Carl June: The Cancer Slayer

Carl June | Photograph by Jonathan Pushnik

Take a giant leap toward a cure for cancer, and everybody wants a piece of you.

On an afternoon in late August, two days before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved his laboratory’s game-changing treatment for leukemia, Carl June was being patted with face makeup so he could look his best in a video being shot by the University of Pennsylvania, his employer. Nobody knew exactly when the FDA decision was coming, or whether it would be good news. But the video team had an hour of June’s time, and they wanted to get some footage ready. Read more »

Welcome to Cellacon Valley?

Illustration by Muti.

In the conference room of a spacious loft office near 30th Street Station, Usman “Oz” Azam and Michael Christiano huddle for a meeting. They’re CEO and chief business officer, respectively, of Tmunity Therapeutics, a start-up launched to commercialize some breakthrough research out of the University of Pennsylvania — a method of reengineering a patient’s own immune system cells so they can destroy cancer tumors.

The two execs are the company’s sole employees so far. Their new headquarters still contains chalkboard-style signs and leather couches from the prior tenant, some sort of hipster

telemarketing operation. It looks like an abandoned Cosi restaurant.

“Literally the only thing we’ve done is bring in a coffee machine,” Azam says.

It’s a microscopically small start to what some people around Philadelphia hope will become very, very big. Read more »

Does Every Child Need to Learn to Code?

BSD’s Christopher Geary at the company’s Bryn Mawr HQ. Photo by Gene Smirnov.

BSD’s Christopher Geary at the company’s Bryn Mawr HQ. Photo by Gene Smirnov.

Christopher Geary doesn’t look as tired as he ought to. In the past week he’s met with educators who run private schools in Beijing and then some school leaders in Hong Kong, where he lives, and just this morning in late March with the headmaster of Hill Top Prep in Rosemont. He logged 286,000 air miles last year and doesn’t seem to be cutting back. Right now, at least he’s sitting in one place — the little reception area of his company, in its year-old American headquarters in the back of the Rosemont Square shopping center on Lancaster Avenue. He’s with Ashley Govberg of the Philadelphia jewelry-store Govbergs, who have become Geary’s business partners here. Their company is BSD Code + Design Academy, which was set up first in Asia and now is here to teach computer coding to our schoolchildren. The company holds classes and camps at its clubhouse of an office suite, sends a small staff out to teach at a growing number of local schools, and develops curricula for private- and public-school teachers to use.

One thing Geary does look is like a hipster: He’s dressed in black, with thick-rimmed glasses, scraggly Johnny Depp facial hair, and a man bun tied behind his head. But the hipster tag doesn’t quite fit. Raised by parents who toted him around Asia and educated him in Britain, he speaks with the kind of English boarding-school accent that sounds refined and exotic in Philadelphia. Geary, who’s 34, has a law degree. He’s written for the Huffington Post about the ethics of shark fin soup. With his wife, in Hong Kong, he owns a jewelry business concerned with “ethical sourcing” of metals and gems. He technical-dives off the coast of Indonesia. (Technical is deeper and more dangerous than recreational scuba.) He trains in martial arts in Hong Kong (really, the place you want to do it). Read more »

Comcast’s Surprisingly Viral Future

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

I first wrote about Comcast for this magazine in 1991, when a few hundred million dollars and endless spools of coaxial cable were all you needed. I traced how the Philadelphia company had exploded across America, gulping one dorky regional cable TV company after another. I whined jealously about newly minted president Brian Roberts, who at age 31 was handed control of a $657 million corporation by his father, who’d built it, while I was living on a block at 3rd and Arch that Comcast hadn’t even bothered to wire for cable yet.

Twenty-six years later, Comcast is an $80.4 billion company that has become the country’s second biggest provider of TV shows and largest provider of Internet service by following a simple rule: If someone is eating your lunch, eat them. Read more »

A Summer at Camp Kweebec

Campers at the summer camp Camp Kweebec, outside of Philadelphia.

Here are some things kids are still doing at sleep-away summer camp: learning woodworking, taking swimming lessons, making bracelets out of colored strings and letter beads that spell EMILY or ALLIE, trudging back to a hunter green cabin after an endless sunstroke kickball game, running to the canteen for water ice on moonlit, cricket-serenade nights, writing letters home begging for gum, getting the nickname “Chunks,” zip-lining, co-opting Indian words, obsessing over the girls/boys in the other bunks, dodging bees, collecting splinters, fighting homesickness, and trying to look cool despite everything.

