The Wawa Thing

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The WAWA Thing.

 

“Hey, Wawa,” the man a few yards away on the beach called. “Take a look at this.”

He was pointing to a baby hammerhead shark lying on its side a few feet from the ocean’s edge. I had seen the shark earlier, but I had never been called “Wawa” before.

This morning, on the boat over to Egmont Island, off the west coast of Florida, a lady had noticed the logo on my hat: a Canada Goose on the wing under the word “Wawa.”

“Do you work there?” she asked excitedly.

I shook my head.  I had become used to this sort of comment. It happened whenever I was wearing the hat.

“We’re from New Jersey,” the woman said. “Wawa is the thing I miss most being away from home. I just hate it.”

What is it about Wawa’s? I thought of asking, but I knew I would get a series of emotional statements about the coffee and the sandwiches, none of which were really the point. It was the place, the feeling of it, the attitude. Something.

“Have you been to a SuperWawa?” the woman’s husband asked, his eyes lit up.

I had in fact been to my first SuperWawas a few months earlier, in Dover, Delaware. It was much fancier than the ones I was used to, with 16 gas pumps and long buffets of freshly made sandwiches and Hoagies you could order by a computer, and a free ATM. Bright, sparkly clean. Julya had admired the Wawa hat on the young man behind the counter, and he had left his station, gone to the back room and returned with two, one for each of us.

“They’ve opened one in Orlando,” another man on the boat chimed in. We all looked at him, as if he had just proclaimed himself of divine origin. “And another one in St. Petersburg,” he added.

“I heard that,” the husband added. “That they were coming to Florida.”

“They’ve got five more planned,” another voice chimed in.  “We moved here from Pennsylvania five years ago. We can’t wait.”

I first encountered Wawa’s about ten years ago. I was working as a correction officer in a maximum-security prison in Smyrna, Delaware, about 8 miles north of Dover. On the turn off the main highway to the prison was a Wawas, and an hour before and an hour after each shift it was jammed with blue clad correction officers stocking up on snacks and sandwiches on their way in or cokes and snacks on their way out. There was another convenience story a few blocks down the road, but I never saw a car parked in front of it.

What does Wawa stand for? I had asked people. No one knew. Finally someone explained that it was the Indian name for the Canada goose. The green and gold goose on the wing is the store’s symbol, but I had never put it together. My regret about my new hat was that it was only black and white.

Up and down the coast, from Delaware to Florida, people would come up to me in restaurants, motels, bars, boats, in coffee shops, movie theaters. Some intense, some smiling, others misty-eyed.  It was like seeing your college jersey on someone in the streets of Peking. Some pointed at my hat, others just started talking about their favorite Wawas back home in Hoboken. A few times, when I forgot I had my hat one, I was startled by their directness. One woman told me she had worked part time fifteen years at a Wawa in her hometown in Pennsylvania, and quit only when she had her seventh child. The people coveted my hat, I came to see, and I was careful not to leave it around.

Julya picked up on Wawas right away. Not just the name and the gold-and-green Canada goose on the wing, but whatever it was that made it special, although neither of us could put a word on it. The place felt good. The people felt good. The food was fresh and service efficient and friendly, but so what? Lots of places were like that, but you wouldn’t drive five miles out of your way to go to one.

At the prison Wawas in Smyrna, an employee was standing outside the store smoking when we left. The goose on her hat was green and gold. I admired it. We get them free she said, along with the shirts with a green-and-gold goose on the shirt pocket. I asked her if she liked working there.

“Oh, yes,” she said enthusiastically. She was the store manager, and it was the best job she ever had. She told us excitedly about the Super Wawas recently opened on the south side of town. “Sixteen pumps,” she exclaimed. They take good care of you here? I asked. “Health care and everything,” she nodded. She was hoping to transfer to the SuperWawas, even if it meant losing her manager position. She posed for a photo with us.

We finally found the new Wawas in St. Petersburg. Someone called out “Welcome to Wawas1” when we walked in, just like they did in the stores up north. The place sparkled, as usual, and the fresh faces behind the counter made sure everything went well. People stood at computers selecting their hot dishes for there or to go. It seemed like the aura, the magic, call it what you will, had made it down south.

Wawa was founded as a dairy farm in Pennsylvania over a hundred years ago. In the 1960s, the founder’s grandson, expanded the dairy to small markets in Pennsylvania, and from there to New Jersey and Delaware.  Now, to the relief of thousands of snowbirds and transplants, there are Wawas in Florida. You can read all about it at http://www.wawa.com/WawaWeb/PublicRelations.aspx.

