Fifty years ago today, the first Wawa opened at the corner of MacDade Blvd. and Swarthmore Ave. in Folsom, Pennsylvania. Today, you can get free coffee at any of Wawa’s locations. (Here’s a Wawa store locator.) To celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, here are 50 things about the Philadelphia area’s favorite convenience store.
2. Per the company website, though, Wawa, Inc., began as an iron foundry. Owner George Wood opened a dairy processing plant in Wawa, Pennsylvania, in 1902.
3. The name comes from the town of Wawa, Delaware County. Per a 1989 article in the Inquirer, locals pronounce it to rhyme with “saw-saw.”
4. The store Wawa is named after the city. The store name is Wawa. Lots of people, however, believe the store’s name is WaWa. “We do not capitalize the second ‘w’ in Wawa, and never have,” Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce emailed me in 2012 when I bugged her about it so I could prove a friend wrong. (I use my powers as a journalist for good, and also for personal gain.) Journalists actually get the name wrong frequently. Which is weird, because no one ever writes it NiKe or 7-ELeVeN or even HoTMaiL (as the name was originally stylized). Still confused? I made a graphic.
If you haven’t noticed, I have strong, obnoxious feelings about this.
5. Per that 1989 Inquirer article, Wawa is the word for goose in a Native American Language. Though the Lenape originally settled in the Delaware River watershed, it appears the name comes from the Ojibwe, who are in the Great Lakes region. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentions “Wawa” in The Song of Hiawatha: “the wild-goose, Wawa.” One of Longfellow’s sources for the epic was an Ojibwe chief.
6. Wawa, Pennsylvania, is a strange place: Part of it is in Middletown and part in Chester Heights. That 1989 Inky article:
“Wawa is a state of mind,” said Fritz Schroeder, vice president of Wawa Inc. and a lifelong resident. “If you want to be in Wawa, you can be in Wawa.”
Estimates of those who do live in Wawa range from about five families (according to one longtime resident on Wawa Road) to 265 families (the estimate of Walter Kirby, 68, the head of the Wawa Farms Association, which just had its annual dinner at the Log Cabin Inn).
“No one’s ever drawn a line on a map saying this is where Wawa begins and ends,” explained W. Bruce Clark, Middletown’s manager.
7. As such, Wawa’s headquarters are “officially” in Chester Heights — but a Wawa, PA, address will do just fine.
Yeah, it looks like a particularly nice house, or maybe a particularly nice house that has since become a dentist’s office.
8. Wawa’s convenience stores started 50 years ago primarily as a way to sell milk. The dairy once delivered it door-to-door, but milk deliveries became unnecessary as home refrigeration became standard.
9. Today, there are 645 Wawa stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Florida.
10. The company’s still expanding. Four more Wawa locations are opening this month, including one tomorrow in Clermont, Florida.
11. The company’s Florida expansion is recent and swift. Company CEO Chris Gheysens — who chatted with Philadelphia magazine in 2012 — told KYW 1060 Wawa opened 36 stores in 21 months in Central Florida. But don’t get your hopes up, New Yorkers: “No other states in the works. Northern New Jersey is a focus for us but not yet creeping over into New York and not looking to connecting the Virginia to Florida market just yet.” Just yet, though! You’re going to be so happy, Georgia and the Carolinas. Before deciding on a Florida expansion, the company also considered the Carolinas, the Ohio Valley and Chicago.
12. Wawa used to have stores in Connecticut and Staten Island, New York, though, but exited those markets. The company once accidentally marketed an Eagles cheerleader calendar to Giants and Patriots fans.
13. People have a strong affinity for Wawa. An example: Don Steinberg’s excellent 2011 Philadelphia magazine article “It’s a Wawa World” opens with a “burly, rowdy-looking guy — six feet, maybe 300 pounds, with the bold facial hair of a modern 24-year-old” getting a Wawa tattoo.
14. TV personality Bam Margera — of Viva La Bam and West Chester, Pennsylvania, fame — has a Wawa tattoo. It’s right above a tattoo of Leon Spinks,” he said in 2006. “People generally like it.”
15. Oddly enough, Jackass star and actor Johnny Knoxville has a Wawa tattoo as well! He said he got it due to “whiskey and adrenaline.”
16. Also in that Philly mag article: Scott Gaddis and Cindy Richardson got married at a Wawa store in Abingdon, Maryland, in 2008. The reception was there, too.
17. Need more? A few years ago, five girls from West Chester visited every single Wawa then in existence. According to their blog, they spent around $3,000 on the experiment — an amount Wawa matched with a donation to the Melanoma International Foundation. Neat!
18. When Wawa closed its 20th and Locust location in February 2009, people actually protested outside the store. The retail spot in the Dorchester now has a 7-Eleven.
19. Some people hold an enormous grudge against Wawa for the closing of that location, and another at 20th and Chestnut, five years ago. When Wawa comes up — which is surprisingly often — multiple people have ranted to me about how the company “abandoned Center City.” While the company has closed stores in Center City and surrounding areas — my favorite is at Eighth and Bainbridge — what people generally mean by “abandoned Center City” is “when I moved downtown there were six Wawas and now there are only four.” Those downtown for more than a decade could perhaps use the stronger language. But we shall forgive everyone for the hyperbole, because Wawa spurs such strong feelings. Plus, I’d get cranky, too, if they closed the Wawa three blocks from my place.