I witnessed many of these activities last August, when I—a full-grown man—spent most of a week embedded at Camp Kweebec, a camp for boys and girls ages six to 16 in the far suburbs of Philadelphia.

One thing I was determined to investigate upon my arrival was whether camp still smelled the same. I have vague sense-memories from my camp days decades ago, and probably the strongest is the musty aroma of the black steamer trunk, with its sturdy cardboard shelf, that I set up next to my cot. I inherited it from an older cousin who, my forensic sniff test indicated, had died in it, tragically perspiring to death after overdosing on mothballs.

I have to admit, the camp memories I’ve extracted from the mildewed footlocker of my mind are mixed and a little warped. As a kid, I attended overnight camps in New England for parts of three summers, but my experience was more Holden Caulfield than Huckleberry Finn. I was introverted, scared to swim, tiny for my age. I would have been happy to stay home playing wiffle ball and drawing comics with friends I already had. I recently dug through some old papers and found a progress report that my first camp counselor, straining to be upbeat, wrote to my parents when I was eight: “Donny has gotten over the ‘smallest kid in the cabin’ syndrome and has been getting along with the other boys fairly well. He has adjusted to the camp program and seems to enjoy it.”

One famous letter I wrote home begins: “Dear Everybody, Camp is ok but getting worse.”

The camp memory that always comes to my mind first is from a rainy day when water activities were canceled due to bad weather, a turn of events that secretly made me happy. I was watching a storm whip up the lake, along with a few kids and the swim instructor, and I got up the nerve to speak out loud for a change: “I wouldn’t want to swim in that!” The swim instructor cruelly cracked, “You can’t swim.” I guess he showed me, because I didn’t talk a lot after that. After all these years, I’ll only grudgingly forgive him now. Maybe he’s dead.

My experience isn’t typical. Thousands of delighted families across the Philadelphia region have sent offspring to overnight camps to play sports and make friends and become young adults, and those kids loved every minute of it. I know many of them as old adults. They’re pillars of society: lawyers, doctors, executives. Some couldn’t get enough; they became counselors after they couldn’t be campers anymore, then had children so they could send them.

Kweebec, founded in the 1930s, is the kind of traditional camp that generations of Philadelphians have lodged in their memories as pure and unadulterated, the sort of institution that remains the way it was when things were still great, like scorekeeping a baseball game or blowing out birthday candles. My official assignment there was to investigate how summer camp has or hasn’t changed, to contemplate why the tradition has stood the test of time. My unofficial mission was to see if I could discover what I’d missed as a kid. And maybe smell around a little.

The Shah Brothers Would Like You to Sleep With Them

THREE WEEKS BEFORE their posh new Hyatt at Lexington and 48th is due to open, I’m with Philadelphia’s biggest hotel tycoons, Jay and Neil Shah, shopping for furniture in Lower Manhattan. The chauffeured town car that whisked us this morning from the curb outside the Hersha Hospitality office at 5th and Walnut in Philly pulls up at an unmarked brick warehouse in Tribeca. Three guys in suits are coming out the front door.

“Those guys aren’t here to buy furniture,” Jay Shah says quietly after the suits are down the block a little. “They’re here to buy the building.”

Let’s just say Jay and his brother Neil know about buying buildings. According to industry consultants—there’s no official list for this—no one owns more hotels in New York City than Hersha Hospitality Trust, which was most recently valued at about $1.6 billion. That’s pretty good for a business that started when the Shahs’ parents bought an 11-room motel near Harrisburg in January 1979—two months before the Three Mile Island disaster. The Shahs have spent recent years proving that an Indian-American-immigrant-built family business can compete with the heaviest hitters in city real estate, an industry in which old wealth has a centuries-long head start. They’ve also shown that a Philadelphia company not named Comcast can swagger into New York and just start buying up the place.

But what we’re doing in Tribeca today is examining two items at a designer showroom. The pieces are meant to be the finishing touches in the lobby of the Hyatt48Lex, the Shahs’ first venture into four-star hospitality, competing for midtown clientele who might otherwise stay at the Waldorf Astoria.

