept getting in the way of shoppers.

“One of the tricks in our store,” he said, “is that there’s no good place to stand.”

WAWA, OF COURSE, is based in Wawa, Pennsylvania—a town named for the Ojibwe word for “Canadian goose,” giving the company its name and mascot—at an expanding campus along both sides of Baltimore Pike. The dairy there includes a 1929 building with a red brick facade and white portico columns that make it look like something pictured on the back of currency. Wawa hasn’t owned cows since the 1940s, but the dairy plant processes about 100,000 gallons of milk a week, much of it from Pennsylvania’s Amish farms, to serve stores and 903 wholesale accounts (such as a prison supplier and Villanova University).

A bit down the road, the sprawling corporate headquarters surround a house that George Wood purchased in 1892, before his company was named Wawa. Downstairs in the HQ cafeteria (it’s a Wawa) one recent morning, a marketing team performed a “sensory test” of two salads (three-bean medley and broccoli) that haven’t been introduced to stores yet. Employees tasted them and filled out evaluation forms. The process of bringing a new product to stores usually takes many months, said Lynn Hochberg, director of product development. Smoothies, she says, took years, mostly spent working out blender design and ice-bin location to save seconds in the preparation.

Wawa has also taken over part of the nearby building that used to be the Franklin Mint. In a kitchen as large as a gymnasium, Michael McLaughlin, product development manager for coffee and fresh beverages, was “cupping” coffee grounds sent by multiple roasters. He arranged cups in a circle and went around the table slurping. At another table, a couple workers gathered around a tray of fresh Boston cream doughnuts. This is actually part of their job.

“The test doughnut is wet at the bottom, and we don’t know why,” Hochberg said.

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  • Zip

    Check your AP Stylebook, please. It’s “Canada” goose, not “Canadian” goose.

  • Katie

    The proposed Conshohocken Super Wawa that was stopped by a “hurtful Stop Wawa campaign on Facebook”, has not been stopped. Despite the 300 residents shouting at a Borough meeting, “we don’t want it, we don’t need it”(http://tinyurl.com/3gwa62g), the developers push full speed ahead.

    Behind the scenes they are making sure the deal quietly moves forward. Morethanthecurve.com has reported a rumored organized effort funded by developers and lawyers to “put in place developer friendly municipal governments and solicitors (borough/township lawyers) across Montco” (http://tinyurl.com/3sjtck6).

    Residents see a critical change to the fiber of Conshohocken if this is developed. This Wal-Mart like megastore will endanger the delis, gas stations, retail and convenience stores, throughout Conshohocken. This would be the third Wawa in the immediate area and will lead to at least ½ a dozen local gas stations almost immediately closing. Sites that cannot quickly be redeveloped because of the underground storage tanks and environmental issues they pose. Making matters worse, this Super Wawa will have diesel fuel, bringing delivery trucks 24/7 through the residential community.

    Residents along Fayette Street vehemently oppose it, for traffic reasons, children safety and the future of their neighborhood. Concerns that fall by the wayside of Wawa attorneys/developers. facebook.com/stopwawa.

  • Fred

    While Wawa is certainly the pride of the Philadelphia area, it should be noted that in the late 1980′s, an internal scandal at Wawa resulted in the hiring of a New York-area purchaser who broke contracts with all Philadelphia vendors and signed on with primarily New York companies. It was not the fault of the family in charge of Wawa, but it was an embarrassing part of the history. I represent a family that lost 80 percent of our business because of that incident, so I am slightly bitter but I think it still is worth mentioning.

  • Amber

    I’m orginally from western PA and a veteran Sheetz customer. When I relocated to the Bucks County area three years ago, I couldn’t understand why there weren’t any Sheetz around, All Wawas. I mostly stick to 7-11 for coffee, and wawa for gas. Nothing Wawa makes compares to a Sheetz MTO!

  • Joe

    I think its funny when you hear about these communities opposing wawa’s being put in their towns. It’s funny because when it does finally get pushed through the approval process and the wawa opens for business, all of those masses who had previously opposed the store are suddenly frequent shoppers. If you don’t like wawa then dont shop there and go ahead and pay 20 more cents a gallon on gas at the dot shop station across the street where the indian guy is talking on his cell phone the whole time and couldnt give 2 shits about you.

  • Concerned

    I wonder what percentage of the resistance to the Wawa in Conshochocken is by business owners on Fayette, specifically gas station owners. I have no pity for the prospects of an oligarchy that charges 10-20 cents more per gallon on average than every surrounding community. Stop gouging the customers, and we won’t demand alternatives.