From loyal customers to prominent politicians, the community joined together in Philadelphia last month to commemorate the landmark anniversary for one of the convenience store industry’s most iconic brands.
By John Lofstock and Erin Rigik
While many retail brands these days tend to focus solely on the bottom line, Wawa serves as a reminder that when you take care of your customers, your employees and have a great product mix, the bottom line will take care of itself.
That’s why Wawa, the iconic Pennsylvania convenience store chain, is especially proud to be celebrating its 50th anniversary in the convenience store business.
“Fifty years is very special anniversary that gives us a chance to reflect on our history and how far we have come,” Chris Gheysens, president and CEO of Wawa Inc., told Convenience Store Decisions. “From the very top of our organization, we have always emphasized that our associates come first. When you take care of your team as if you are a family, it enables you to deliver so much more value to your customers. The customers come to our stores because they know we are here to serve them, but that begins with the commitment we make to our 22,000 employees across the company.”
And what a commitment that is. What began as a single store in the budding convenience store industry in Folsom, Pa., in April 1964, has blossomed into 635-store chain with operations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Central Florida. The first Wawa gas station opened in 1996 and today the company has 365 stores with fuel. As this steady growth has occurred, so has the company devotion to employees.
In 1977, Wawa began sharing ownership with associates by forming the company’s profit sharing plan. By 1992, the profit sharing plan shares were transferred to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Currently, Wawa’s ESOP has more than 10,000 participants, who own 41% of the company. Based on statistics from the ESOP Association, the number of employee participants ranks Wawa’s ESOP in the top 10 in the country.
“Having our employees as owners gives us a competitive advantage by contributing to Wawa’s growth,” Gheysens said. “Think about owning your own home versus renting. Owners devote time and energy to making their home a better a place. They put their heart and soul into it. This is very similar because our team members want to be affiliated with a company that is growing and one where they are rewarded for their dedication.”
But the silver anniversary is also a reminder of how much work lies ahead for the company as it takes its first steps toward driving innovation and excitement over the next 50 years.
“While we are all proud to be a part of this special anniversary, we will only pat ourselves on the back for a few moments, then it’s right back to work,” Gheysens said. “That is the Wawa way. We deliver great products, great service, fresh foods and satisfy needs. Our customers expect nothing less.”
Gheysens, who helped lead Wawa’s 50th anniversary celebration on April 16, was joined by his two immediate predecessors: Dick Wood, a cousin of company founder Grahame Wood, who served 20 years as Wawa’s CEO; and Howard Stoeckel, who retired as president and CEO in 2012 and is largely responsible for shaping the chain into one of the best c-store operators in the country, including overseeing the development of its fresh food program and its southern expansion into Florida.
Wawa’s origins go back to 1803, when the Millville Manufacturing Co. was founded. This enterprise operated textile mills in several states, including major plants in southern New Jersey.
The seeds for Wawa convenience stores were sown in 1902 when George Wood started a dairy with a small herd of cows and a processing/bottling plant in Wawa, Pa. Using the slogan “Buy Health by the Bottle,” the business grew throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey as a team of milk men delivered dairy products directly to the customer.
The first Wawa Food Market in 1964 was designed to sell deli meats, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and other grocery items. Immediately, the company began growing and soon was offering innovative take-home meals, such as meatloaf and fish and chips.
Identifying customers’ needs for fast, convenient and high-quality foods, the stores introduced a line of proprietary hoagie sandwiches and other to-go items. Because “Wawa” is a Lenni Lenape Native American word that describes the Canadian goose, a goose is used on its corporate logo.
In 1990, Wawa received the first annual Convenience Store Decisions Chain of the Year award in recognition of its early innovation in the convenience industry. Many more novel changes have been implemented in the two decades since that prize was awarded, including technological innovations designed to enhance product control, store management and foodservice.
The Wawa deli was among the first in the convenience store industry to adopt self-serve computer touchscreens for food orders. Customers use the touchscreens to place their own orders, which helps improve order accuracy and can potentially be used to promote up-selling. For example, customers ordering hoagies are asked if they would like to add a bag of chips, a beverage or another item to their order.
In the past two decades, the company’s foodservice offerings have expanded greatly. In addition to Wawa’s built-to-order hoagies and branded dairy products, the stores offer customers a menu of Sizzli breakfast items, deli sandwiches, assorted wraps, savory ciabatta melts, bakery products, ready-to-eat salads and fresh seasonal fruits.
