How Much Bigger Can Wawa Get?

New CEO Chris Gheysens talks what's next for the beloved convenience store chain.

You’re just starting your new position. How is it different from what you’ve been doing at Wawa?
I’ve been at Wawa for over 15 years, in a lot of different roles. Most of my DNA is in finance and accounting, but I’ve had the opportunity to work in store operations and technology and with our human resources team. In my role as CEO, I think there’s a higher emphasis on safeguarding and protecting our culture as a company.

What’s that culture all about?
It’s founded in a set of core values that we believe deeply in—valuing people, doing the right thing, delighting customers. We’re also a great believer in sharing ownership with our associates. So [the Wood family] has a significant ownership in the company, but almost 40 percent of Wawa is owned by a large majority of our associates.

You grew up in Vineland, New Jersey. Was Wawa part of your life as a kid?
It was, actually. My father was in the car-wash business, and he would go over to the Wawa near the car wash and exchange what he had—coins—for dollars.

The passion Philadelphians have for Wawa is amazing. How do you explain it? Is there something special in the coffee?
[laughs] You know, I think Philadelphia loves its hometown favorites. And Wawa’s grown up here for almost 50 years now. I also think we get a lot of credit from our customers for innovation. So right now, we have our new espresso-based coffees out, and they are every bit as good as anyone’s on the market, and still delivered in the Wawa way. We have fresh-baked rolls that are going to be part of our hoagies and that are being rolled out this year. Then there’s things like what Mitt Romney liked—and that’s our touchscreen ordering. He called it “amazing.” That’s older technology for us, but we continue to reinvent.

What’s next?
Nothing locked and loaded yet. But we love the engagement we have with our customers in our stores, and we want to expand that to reach them on their mobile devices and at home.

Any plans to hire Romney as a consultant?
[laughs] Not that I’m aware of.

Who is Wawa’s competition? 7-Eleven? McDonald’s? Starbucks?
“Yes” is the answer. We really look at our business as gasoline, traditional convenience, and then restaurant to-go, or what we call fast-casual to-go. That’s really the growth engine for us. So we think of Panera, Chipotle, Five Guys.

There are already more than 600 Wawa stores. How much bigger can you get?
I think the sky’s the limit. Obviously we have our core market here that we’re going to continue to grow in. We’re looking to penetrate northern New Jersey as well as Florida. We’ve opened up eight stores in the Orlando market, and we have long-term growth plans there.

Is there a Wawa in your own neighborhood that you visit a lot? Do they stand up a little straighter when the boss walks in?
I try to come under the dark of night. Otherwise they’ll put me to work.

If there were just one Wawa food product you could have, what would it be?
It would have to be our turkey veggie ranch hoagie on toasted whole wheat. That’s my favorite. Beverage would be our coffee. I can’t get off of our regular coffee—I have that each and every day.

I knew there was something in the coffee.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.