It’s a $100 million project, “Our largest, most significant, most innovative—” Neil says. “Most design-forward … ” Jay interjects, which as the big brother he’s entitled to do. “Hotel so far,” Neil finishes. “We’ve been working on it for six years.”

We take a freight elevator to the showroom. It’s two floors of chunky teak tables, hand-carved chairs, and sculptures made out of wizened tree trunks from Bali. The small lobby at 48Lex has been designed around a modern concept: no check-in desk. Greeters carrying iPads will welcome guests. The only place to sit will be a sleek bench that the company’s design team has recommended, and which Jay and Neil are here to see if they like—a -ninja-black carved-teak plank. It’s $7,500. Neil likes it. Jay gives it a hmm sort of look: “We don’t want it to be too comfortable.” They want to discourage lingering in the minimalist lobby.

Next we surround a lamp. It has a white stone cube as a base, with a delicate linen shade forming a second cube. It’s gorgeous, and $3,000. The designers think it will look nice on a table in the 48Lex lobby, alongside the house phone. The Shahs circle it, hands rubbing their chins. Both brothers are wearing gray pinstripe suits and bright white shirts without ties. Both incessantly chew little white pieces of gum. They wonder about a fragile $3,000 item in a public area.

“People wouldn’t be touching it,” Neil says. Jay half-nods in agreement, then says, “Well, maybe they would.”

Exactly why the CEO (Jay, 43) and president (Neil, 37) of a business whose interconnected enterprises, all told, own about 95 hotels are picking out a lamp and bench for one lobby isn’t 100 percent clear to me. But I think this visit is making a point, one that the Shahs are proving with their financial success: that an eye for style can be valuable even in a potentially mundane business; that being urban and urbane can be profitable; that guys whose main job is to secure financing, finagle acquisitions, and boost numbers like EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) can have artsy souls (when it makes fiscal sense).

Hersha became a player pioneering a concept called “urban-core select-service.” That means taking middlebrow suburban chains—Hampton Inns, Holiday Inn Expresses, Courtyard by Marriotts—into big cities. “Select-service” is a euphemism for guests’ not being able to select some services, like a full restaurant or a fancy spa. You may remember the Clarion Hotel in Philly’s Chinatown in the late 1990s. That was the Shahs’. In 2003, they dropped a Hampton Inn into New York’s hip Chelsea district, which might seem like putting an Applebee’s on Central Park East. But it filled a gap. What often was passing for a three-star hotel in New York was an old, faded five-star. What if you created new, downtown versions of the suburban brands everyone trusted?

Hersha did. Of course, to make it work, you have to give those downscale brands a downtown feel. Every mega-brand has standards for what its places ought to look like, but “if there’s something we can do to make our room rate $300 instead of $200, it’s in the franchise’s interest to be flexible,” says Jay. “The secret sauce is, you can’t charge those urban rates at a select–service brand unless you’re thoughtful about the design.” Which explains why the Shahs sweat the $3,000 table lamps.

Hersha Hospitality Trust now has 15 hotels in New York City, and eight in Washington. In Philly, the Shahs have the unexpectedly lovely Hampton Inn behind the Convention Center, and the Independent Hotel at 13th and Locust—one of the few flagships in their newest project: their own brand of boutique hotels. Between them, the brothers own about five percent of their publicly traded company. That sounds like a small share of what began as a family business. But think about the $1.6 billion.

HASU SHAH, JAY AND NEIL’S father, came to America at 19, in 1964, from a middle-class family. He intended to earn a degree in chemical engineering, get a job, and bring cash back to Mumbai to invest in a small generic-drug factory back home. The last part didn’t happen. While Hasu was studying at Tennessee Technical University, his girlfriend Hersha from across the street in India wrote that if he wanted to marry her he’d better hurry, because her parents were starting to arrange a marriage, and he wasn’t on their list.

“We were different castes, even though our families were neighbors,” Hasu Shah says. “We spoke the same language. Same religion. They were in business, we were in business. But I never could be on their list.”

Ultimately, the two did marry. Both got jobs with the police at a crime lab in Trenton (Hersha had studied microbiology in India), doing CSI-style forensics for narcotics, rape and homicide cases.

When Hasu got a state job in Pennsylvania, they moved to Harrisburg and stayed with an Indian co-worker while Hersha, wearing a sari and toting infant son Jay, roamed town trying to find an apartment.

