The cult of Wawa extends far beyond what’s usual for a regional chain. But for me, what makes it truly great is how it represents the best of what Philadelphia has to offer.
In the fall of 2015, the pope came to Philadelphia. There were perimeters, there were port-a-potties, there was Mass for hundreds of thousands on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In contrast to what goes down during any other public event in Philadelphia, however, everyone was very nice. C-collars went unused; no one lit anything on fire. Philadelphia loves the pope, but not with its famous booing, projectile-throwing, climbing-greased-poles kind of love. The adoration that greeted Our Holy Father was loyal, reverent, maybe too uncritical, and very familiar. Philadelphia loves the pope the way it loves Wawa.
So it makes perfect sense that Wawa, the regional convenience store and deli that has over 850 stores in six states and Washington, D.C., and that cannot be written about without using the word “cult,” was involved in every aspect of the pope’s visit. They rushed to open their flagship downtown store before His Holiness’s arrival; when the mayor cut the ribbon, he promised to offer the pontifex a hoagie of his choice. Wawa distributed branded water during Mass, fed legions of first responders, and put up a cardboard Bishop of Rome for selfies.
Towering over the skyline was a billboard reading, “Wawa welcomes Pope Francis,” encapsulating my entire childhood so succinctly it almost felt rude. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and spent 13 years in Catholic school. In our plaid skirts and definitely untucked Oxford shirts, my classmates and I haunted the local Wawa, wolfing down turkey Shorti Hoagies and drinking endless amounts of French vanilla coffee. I can’t remember the last time I had communion, but whenever I go home, I seek out the touchscreen sacrament of the Wawa hoagie.
The glory of a Wawa hoagie
The first Wawa convenience store opened in 1964 in Folsom, Pennsylvania, as an outgrowth of the company’s dairy business. Expansion across the tri-state area of New Jersey and Delaware soon followed, but the Wawa people now know and love came into existence in the 1980s, when the deli counter and coffee were introduced. (The extremely helpful corporate timeline notes that the chain won “Best of Philly” for coffee and deli in 1986.) Wawa was a creature of the suburbs during that era, and its offerings mirrored middle-class needs and tastes almost too precisely: Shorti Hoagies were introduced in 1992 for the diet-conscious, no-fee ATMs in 1995, hot breakfast sandwiches for commuters in 1996 — which was also the same year some stores added gasoline.
That’s the thing about my Wawa: It’s not a gas station store. The Super Wawas (as they’re called) are creatures of the exurbs and the chain’s expansion into further-flung states, or at least, that’s how I still think of them. Some suburban townships fight Super Wawas because they threaten family-owned gas stations nearby, or because their large footprint and 24-hour openings threaten ill-defined chaos involving traffic and riff-raff. For all the regional loyalty to the chain, there’s pushback against how big Wawa has become. And Wawa is really, really big. A 2011 Philadelphia magazine story noted the chain was the No. 8 seller of coffee in the country at the time, and that if it were not privately held, it would be among the Fortune 500. 2011 was the eve of Wawa’s huge expansion run down I-95; 10 years later, the company has added more than 300 stores.
But all this growth hasn’t put much of a dent in the cult of Wawa, which gets to the heart of the contradiction of the regional chain. The beloved regional convenience store or fast-food restaurant must, like all chains, grow to please its investors, but it also must remain specific to its territory, and offer a level of quality, real or perceived, to justify the region’s pride. When you go into Wawa, which you can do with ease nearly anywhere in the Delaware Valley, it offers not the placeless comforts and disappointments of national chains, but the parochial comforts and constraints of what Philadelphia has to offer. Wawa supports an entire mini-economy of other Philadelphia-area companies by stocking brands like Herr’s potato chips and Tastykakes, and plenty of its own Wawa-branded merchandise, including milk. Its hoagies are made on Amoroso’s rolls, a local bakery whose crusty, flaky Italian rolls are to Philadelphia’s culinary identity what a corner deli bagel is to New York or a generic boulangerie baguette is to Paris — a ubiquitous daily staple, without which life would not taste correct.
And as it stretches further and further from home, it does not forget itself: Wawa calls a hoagie a hoagie, even in Florida. The regional rivalry with Sheetz, another gas station/convenience store brand, emphasizes that Wawa belongs to the region where it grew — Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley — and not to other, more suspect regions of Pennsylvania, where the touchscreen-ordered gas station sandwiches are called “subz.”
It’s kind of difficult to explain what it’s like to be from Philadelphia, or at least from my suburban 1990s Philadelphia. A lot of people across America grew up in suburbs built over farms, and went to Catholic school, and drank treacly French vanilla coffee in an attempt to seem adult. There’s a version of that person whose suburbs were built over orange groves instead of dairy farms, or whose Catholic school was outside Toledo instead of Philadelphia, or whose French vanilla coffee came from 7/11 or even Sheetz. The genericness of suburban life makes us cling to handholds of specificity, even if they’re not that specific. Maybe we cling to those the most. A powerful pang of nostalgia hit me when I encountered a pin whose design was the Wawa logo — the good one, the old one, with the sunset and a silhouetted goose — emblazoned with “Jawn” in the Wawa font. It was for sale at the checkout line at a Whole Foods back home; a moment after feeling seen, I felt pandered to.
I downloaded the Wawa app as research for writing this essay, and every time I see the logo, I feel a pang of homesickness and uneasy pandemic uncertainty. I want to be able to open that app and order an Italian hoagie; at the very least, I want to know when I might be close enough to a Wawa again to do that. But I don’t wish there were a Wawa for me to order from, in Los Angeles. If there were only one or two Wawas here, it would be novel, not a staple. If there were Wawas across Southern California, the chain would lose its sense of home. Wawa’s power comes from being both massive and specific, a regional behemoth. And in a city where we threw off kings, it’s the only brand big enough and beloved enough (sorry, Comcast) to welcome dignitaries and treat them to a hoagie of their choice.
Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.