A confession: One small matter that has kept me from feeling like a complete and true Philadelphian is that I have no loyalty — none — to Wawa.
This is not entirely my fault. When I moved to the city in 2008, it was impossible to avoid the chain’s catchy commercials urging viewers to “start your day on a roll/with a Wawa breakfast hoagie.” The tune was relentlessly cheery, relentlessly overplayed and simply relentless. I think I spent November of that year singing the jingle to myself over and over again. Wawa tried to capture my mind, and it certainly did.
It was just never around to capture my heart.
This is a matter of age and geography. I’m told Wawas once roamed Center City like buffalo did the Great Plains, in thunderous herds of coffee-guzzling Eagles fans who needed to grab a good, cheap, fresh sandwich on the go.
It always seemed the stuff of myth to me. I live near Fitler Square, and have spent most of my career in Philly working in Center City west of Broad Street. Whenever I’ve needed or might’ve desired a Wawa experience — for a quart of milk at 11 at night, say, or to grab caffeine in whichever form seemed most appropriate for its time of day — Wawa literally hasn't been there for me.
That’s Wawa’s choice. As Don Steinberg wrote in Philly Mag nearly three years ago, “Wawa has largely forsaken Center City,” leaving urban spots for larger tracts of land with landscaping and the ability to sell gasoline. Maybe Wawa was once a city kid, but by the time I’d arrived in town, it had grown up, started commuting, and moved to the suburbs.
It was only when a 7-11 went up in recent months at 22nd and Market, though, that the thought occurred to me that maybe Wawa’s Philadelphia myth was even more mythical that I first suspected. That maybe 7-11 — a national chain, and thus unlovable — was really the preferred place to get the late-night sodas and junk food.
Maybe 7-11 was the secret king of Philly.
So I made some phone calls, put out some contacts. And what I found out was this:
7-11 has 72 stores in the city of Philadelphia — and it is growing: Seven new stores in the last year in the city. Wawa, meanwhile, merely has “more than 40 stores” inside city limits — barely more than half its competitors — with two more under construction. If you’re looking for a convenience store, it turns out, 7-11 is almost certainly more convenient, a late-night way station for cops, a daytime destination for lottery ticket buyers and Slurpee lovers of all ages.
"I can tell you for the past several years, 7-11 has been on an accelerated growth plan. Philadelphia is one of those areas,” said Margaret Chabris, a spokeswoman for the company. “We've got a respectful operation there.”
Here, I believed, was the information that would help me shatter generations of myth-making.
Wawa’s Lori Bruce, though, made the case that Wawa’s connection to Philly transcends mere numbers. “Philadelphia,” she said. “is Wawa’s hometown.”
In fact, she laid it on a bit thick. “We believe that we all have a role in making the world a better place by not only by filling customer orders — but by fulfilling the lives that we touch. Because happy, fulfilled and connected people, make happier and stronger communities,” she said in an email to me. “We believe we are the trusted, 24/7 daily sanctuary — town square and heart of our neighborhoods. We play a role in life's key moments — making good times better, and bad times more bearable.”
Maybe. But sometimes I don’t need to find solace and sanctuary in an alienated world. Sometimes I just need to buy a pint of Chunky Monkey.
Still, when I started canvassing friends and acquaintances which convenience store they used most often, the choice was overwhelmingly Wawa. “I’ll drive out of my way to hit up Wawa,” said one young lady. “Obviously,” sneered someone else. It was clear: The raw numbers might tell one story, but Philly’s self-identity, it seemed, demanded another.
Maybe that’s OK. 7-11, as far as I know, has never helped bring The Roots home to perform on the Parkway for Fourth of July — that’s all Wawa. And the idea of a 7-11 versus Sheetz rivalry for the heart of Pennsylvania seems a little depressing.
Of course,there still isn’t a Wawa all that close to where I live. I guess I’ll have to make due with mere convenience — even if that means missing a little magic in my life.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.