It’s a Wawa World

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. Of course, to anyone who’s spent quality time in the Philadelphia region, the idea that Wawa is vastly more popular than any chain ought to be is familiar territory. But sometimes familiarity can create- blindness to the big picture. For Wawa, the picture keeps getting bigger and bigger. Crazy customer loyalty has translated into eye-popping numbers and made Wawa one of the dominant economic forces in Philadelphia — one that supports an entire ecosystem of suppliers and vendors. And slowly — relentlessly — Wawa is transforming: altering its product mix, making bigger footprints whenever it moves.

And that — like everything else about Wawa — is all part of a carefully engineered plan. If you think a convenience store can get to be this successful on Shortis alone, well … there’s more to Wawa than you’d ever guess.

HERE’S A WAKE-UP jolt to illustrate how colossal Wawa has become: It’s now the number eight seller of cups of coffee in the whole country. The only folks selling more cups every day, according to research firm Studylogic, are almost all national chains, like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Burger King and 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven has more than 6,000 stores across America. Wawa has 587 now, limited to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Wawa sells one of every five cups of coffee sold in this region. In 2008, it celebrated selling its one billionth cup of coffee in the 21st century alone.

Wawa sells 80 million hoagies a year, the most in the region. (It’s number one in “total sandwiches,“ too, says Studylogic.) In the 15-county Delaware Valley area, Wawa ranks third in overall grocery sales, topped only by ShopRite and Acme, according to an annual survey by Food Trade News, which also says there’s no other region in the country where a convenience-store chain ranks as high as third, and that Wawa’s annual per-store average, nearly $5 million (excluding gas sales), is a number that’s “untouchable by its c-store competitors.“

“You can have Wawa stores that can do $400,000 a week or more, split between fuel and inside the store,“ says Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm. “The average 7-Eleven would be stretched to do $25,000 to $30,000 in sales per week.“

Overall, Wawa did $5.89 billion in sales in 2009, making it the country’s 50th largest private company, according to the latest calculation by Forbes magazine. That revenue would place Wawa, if it were a public company, among the handful of Pennsylvania’s Fortune 500 companies. As things are, 50 percent of the company is owned by a trust benefitting members of the founding Wood family, 30 percent by company executives and employees through a stock plan, and the remainder by other Wood relatives and Wawa associates.

Wawa began pumping gasoline in 1996 and now sells close to 1.4 billion gallons a year, from 297 locations. That’s about one percent of all gas sold in the country. The Oil Price Information Service ranks Wawa first among all U.S. gas stations in “market efficiency,“ which is market share relative to the number of outlets. Two years ago, Wawa was the impetus behind a $72 million expansion at the Port of Wilmington, where oil distributor Magellan Midstream Partners built 11 massive fuel tanks to hold gas for the company. (Wawa works with Chevron and other suppliers to import its already-refined gas.)

In 2009, shortly after Phillies announcer Harry Kalas passed away, Wawa made a deal to be the exclusive purveyor of a book called Remembering Harry Kalas. It was the first book Wawa ever sold. And it sold, all right: 60,000 copies in 60 days, more than most books sell in a lifetime. In April 2010, the chain celebrated its one-billionth in-store ATM transaction. Wawa famously charges no usage fee, so it boasted of having saved its customers $1.3 billion in surcharges. Still, the company makes money from the ATMs, because PNC Bank pays Wawa to put them in the stores.

As it’s grown, Wawa has hoisted a handful of regional brands along with it. It’s the number one convenience-store seller of Herr’s chips and a top account for Amoroso’s hoagie rolls, Tastykake (whose problems, insiders say, were unrelated to Wawa) and the Sunday Inquirer. The company’s impact on local jobs isn’t about just its own 17,000 employees, but also many more along the supply chain of firms that service Wawa and its suppliers. Local companies do well enough in the relationship that they’ll alter operations and move facilities to keep Wawa happy.

“They know they’ve got vendors who will bend over backward for them and do whatever it takes to fill their needs,“ says Len Amoroso, who in 2008 moved his bakery for rolls for Wawa hoagies from Philly to Vineland, New Jersey, because, he says, Wawa wanted him closer to its central distribution facility.