Now I shall show my own Wawa dorkiness: When the 17th and Arch Wawa was renovated last year, I ranked Center City’s Wawas. Even with more renovations, 17th and Arch stays in the top spot. It’s a madhouse at lunch but is well-designed, plus it has nice public restrooms.
Wawa’s downtown Philly spots are all near reliable populations: Comcast Center (17th and Arch), the bus terminal (11th and Arch), Jefferson and Penn hospitals (10th and Walnut), and drunken bros from Old City and South Street (Second and Lombard).
21. In 2006, The New York Times Magazine asked if Wawa was a “Convenience Cult.” (New York publications are required by law to work over anything that does not take place in New York city.) This piece ran so long ago two of the examples of Wawa’s cult-like nature are Wawa fan groups on Myspace and Livejournal, but the company remains popular online today: 1.16 million Facebook likes, 33,000 Twitter followers. Last year, the Times wrote about the Sheetz/Wawa fan feud, a thing that exists — but is incredibly silly, since the chains barely have any overlap.
22. The Times piece mentions actual research: A 2005 Harvard Business Journal article praising the company (along with another convenience chain, the Oklahoma-based QuikTrip) for its customer service: “Both Wawa and QT demonstrate the power, even in minimum-wage businesses, of investment in employees to create a positive customer experience.”
23. This shows up in profits, too: From 1977 to 2003, Wawa stock grew at more than twice the rate of the S&P 500.
24. Here’s a heartwarming story about Wawa and one of its employees: CEO Chris Gheyens drove 1 1/2 hours to wish a special needs associate a happy birthday.
25. This explains some of the mass affinity for Wawa, I think. One might not like McDonald’s-style fast food after the age of 15. But convenience stores offer a place for people in different stages of their lives: Office workers make a quick stop for coffee. Twentysomethings nurse hangovers with Shortis and Gatorade. Teenagers — always in need of a place to hang — buy food and chill in Wawa parking lots. Why not choose to do this in the convenience store that’s cleaner, and where the employees are nicer? And as people get older, they remember their teenage years — and develop an attachment to Wawa that causes them to get tattoos or visit every Wawa or write detailed rankings of Wawa locations.
26. One of the tricks of Wawa is there isn’t any place to linger: Steinberg writes of trying to interview a Wawa executive in a store but kept getting in the way of customers. But people find a way: Wawa parking lots are hangout spots, especially for teens. When I asked friends on Facebook yesterday if they had any strong thoughts on Wawa, several mentioned hanging in parking lots. And it’s not just those of us with electricity who hang in Wawas. “Four Amish teenagers (two girls, two guys) made the Wawa entrance their hang spot,” Monika wrote. “One of the guys had bleached streaks in his Dutch-boy bowl cut. They were so cool. Wawa is so cool.” Another friend got to second base for the first time behind a Wawa. Yet another talked of drug deals going down in a Wawa parking lot. Whether the company wants people to linger or not, they do.
27. For cars, though, Wawa parking lots are terrifying. Last year Jen Miller wrote about the five worst Wawa parking lots. This has to be an incredibly tough assignment, because how could one ever whittle it down to just five? For my tastes the classic Wawa parking lot layout — ones without gasoline sales that have one or two spots on the side and a handful in front — are the worst. The parking lots are just too small to maneuver in and out of. Or maybe people need their hoagie fix so much they drive like maniacs.
28. After Phillies announcer Harry Kalas died in 2009, Wawa began selling Rich Wolfe’s book Remembering Harry Kalas. It sold 60,000 copies in 60 days. One of those 60,000 books was purchased after a night at the bar by yours truly. With that many copies of the Kalas book sold, I was certainly not the only one who made an alcohol-influenced purchase of the Harry Kalas book.
29. Now there’s another book for sale at the counter. Wawa Vice Chairman and former CEO Howard Stoeckel’s The Wawa Way: How a Funny Name and Six Core Values Revolutionized Convenience is the latest $10 book available at the Wawa counter.
Naturally, I bought it last night. The casher told me I was the first one to buy a copy; the UPC didn’t scan so I ended up holding up the line for 30 seconds while he figured it out. I also read this book last night. The next few facts about Wawa come from The Wawa Way.
30. Wawa operates Wawa University for its associates. Partnering with a number of local universities — St. Joe’s, Immaculata, etc. — Wawa U. offers business and liberal arts classes.
31. Wawa was partially saved by cigarettes. Wawa’s Dick Wood called the mid-1980s “Wawa’s dark days,” as the company was losing market share to supermarkets and fast food joints. Wawa then lowered prices on cigarettes to the lowest the state allows at stores in the Lehigh Valley, putting up “LOWEST CIGARETTE PRICES ALLOWED BY LAW” billboards in Allentown. Sales shot up. “Today, the controversy over tobacco sales has subsided,” Stoeckel writes, as this book was surely sent to press before CVS re-invigorated that debate.
