There are two types of people in this world. Those who have no idea what Wawa is and those who are obsessed with it.
For the uninitiated, Wawa (pronounced “wah-wah”) is a chain of convenience stores (some are also attached to gas stations) peppered throughout the Mid-Atlantic states (and Florida), with a stronghold in Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There are nearly 800 locations in six states. And while it’s great for fuel for the car and your stomach, it’s so much more than just a road trip pit stop.
With a large selection of highly customizable sandwiches, high-tech ordering systems (seriously, they’ve had touch screens in all their stores since 2002!), fee-less ATMs, and some of the best public bathrooms in the nation, it’s no surprise Wawa has gained a cult following and feverish devotion from anyone who sets foot in one.
My introduction to this magical place came via a lunch trip with the man who would turn out to be my husband. As a New Jersey native, he was appalled that my New York self had never heard of this local institution and insisted we rectify that immediately. I was just confused why anyone would have such a fiery allegiance to a convenience store—enough so to take someone there on a second date—but after ordering an extra cheesy hoagie by simply tapping on a tablet in the iPad-less world of 2008, the place was forever endeared to me.
And I’m not alone. In 2017 they sold 80 million hoagies and 200 million cups of coffee. Goofy, themed promotions like the annual summer Hoagiefest and Siptopia (a sale on frozen drinks) help foster a disturbing amount of enthusiasm for gas station food, but the quality is also there. In terms of Wawa’s coffee, their roasts are actually proprietary and only available at their stores. The beverage was first made available in 1975, around the time the first Starbucks opened on the opposite coast.
As a result, no regional convenience stores have accrued the pop culture currency of Wawa. References to the store have made their way into “SNL” skits (Tina Fey knows what’s up!) and Bloodhound Gang lyrics (“Do you even know what a Wawa is girl?”). These seemingly random name-checks allude to the insular obsession that the brand’s become. Nothing is a more immediate signifier of Philly pride and of the region’s overall superior taste.
Some celebrities have professed their adoration more explicitly. Actress and comedienne Ellie Kemper penned an “Ode to Wawa” in the Princeton alumni magazine, in which she opines, “I wish that I could marry the Wa, but I know that I can’t.” Though one couple did the second best thing and actually got married at the Abingdon, Md. location they get their coffee from every morning. Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville even has a Wawa tattoo. None of this could ever happen to 7-Eleven.
So how did this king of convenience get its start? Wawa’s origins began over 200 years ago with an iron factory. The factory eventually got incorporated into the Millville Manufacturing Company in 1865. Fast forward to 1902, when Millville’s owner George Wood decided to start a dairy processing plant in Wawa, Penn. However, the milk delivery business started to dry up in 1960s and that’s when Wood’s grandson, Grahame, decided to distribute their products through a grocery store instead. Wawa’s first food market opened in 1964 at 1212 MacDade Boulevard in Folsom, Penn. The original location was open until just last year, when it closed in favor of a larger Super Wawa that was built just across the street.
Over 50 years later, the chain is still leading the way. A recent Inc. profile does a thorough job describing how Wawa became a $10 billion empire, due in no small part to impressive employee training programs, benefits, top-notch customer service, and a menu that keeps evolving with its customers. What other gas station sells kale and quinoa?
But beyond the impressive financial stats, Wawa keeps enduring simply because people love it. My heart still gets all fluttery every time their iconic goose mascot comes into view. By the way, his name is Wally (also, “wawa” is the Ojibwe word for “goose,” in case you’re wondering what the bird is doing on all the signage.) But despite being a near-ubiquitous chain in my part of the country, Wawa still manages to exude the warmth of a private secret. One that’s open to anyone willing to walk through its doors.
Header image courtesy of Wawa.