But Wawa isn’t just getting big. It’s getting different, too. The chain has spent years winnowing the selection of dust-gathering dry goods on its shelves while enlarging its in-store food-prep areas and focusing on super-sized stores and gas stations. Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at Wharton, says when you think about it, Wawa might not even be a convenience store in the traditional sense anymore — the place you’d go as a last resort for a can of soup. That role has been assumed by drugstores like CVS, or dollar stores. Really, Hoch says, “Wawa has become a fast-food restaurant with a gas station.“

Wawa CEO Stoeckel told me pretty much the same thing. We were sitting in the tiny back room of the Columbus Boulevard Wawa, where the company was debuting a store design featuring a gigantic open kitchen jutting out in the shape of a bay window, to take up maybe a quarter of the store’s area.

“More and more of our product today is for immediate consumption: I’m thirsty, I’m hungry, I need nicotine, I need caffeine, I need gasoline, I need money at an ATM machine,“ Stoeckel said, I suppose rhyming intentionally. (He also likes somewhat cringe-worthy acronyms. After becoming the company’s first non-Wood-family CEO in 2004, he created a strategy called UNO, for “unique experience, nimbleness and opportunity.“ Wawa rewards exemplary employees based on an evaluation called CHAMP, for “consistent action, heartfelt, awe-inspiring, meaningful and progressive.“)

“Our customers want us to solve immediate-gratification needs,“ Stoeckel told me. “That’s where all of our growth is.“ Stoeckel was at the Columbus Boulevard store in part to star in a video, to be shown to employees, extolling the virtues of the newish handmade smoothies. He wore a mustard-colored chef’s hat and mugged for the camera with store manager Matt Duca. Stoeckel finished the shoot by getting a dollop of whipped cream from a mango crème smoothie on his nose and reciting one of the company’s awkward marketing bywords: “That’s appetizing!

WAWA’S BIG NUMBERS are humongous, but its small numbers are tiny, because you can’t get big without thinking small. As rhymers say, retail is detail. There’s barely a square inch in a Wawa store that isn’t exactly the way it is for a reason. The main goal: cutting a few seconds off the time you spend there. Starbucks built its cult following by making its stores inviting places to linger for an hour; Wawa stays popular by getting everyone the hell out.

“But we want ‘em back two more times that day,“ says David Johnston, Wawa’s chief operations officer.

Everything is designed for speed, which translates to turnover, customer contentment and, essentially, profit. The touch screens at deli counters let customers speedily handpick ingredients for their hoagie or prime-rib-in-a-bowl and also enable “upselling“ of add-ons like cookies, chips and mashed potatoes. The placement of coffee stirrers, the “on ramp“ space at checkout counters — it’s all engineered. Ray Cavanaugh, Wawa’s director of operations engineering, told me that over the past few years, the company has shaved one and a half seconds from the typical cash transaction and five seconds from the average credit buy.

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.

Although Wawa is famously a Pennsylvania company, its key supply and distribution partners are clustered in South Jersey — not by coincidence, but because Wawa has the muscle- to insist they set up shop near its Bridgeport distribution center. That hasn’t always been happy economic news for Philly proper, since it’s moved jobs out of the city, but it shows Wawa’s impact on regional employment beyond its own payroll.

In Carneys Point, McLane Grocery, the nation’s largest supplier to convenience stores (owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway), operates a vast warehouse with 400 employees, which, unlike McLane’s other buildings around the U.S., serves just one customer: Wawa. McLane delivers packaged goods, including cigarettes, to Wawa stores. Ready Pac Foods, in Swedesboro, has a staff assembling the Wawa-label pre-packed salads, wraps, parfaits and cut fruits that fill the grab-and-go island in every store — another way to get customers in and out quickly.

In Vineland, Omni Bakery produces every hoagie roll Wawa serves. “We probably supply them with something like 65 to 75 million rolls a year,“ says Omni and Amoroso’s Baking Company co-owner Len Amoroso. That’s just less than 200,000 a day.