32. Wawa doesn’t sell rolling papers because they are “used mostly for marijuana.”
33. Likewise, Wawa once sold pornographic magazines, but ceased more than 30 years ago.
34. In the 1990s, 150 Wawa locations sold food from Pizza Hut and/or Taco Bell. Stoeckel writes that customers didn’t want it. “To the Mid-Atlantic consumer, Wawa was mainstream Americana, motherhood and apple pie. Ethnic foods — Mexican and Italian — caused a disconnect in terms of the consumer experience and Wawa.” The pastry case, once done by Dunkin Donuts, is now handled by local junk food king J&J Snack Foods.
35. A Wawa coffee cart operates seven days a week at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and serves 100 or so complimentary cups of coffee a night.
36. The company celebrates store milestones about 50 times a year with Wawaversaries, parties at Wawa locations. The Wawa Way helpfully lists the line dances done at Wawaversary parties: Cha Cha Slide, We Are Family, Wobble, Follow the Leader, Conga, Cupid Shuffle and the Chicken Dance. What, no Cotton Eye Joe?
37. The company almost went public in 2003. But with the stock market reeling after the tech bubble burst and 9/11, IPO prices were tanking. Wawa and its equity partners didn’t want to sell at a reduced price.
38. In the 1960s, Wawa’s slogan was “Mama I Luv Wawa.”
— Pete Genovese (@petegenovese) April 16, 2014
I demand the company drop “Gottahava Wawa” and bring this back immediately.
39. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Wawa’s touch-screen sandwich ordering system is one of the greatest achievements of the 21st century. (Get to work on curing cancer, science!) Not only does it lessen the chances of an order being mixed up — unless you screw it up yourself — it also lessens the need for human interaction. Introverts rejoice!
I think people like it because it’s egalitarian, too. You wait in line, order your sandwich at a screen, pay, then wait around the counter. No associate behind the deli counter is going to forget to get your order for a long time. No one’s going to cut in front of you.
40. You know who also liked the touch screen? Mitt Romney. Though MSNBC’s selective video editing made it seem like Romney had never ordered a sandwich before, Romney was impressed by the touch-screen system. People used this to knock on Romney, but his affinity for Wawa — which he kept calling “Wawas” — was one of the high points of his 2012 campaign.
41. Hilariously, Romney had to switch the Wawa he was making a campaign appearance at because former Philly mayor Ed Rendell was leading an anti-Romney protest outside the scheduled stop.
42. Rendell had his political run-in with Wawa as well. While campaigning for mayor in 1991, Rendell signed a Wawa-endorsed petition attempting to make the hoagie the official sandwich of Philadelphia. Rendell signed. When he became mayor, Wawa attempted to get him to deliver. He demurred, saying the cheesesteak was Philly’s official sandwich. But Wawa had his signature! He ended up making the hoagie Philly’s official sandwich, leaving the cheesesteak as the city’s official hot sandwich.
43. Wawa once made a Rendelli wrap.
“Inspired by the governor’s love of the game day favorite, we took buffalo chicken and blue cheese — and wrapped it to go,” Dick Wood said (well, in a press release) of the Rendelli wrap. “Like the Governor, the Rendelli wrap is bold, zesty… and it goes everywhere!” Ed Rendell is zesty?
44. If there’s one food item at Wawa that stirs the most emotion, it’s the pretzels. Some people treat the pretzels — made by J&J — as a nectar from the gods, while others believe they are an inferior, unworthy knockoff to the regular Philadelphia pretzel. I’ll sit somewhere in the middle: While they are on the low-end of Philadelphia pretzel quality, they are still a Philadelphia pretzel.
The downside of Wawa pretzels we can all agree on: The calorie count is printed on the back.
45. But Wawa iced tea! Glorious Wawa iced tea. There is no debate on the best cold beverage Wawa serves.
I do miss the box-shaped containers that had “GRASP HERE” written on the side.
46. Not every Wawa beverage is successful. The company once marketed an energy drink, Mach W, as well as Wawa Water — a Vitamin Water knockoff my ex-girlfriend and I used to call “Vitamin Wawa.”
Both of these drinks didn’t work. But you can still get orange juice!
47. My freshman year of college, the Wawa at 38th and Spruce sold beer.
48. The company sells 190 million cups of coffee a year. When I asked friends about the coffee, people raved about everything from the smell to the quality of the cups. It is the No. 8 seller of coffee in the country.
49. Another liquid Wawa sells? Gasoline, close to 1.5 billion gallons of it. Wawa sells about 1 percent of all gas sold in the United States.
And there you have it! Fifty things about Wawa. If anyone from Wawa happens to be reading this: My dad says his Wawa — which I believe is Store No. 106 on Knights Road in the Far Northeast — stopped selling liverwurst. Though he admits it’s “disappointing probably only to me,” would you consider bringing it back for him? He’s a loyal customer.
Additionally, I asked people on Twitter for their thoughts on Wawa yesterday, and I collected the responses, many of which were excellent.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.