In some ways it reminds me of Coors beer, when you could only buy it in Colorado. Visitors would load their cars up with cases of the beer made from Rocky Mountain spring water and brag about it back in Topeka. Now it’s just another beer. I guess I hope Wawas never makes it off the east coast.

If you’re fortunate enough to go in a Wawas some day, you’ll feel what I’m talking about, but I doubt you’ll be able to explain it, either. As for me, I’ve stopped wearing my Wawa hat in public places.

 

15 thoughts on “The Wawa Thing

  1. I have to comment on the Coors thing first. The folks moved out to NE of Byers right after I graduated high school, so if I wanted to see them at Christmas and they weren’t coming back to the sister’s place in MO, I had to go there. Was about a year or so before Coors got to MO, whatever year that was, and I came to Byers for Xmas. Decided while I was there; would load up the trunk with as much Coors as I could fit in, and make a killing selling it to the frat bros back home. I bought the beer the day before I left and went back through NE to visit the relatives in Ogallala. Nice cold snap; cousin had to help me prime the carberator with ether when I left Ogallala. Got back to MO, spent a couple of days over New Year partying with other friends before going back to school. Still in the midst of the nice near Zero cold snap. I get back to school and it’s time for the grand unveiling of Coors at scalper’s rates. Have you caught on to a problem here yet? Was so busy having fun on the way back I somehow managed to forget the beer in the trunk. Frozen solid. The guys all laughed their a**es off and told me if I’d pay them $2 per six, they’d be glad to take it off my hands. I drank a lot of fairly flat Coors that month instead of spending money at the local pub, just to try to recoup my losses a bit and console myself that it wasn’t a total loss.

      • It was a big deal growing up in KC to go out on an occasional Fri eve with your buddies, cross over to KS (where the legal age then was 18) and drive around drinking 3.2 Coors. At least when it finally made it to MO, it was fully-leaded 5.0!

          • Amazing we didn’t either, and later in college and then the Navy, same thing. God must have been with me. Never an arrest, DUI, accident, or anyone killed. He allowed me to wise up myself and finally learn to knock that crap off.

  2. I laughed knowingly as I read your Wawa post. I’ve lived in Virginia for 28 years, and encountered my first Wawa back in ’92. They weren’t any further south than DE at that time, I believe. Was headed up the DelMarVa on 13 to NJ, had skipped breakfast, and needed gas. Pulled in at this convenience store with a funny name. Gas was cheaper there than a lot of places in that area, and couldn’t help but notice how spacious and clean the store was. Saw that they made hoagies; didn’t know if they’d be any good, but something to fill the hole was the priority. Girl took my order on a lengthy pad that had about 16 or so condiments listed; had to look over her shoulder at it to see all the choices. Sandwich was so packed I knew I’d have to eat it sitting in the lot, or it was going to be all over myself and the car. Had taken about 2 bites when I realized, “i’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the best tuna subs I’ve ever eaten. Great flavor, plenty of filling, and cheap. Stopping there was mandatory from then on; was sometimes the most exciting part of the trip to look forward to. I knew was hooked. After a couple of years, however, there was no longer any reason to make the Jersey trips, and Wawa faded into the rearview mirror of my experience.

  3. Fast forward to the year 2000. I was on my way up I-95 from Virginia Beach to DC to work a year-long job for my company. I was approaching the last exit to Fredericksburg when I noticed on the blue services sign the name of an old long-lost friend. “WAWA!” I must have yelled. “THEY’VE MADE IT TO NORTHERN VIRGINIA!” and fortunately no one was with me to wonder what made me such a sudden fool. Obligitory stop, even though I had filled up not long ago and wasn’t really that hungry. But the sandwich still tastes good at 10PM, so why not? For later. Would it be redundant to say it was once again mandatory to stop during my back-and-forth trips? Va Beach and DC are only 3 hours apart, so would occasionally make weekend trips. Think half of those may have been just for the excuse of stopping at Wawa.