In its move to Jersey, Omni became the exclusive hoagie-roll provider to Wawa — before, there had been a few. So Amoroso is making a lot of bread. “Let’s put it this way,“ he says. “It’s hard not to do well with them.“

Wawa’s Bridgeport distribution hub — known as the “cross dock“ — is in a warehouse adjacent to Uptown Bakeries, whose primary purpose is to bake the pretzels, cookies, doughnuts and muffins trucked to every Wawa store every night. (The sugar cookies, if you like the kind that are slightly gooey inside, are unbelievable.) Uptown’s operation here is another enterprise that exists just for Wawa. Local junk-food conglomerate J&J Snack Foods bought Uptown in 2000, in part because Uptown had a contract to supply soft pretzels to Wawa, says J&J CEO Gerry Shreiber. J&J also bought Philly institution Federal Pretzel, moved it in with Uptown, and eventually leveraged its pretzel tie to Wawa to take over the pastry case, knocking Dunkin’ Donuts out of there.

Every night, 57 Penske trucks transport the hoagie rolls from Omni, the grab-and-go items from Ready Pac and the bakery goodies from Uptown to every Wawa store. Every crate of food is labeled for its store; every truck is tracked by GPS. Most Philly-area store deliveries are done by 1 a.m., which is when your glazed doughnut will be its freshest. If you’re at your local Wawa in the wee hours and see an unmarked truck unloading racks of food, get ready to watch an employee dump leftover doughnuts from the bakery case into the garbage (d’oh!).

The mix of stuff each store gets is unique, based on historical munching patterns. “You can go to one store and they sell glazed doughnuts all over the place, but go two miles down the road and that town is buying the cruller,“ explains Chuck Taylor, manager of Penske’s Northeast carriage contracts.

Wawa stores are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike — but basically they’re all snow. The Wildwood Wawa has a neon retro- exterior. Princeton’s has a hippie vibe. Inside, the look is standard: bright and clean, with the carnival-colored beverage case in the back, big posters of food where you order, and the eclectic customer mix of cops, punks, geezers, teens and moms. Ed Herr says the diverse clientele is ideal for when Herr’s test-markets new chip flavors: “They might have a Walmart shopper, a supermarket shopper, a drugstore shopper,“ he says.

Because the company is private and refuses to franchise — all stores are Wawa-owned — it has expanded at a consistent but sensible pace, avoiding Wall Street’s destructive imperative to grow at an ever-faster rate. The chain added 24 stores in 2010 and plans to open around 20 more this year. If Wawa wanted, it could expand all the way up and down I-95, from New England to Florida, with little competition, says retail analyst Burt Flickinger. (Wawa dropped stores in Connecticut but has announced a plan to open in Florida in late 2012).

Rather than sprawl too much, the company chooses to backfill where it already dominates and keep existing stores productive. Old Wawas don’t get decrepit; they get spruced up or shut down. As former Wawa president and CEO Dick Wood once articulated: “Leave the stars alone; close the dogs; feed the children; and milk the cows.“ Even the gritty Wawa at 17th and Arch gets a face-lift this fall, though Wawa has largely forsaken Center City (and North and West Philly).

Still, there’s a transition in progress, and it hasn’t always been smooth. Traditional Wawas were 2,000 to 3,000 square feet; new Wawas with gas pumps, the only kind the company builds now, are between 5,500 and 7,400 square feet, on three acres or more. Half of all Wawas now sell gasoline. Some communities have pushed back and said no to the bigger footprint. In Berwyn, Wawa abandoned plans after being met with local resistance over traffic and development concerns. In Conshohocken, where Wawa considered adding a location, opponents started a hurtful “Stop Wawa“ campaign on Facebook. CEO Stoeckel makes no apologies for the company’s growth.

“We compete with everyone,“ he says. “McDonald’s is a competitor, Subway. For things like coffee, our competitors are the big national chains — Starbucks. Competition’s good for the consumer.“

It hasn’t been bad for Wawa, either.

MAYBE THE HARSHEST RESISTANCE Wawa has met lately concerns its most curious project, back in Millville, where it had its primordial days. Beginning in the 1800s in South Jersey, the Wood family at different times produced textiles, glass and ironworks.

“We joke that we used to make cannonballs and now we make meatballs,“ Stoeckel says. The Woods built factories along Millville’s Maurice River and put in a dam that created Union Lake, New Jersey’s second largest, which the company owned until 1982. Wawa still owns 390 lakeside acres — about a mile of shoreline — and has been planning a massive real estate development. What is it — a Wawaland amusement park? No, mostly retail stores and gated residential communities. Wawa says it’s not getting into a new business, just trying to make use of this legacy land it’s owned forever by leasing it to developers.

