How Wawa Is Spreading the Gospel of Hoagies

As the convenience store chain expands to Florida, Virginia and other states on the East Coast, it is introducing people to the word "hoagie." Will it stick?


Promotional image posted to Wawa’s Twitter account on April 11th, with the message: “They say it’s National Submarine Day, but we’re sticking with the term hoagie.”

Wawa opened three stores on April 23rd in Fort Myers, Florida. The convenience store chain, which began an expansion into Florida in July 2012, has 65 stores in the state. It plans to have 100 locations by the end of 2016.

On Thursday, it hosted “Hoagies for Heroes” contests at each of the three new stores. In the competition, local first responders (police, firefighters, EMTs) faced each other in a hoagie-building competition. “We train the participants on how to build hoagies the Wawa way,” Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce says. “The goal is for each team to build as many hoagies as possible in three minutes.” Wawa makes a donation to charities for each of the teams.

There is one slight issue, however: The term “hoagie.” According to the Harvard Dialect Survey, which ended in 2003, most people in Florida use the term “sub” for a long sandwich with cold cuts on it. Partially due to the national sandwich chain Subway, that’s by far the most popular term. But there are others terms: New Yorkers use “hero.” People in New England use “grinder” — though that generally refers to a hot sandwich. Some in New Orleans use “po’boy”; others across the country call it an “Italian sandwich.” There may be slight variations, but it’s essentially the same sandwich all over.

Wawa says it does not have any problems using the word “hoagie,” though it does distribute a “What the Heck’s a Hoagie?” fact sheet (PDF) to journalists. “We try to be as descriptive as possible both in-store and in our advertising, incorporating photographs of our food whenever possible,” Bruce says. “Even if a customer hasn’t totally bought into using the term ‘hoagie,’ they completely understand the product through visuals.”

This is the opposite of what Rita’s, another local chain with aspirations to expand, is doing. After extensive market research, Rita’s began marketing water ice as “Italian ice.”

“Changing our name from Rita’s Water Ice to Rita’s Italian Ice was not a decision made lightly,” Rita’s CEO Jeff Moody said via email. “After extensive market research, we realized that very few people outside of Philadelphia had ever heard of water ice, while almost everyone knew of Italian Ice. Knowing how passionately Philadelphians feel about Rita’s (and vice versa), we also carefully researched the opinion of Philadelphians and it turned out that either name was fine amongst our biggest fans … it made sense as we expanded Rita’s across the country to introduce the brand and product in a context, and with a description, that was familiar to them.” Despite the name change, Moody says Rita’s will “continue to serve the same product that Philadelphians know and love.”

But Wawa kept its Philly-bred term, which means it is introducing a new audience to the term “hoagie.” And if Wawa continues its expansion in Florida as planned, it will end up spreading the term all over the Sunshine State. It has happened before.

FIRST, A HISTORY of the hoagie. The origin of the word is murky, but it is known to have come from Philadelphia and began as “hoggie.” A 2002 paper by Penn linguistics legend Bill Labov charted advertisements and telephone book listings. In the 1940s and early ’50s, most sandwich shops used the term “hoggie” or “hogie.” By 1955, though, the term “hoagie” was by far the most popular. Praise (or blame) Philadelphia speech patterns for that one.

A 1967 paper in American Speech, “The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context,” lists several plausible origins.

Two derivations of this term which claim origin during the First World War appeared in [The Evening Bulletin]. One writer states that during the First World War, Italian laborers at Hog Island Shipyard in Philadelphia used to congregate for lunch. Their sandwiches consisted of long Italian rolls filled with meat and cheese. Others watching them used to shout, “There’s enough there to feed a couple of pigs.” The reply of the laborers would be, “That’s what they [the sandwiches] are, Hog Islanders.” […] Another writer suggests that the term hoagie was used in the 1930s and referred to either the use of meat derived from the pig or hog in the sandwich or the resemblance of the sandwich to a hog’s back. From hoggie, hoagie was a simple derivative. In certain areas Hoggie (hoggy) is still used.

The paper even lists another plausible origin, from a Philadelphia sandwich maker, Al DePalma, known as the King of the Hoagies. He tells the paper’s authors, Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy: “During the depression when I couldn’t get any work as a musician I decided to open a sandwich shop. I wanted to do something different, so when I opened the shop in 1936 I remembered what I had said eight years before and decided to call the sandwich a hoggie. Business was good and I was able to start a chain of shops all of them featuring the hoggie. I noticed that a lot of people would call them hoagies rather than hoggies and decided to change the name to hoagie.”

WHEREVER THE TERM came from, it’s uniquely Philadelphian. But, as Labov writes in that 2002 paper, it eventually expanded across Pennsylvania. Using advertisements, he explains that Grab’n’ Go Pizza introduced a small ad for hoagies in the 1961-’62 Pittsburgh yellow pages. Village Pizza followed the next year. Frank & Betty’s Pizza Shop and Pat’s Pizzeria did a year later, and three more pizza shops did a year after that. By 1966, every pizza shop that advertised the sandwich was using the term hoagie except Grab’n’ Go, which had returned to using the term submarine sandwich.

Labov continues in that 2002 paper:

The trend started by Village Pizza suggests that this particular merchant had a certain influence in the community. This suggestion is strongly reinforced by the fact that Village Pizza had a separate ad for pizza ovens. At the same time that they were competing with other pizza stores for the retail business, Village Pizza was supplying their competitors with the basic equipment needed to start and stay in business. It seems reasonable to suggest that these ovens were manufactured in Philadelphia, and that Village Pizza had a special connection with that city.

(Labov wasn’t able to figure out if Village Pizza had a connection to Philadelphia.)

Labov writes that many local terms for the sandwich — zeppelin, for instance — have been eliminated by the term “sub” since that 1967 paper in American Speech. That’s largely due to the Subway chain, the second-largest fast food chain in the country.

But “hoagie” has persevered in Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania. Now Wawa can possibly pull a Subway with the term as it expands to places like Florida and Virginia. Temple linguistics professor Brian McHugh, a Philadelphia native who says “hoagie” like you’d expect, says a similar thing may happen with Wawa and Florida. “I would say as Wawa is expanding,” he says, “it’s likely to spread the term.”

So it won’t be surprising if other shops in Florida start selling hoagies instead of subs. That’s right: By choosing to use hoagie and not switch to sub, Wawa is going to spread the gospel of hoagies wherever it expands. Wawa’s Bruce says hoagies are quickly becoming a favorite of the “thousands of transplants who already knew Wawa” and Florida natives, too. “We know that many of the customers are thrilled to get a taste of home,” she says. “And we are also delighted to share our Wawa brand products with our new Florida customers — who are quickly making the Wawa hoagie one of their favorites.”