To celebrate the hoagie, in the summer of 2008, Wawa introduced “Hoagiefest,” a reduced-price promotion on four selected varieties of its “Shorti” size hoagies. The Hoagiefest promotion was expanded in 2010 in both the variety of hoagies included and the length of the promotion.
When it comes to sandwich sales, Wawa virtually stands alone in the convenience store industry, selling a staggering 70 million hoagies annually, or nearly 192,000 hoagies a day.
Realizing that private-label products represent a tremendous growth opportunity for the convenience channel, Wawa introduced its own branded water, iced tea and soda, along with a wide variety of coffee and cappuccino beverages. According to company officials, each year customers enjoy more than 195 million cups of Wawa coffee, which is brewed with a special blend of roasted coffee beans and filtered water.
In recent years, many existing locations have been expanded into “Super Wawa” stores, some with as many as 20 fuel pumps. While the original stores are 3,000-3,600 square feet, the super stores are 4,500-5,700 square feet. All future Wawa stores will be constructed in the “Super Wawa” design. Company officials have described the stores as three distinct businesses under one roof: a convenience store, a foodservice retailer and a fuel provider.
Wawa has set itself apart from many of its competitors with a food-focused strategy relevant to its customers’ changing needs. Combined with its trademark outstanding service and warm, friendly store design, the community had an opportunity to celebrate 50 years with Wawa, and what a celebration it was.
In addition to giving away free coffee to customers chainwide on April 16, Gheysens, Wood, Stoeckel and other company officials were joined in Philadelphia by Mayor Michael Nutter, who officially proclaimed April 16 as Wawa Day in the City of Philadelphia, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who proclaimed the hoagie the official sandwich of Philadelphia back in 1992.
As he addressed the crowd, Wood recalled a few harrowing anecdotes from the day the first Wawa store opened. The night before opening day, someone turned off the ice cream case along with the lights. Quoting Grahame Wood, he said, “The next morning, the dismal sight of melted ice cream all over our shiny new display case was most disheartening, but Bryers came to our rescue. By noon when we opened, the beauty of the Breyers-Sealtest display was restored. The first sale was to a lady who brought to the counter a gallon of ice cream, then on sale for 99 cents. I took her $1 bill. In my excitement and awe of this moment, I rang up $99 on the register instead of 99 cents.” Luckily, it was smooth sailing after that. The first day’s sales closed with $359.86, Wood said.
Wood told CSD that he couldn’t begin to envision five decades ago what Wawa has become today. “I didn’t know 50 years ago that we would be sitting here ordering food off of touchscreens,” he said. “It’s been an evolution. Right now we know by the end of this year we will put out a Wawa app and people will be able to order and pay off their smartphones, so it’s all an evolution. I don’t know what it will look like 50 years from now, but I am proud to know that we serve 1.2 million customers a day and that Wawa has touched a lot of lives. That is very special accomplishment to me.”
Wood also unveiled a plaque dedicated to Wawa Founder Grahame Wood that will be displayed at the company’s first store in Folsom.
Stoeckel used the anniversary to unveil his new book, The Wawa Way, which details the last 50 years and illuminates Wawa’s secrets for success, which he calls Wawa’s six core values. They are:
• Valuing People
• Delighting Customers
• Embracing Change
• Doing the Right Thing
• Doing Things Right
• Having a Passion for Winning
The book is now on sale through Amazon.com and in all Wawa stores.
Like many leading c-store chains, Stoeckel said, Wawa is in the midst of a transformative process that has the company aligning itself more as a restaurant with foodservice-to-go options than a traditional convenience store. “Customers continue to be time starved and as other commodities slow down, foodservice has become much more of a driver. If you look at our new stores, we’re much more like a restaurant, and that’s our future,” Stoeckel told CSD.
Through 50 years, Wawa has always shown itself to be several steps ahead of its competitors, but no one change has impacted its business as much as its decision to get into self-distribution.
In 2004, Wawa partnered with McLane Co. to open the New Jersey Distribution Center, a 222,000-square-foot warehouse in Carneys Point, N.J. The facility is owned and operated by McLane, but its contents are exclusively earmarked for Wawa’s stores throughout the mid-Atlantic. The warehouse ensures items are replaced at the store level quickly and gives the firm an opportunity to deploy a more favorable pricing strategy.
With distribution covered, Wawa is constantly on the prowl for new locations. The company is committed to expansion through building new-to-industry stores while constantly upgrading its existing units to showcase its pledge to provide customers with a memorable shopping experience.
“This has been a remarkable 50-year journey,” Stoeckel told CSD. “But we’re 50 years young, not 50 years old, and I truly believe the best is yet to come, and there will be many, many more chapters written about Wawa.”