Matt Blake, an environmentalist with the American Littoral Society, gave me a tour of the area. Union Lake is spectacular and peaceful, sparkling with the tea-colored water of the Pine Barrens.

“They’re talking about going in there and whacking this forest,“ he said. “This is not about building a Wawa. This is about building a city within a city.“ Blake was the most outspoken Wawa critic I’d come across. But later, prior to a hearing on the “Wawa tract,“ he admitted he kind of likes its stores.

Think of the birders who set out at 6 a.m., he said. Without Wawa, “Where would they get their coffee?“ Then he added, without a trace of sarcasm: “Thank God for Wawa.“

2011 Shore Issue: The Shore House

Tradition occasionally bends down the Shore, but you need a pretty good reason to break it. What would you want to change? After a year of deadlines and data and not knowing what worry lurks next, here’s the escape key, a week of no surprises, its commitments as light as the sea breeze, its rhythms as sure as the tide.

It was the summer of 1969 when Leonard and Ann Giunta first drove from West Chester as a newly married couple, with their baby, Andrew, to spend some time at the South Jersey shore. Now—August 2010—they’ve got seven grown children, most with their own kids, and they still come every year. They’re a huge pack now, 16 adults and 14 kids. It’s always the first week in August, lately in Avalon, though there were years in Stone Harbor and, they still smile and remember, 1970s Wildwood.

The biggest rental house they could find in 2009 was a tight fit with 10 bedrooms, so now the family has broken into two divisions, like an expanding sports league, filling two immense houses on 15th Street, on the exclusive block where the addresses all have “East” in them: the block closest to the beach. Each of the houses rents for something like $5,000 a week. The split-up is a twist on tradition, but it will have to do. It’s a big expense for Len Giunta, now 69, but he works hard and does well, and this week spent smothered by family is how he takes his winnings.

It’s a hot, hot Saturday, just after noon. Andy, 42, and Edsel, 30, are hauling provisions for the week—cases of Gatorade, water, snacks—up the stairs to the second floor of what we’ll call the main house, where Len and Ann, these days “Poppy” and “Granna,” are stationed. If you’ve ever wondered what those crowded-together, supersized Shore houses look like inside, here’s the mystery unveiled: They’re filled with zillions of little bedrooms, usually spread over three floors. Everything seems new, but not new-new. Once-new. The kitchen/dining area is on the second floor, so you can take a coffee or beer out to the porch and, from certain angles, see the water.

“I can’t wait to have a baby, so I can opt out of the unloading,” Edsel says, mock-complaining as he hauls more food upstairs. He’s the only one of the seven adult Giunta siblings (four girls, three boys) who isn’t married. Two of the four sisters, Mary and Susie, are at the Shore very pregnant this year (Susie with her first). Matt Giunta and his wife, Kate, have brought their three-month-old girl, Gianna. Edsel is here with his girlfriend, Stacey, but Len won’t let them bunk together—part of having traditions is having rules—so Edsel is sharing a room with Father Michael Collins. Father Collins watched the kids grow up, as a priest at Archmere Academy in Delaware, where the boys went to play football, and he has presided over all the Giunta siblings’ weddings. He’s usually a guest for Shore week.

Jenna arrives in the kitchen with Alia, a three-year-old with Shirley Temple curls who’s scored the week’s first boo-boo—fell in the garage and scraped her chin.

Marc Rayfield: Boss of the Blowhards

There’s a cluster of framed photos atop a filing cabinet in Marc Rayfield’s corner office in the Center City building where WYSP and KYW Radio have their studios. Two of the pictures really jump out at you. One shows Rayfield and his family frolicking with former Phillies ace Steve Carlton. In the other, Rayfield is posing with President Obama in a hallway at the White House.

This may disappoint you, but the behind-the-scenes story I’m going to tell is not about the “Lefty” photo, but about the Obama one, because it’s going to help you understand something about Marc Rayfield.

It’s August 2009. Obama has invited WPHT radio talker Michael Smerconish to interview him at the White House. Rayfield is along because he’s Smerconish’s boss, in charge of CBS Radio’s five Philadelphia stations. Rayfield is a Democrat who supported Obama even in the primaries—odd for a guy who runs a conservative talk station, but we’ll get to that.

