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.