    Fast-forward a year. July 2001. The job is completed and I’m on my way home for the last time. One final Wawa stop before I have to say goodbye again, with no knowledge of when we would once again meet. Got something to eat and was filling up the car when I noticed a Wawa employee nearby. I said hello and commented on the nice day, and then told him how much I liked Wawa. Told him this was my last stop, and sure wished they were down where I lived. He asked, “Where do you live?’ I replied Virginia Beach. He responded with magic words: “Well, you’re getting them.” I must have half-yelled, “WE ARE? WHEN? HOW SOON?” He said, “From what I’ve heard, you should get your first ones sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.” I had a sudden compulsion to shake this guy’s hand and put my arm around his shoulder and thank him, as if by imparting this great news, he was personally responsible for thesoon-to-be Wawa arrival. The job I had worked in DC was a good one and I had hated to leave, but how could I now? There was something new in life to look forward to.

  4. About 6 weeks or so after i returned, I noticed some new construction in what had been a vacant lot, on a road about 2 miles from where I live. No sign, so had no idea what was going up. Drove by it on occasion, and gradually it began to take shape. Looked at first like it might be a bank. Kept my eye on it, not even thinking of Wawa, until suddenly one day, I began to believe I might be seeing a distinctly familiar shape taking form. I allowed myself to begin to hope. Started making more frequent trips by the location. Gas pump islands began to be installed. Began to look more and more possible, but one can set themselves up for disappointment sometimes by drawing hasty conclusions. Soon I was going by every day, and finally one afternoon, I was about 95% sure. A couple of days later, it was officially confirmed; They were hanging the Wawa sign on the building. “YES! YES! YES!” The first one in the area, and only a couple of miles from home! I began to spread the word. Most folks didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. They thought I was nuts for getting excited over a convenience store. i let it go. I knew they would find out soon enough, and I would then be known as a prophet.

  5. Like you, Harry, I don’t know what it is. I can’t explain it. I’ve tried, to people who have never been to one, but that in itself makes it kind of hard. My sister has never been back here, so the couple of times I’ve told her about how much I like Wawa, I feel she’s thinking I’ve been in VA too long and need to get the hell out.

    Maybe it’s that I’ve been to too many grubby 7-Elevens in my time, or sub shops that skimp on the portions and charge you more than Wawa, or bad coffee at wherever. Maybe part of the explanation is that 99% of the time, you can find ALL these things at Wawa, and more, for a reasonable price, get a fair sized and fresh portion of whatever it is you’re consuming, and on the rare occasion when maybe somebody didn’t get the coffee changed in time they’ll do it for you. Immediately, and cheerfully.

    Still, that doesn’t cover it completely. BAD CLICHE ALERT: It just is what it is.

    Are you aware there is a Wawa book? “The Wawa Way,” by Howard Stoeckel with Bob Andelman. They had them at one of the stores and I picked one up about a month ago. $10. Don’t know if they’re on line or at a Wawa website. Wondered if they had any when you were there and if you picked one up. History and founding principles of the company, with ongoing philosophy and look to the future. Interesting, informative, and entertaining read.

    I had not even thought of a Wawa cap until I saw your post, so the other day I asked about one. They didn’t have any, but told me they might sell them on line. Have to check it out. Wasn’t looking for a free one like they gave you, but would at least like to buy one if they would sell them.

    Did not know until your post that they had Super Wawas. Don’t know if they have any in this area. It’s a large area, so it’s possible that we do and I don’t know. Would like to see what one looks like.

    My sister would love for me to move back to MO, or at least KS. Tongue-in-cheek, I tell her that it all sounds good, and there are a lot of advantages to that, but I have at least one impediment to that: I CAN’T BRING A WAWA WITH ME!!

    She doesn’t get it. She hasn’t been through the indoctrination. Or maybe it’s subtle brainwashing.

    All this talk of Wawa is making me long for an Italian sub, but I’ve already eaten. Maybe tomorrow night on the way home. I haven’t eaten there for a while. Too much cholesterol, you know.

    If there was any way I could, I’d wrap one up and package it and send it to you, Harry. I’m sure you’d appreciate it.

    At least YOU have the hat.

  6. P.S. Just in case you had wondered, I didn’t actually put my arm around the guy in Fredericksburg who told me Wawa was coming to my area, although I was momentarily tempted. Just another indication that Wawa can seem to cast a spell on one at times.

  7. I’m having to admit I agree. If Wawa went big like Wal-Mart, they would lose the personal touch the same way Wal-Mart did.

  8. And Coors. It was someeting to look forward to, even as a kid coming out there for a couple of weeks in the summer. With Mom’s permission, and a one-per-customer limit, got a chance to down a nice cold can of that clean, smooth tasting stuff you couldn’t get back where you lived. Now it’s everywhere, and I never think about it. The mystique id long gone.

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