After the interview, Rayfield gets a moment of his own with the President. Both men are tall and lean. Both have two young daughters, and they commiserate about the joys of fatherhood. (Both men were left by their fathers when they were very young.) Rayfield remembers that in his jacket there’s a blank birthday card he’d picked up for his daughter.

Obama signs it: “To Eliza. Happy birthday. Dream big dreams. Barack Obama.”

“It was an unbelievable moment. A kid from the Northeast having personal conversations with President Obama,” says Rayfield, who often speaks as if he’s excited by his own life.

About two weeks after that meeting, it’s announced that Obama will deliver a national address to students about “the importance of taking responsibility for their success in school.” Naturally, a firestorm erupts; the segment of the media industry built on the suggestion that Obama can’t be trusted begins rolling its assembly lines. Kansas City talker Chris Stigall, guest-hosting on the national Lou Dobbs program, wonders why Obama wants to speak with our children without parents present.

“What other piece of helpful advice could the President disseminate at noon while you’re not around?” Stigall asks. “I wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.”

Long story short: Not much later, Rayfield hires Stigall to do a talk-radio show five mornings a week in Philadelphia.

Wait—what? I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of this after Rayfield told me about his Obama moment. Yes, I get the idea that work is important. If your job is to make a conservative radio station thrive, that’s what you do. Still, it seemed Rayfield was suppressing something deeper than personal politics.

Obama’s inspirational note to Rayfield’s daughter had stirred him. Then he hired someone who said Obama can’t be trusted to deliver a message to children. It seemed to me the kind of willful mental divergence that could make a guy crazy.

The King of the Philly Diner

The vintage sign on the side remains, as kitschy as ever. It says MELROSE DINER in neon, with a clock in the shape of a coffee mug, its two hands  —  a fork and knife  —  promising to take you back to an earlier time. The Melrose opened in 1956 on this triangle drawn by 15th and Snyder and Passyunk, and it still stays open no matter where those utensils are pointing. Lately, though, particularly since Michael Petrogiannis bought the place, some other things aren’t exactly the way they were, and you know how people can get about that.

Most strikingly: the jarring red roof. For decades, the stainless steel Melrose had a flat top and an understated burgundy ribbon around the perimeter, with mustard-yellow letters that said FOODS TO TAKE HOME and SEAFOOD and BAKERY ON PREMISES. Classic. One admiring book called the South Philly landmark “a silver wedding cake.” This September, Petrogiannis, who bought the Melrose in 2007, pulled the iconic letters off, installed bright exterior lights, and plunked a giant, generic red-and-silver topper on the building, hoping to attract more street traffic.

“The letters said ‘FOOD TO GO,’ something like that. People know you can get food to go,” Petrogiannis explains, as if the information content of the words is what mattered. Sigh. What’s next? Spackling the crack in the Liberty Bell? Breaking up Hall and Oates? Knocking down the Spectrum?

“The best I can say about it is that it could be worse,” says Randy Garbin, who publishes the website Roadside Online about classic diners and lives in Jenkintown. Garbin may be thinking of last year, when Petrogiannis installed a blocky red crown atop the sleek steel Mayfair Diner, which he bought in 2006. Jack Mulholland, whose family owned the Mayfair for 80 years before selling to Petrogiannis, reasoned, forgivingly, “You have to do what you think is right.” Then, after seeing the Melrose: “He likes those toppings.”

Michael Petrogiannis talks with a strong Greek accent. He’s 55 years old, an old-school 55. His look might remind you of a manager on a baseball card, his face furrowed and weary, his hair dark and combed back, his hands and forearms strong. He’s a businessman and a pragmatist, seemingly unsentimental for someone who has made diners his life, has been working in them since he came to America at age 16 by jumping ship from a Greek oil tanker. These days, he works too hard to spend a lot of time agonizing over things like cultural history.

“Before, you drive up and down Passyunk or Snyder at night, and it looked dark,” he explains one morning. “Look like the place was closed. Now it’s nice and bright.”

After breakfast, the Melrose’s a.m. manager, Christine Holland, takes a cigarette break in the parking lot. She likes the new roof and suggests the glare of daylight isn’t the best setting to really appreciate it. “You should see it lit up at 6:30,” she says. “It looks like a stadium.”


« Older Posts