Wawa's Move South Is Just One Step in Retailer's Journey

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Wawa's Move South Is Just One Step in Retailer's Journey

By Melissa Kress, Convenience Store News - 03/09/2012

PHILADELPHIA -- Some call it a convenience store. Others, because of its ramped-up focus on foodservice, call it a quick-service restaurant (QSR). But Wawa Inc. considers itself a different breed – fast casual on the go.

"Our dream is to go where others haven't gone -- fast casual on the go. We don't want to be lumped into convenience stores or be compared to QSRs," said Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel.

Speaking at the St. Joseph's University Food Industry Summit 2012, held yesterday at the school's Haub School of Business, Stoeckel explained that the retailer is on a journey to become "the world's most appetizing convenience retailer" -- a fete not easily accomplished when you sell gas and tobacco, he added.

Wawa's journey began more than 200 years ago, he said, and has since "evolved from cannonballs to meatballs." Moving forward, the journey will include reimaging the foodservice area in its stores. Specifically, the chain is placing two to three large digital menu boards in every store and installing new ordering touch-screens to display pictures of the items available. The new screens are in a few test stores now and will get a full corporate rollout in April.

"We are ratcheting it up a notch and making it more appealing, more appetizing," he explained.

Changes in the foodservice area will also include placing espresso machines in all stores in a bid to compete with Starbucks and McDonald's McCafe, according to Stoeckel.

Wawa's evolution is also taking it outside its core market -- 1,000 miles south to Florida. As he detailed, the retailer's first sites in Orlando will open in approximately four months. These will be followed by sites in Tampa about eight months later.

However, the company is already creating buzz around the new stores. It's launched a new Florida-specific website, mywawa.com/florida, to build awareness and excitement.

All Florida stores will have gas and feature the new foodservice area changes, Stoeckel said.

Wawa's plan is to have 50 stores in the Sunshine State by the end of 2014, and then open approximately one and half stores a month to hit its 300-store target by the end of 2015. "Our plan is not to connect Pennsylvania and Florida. Our plan is to create a Wawa South," he said. And that includes introducing the hoagie, a regional term, to Florida. "We want to sink the sub," the CEO joked.

The company's goal is not to appeal to tourists visiting from its core markets in the Mid-Atlantic region, but rather create a whole new fan base. Most of the stores will be nestled in communities where people live and work; where there is a lot of traffic, houses and offices.

"We want to be part of peoples' lives day in and day out," Stoeckel said. "Tourists will be the icing on the cake, not the bread and butter."

In addition to Florida, Stoeckel acknowledged that the company is aggressively looking for sites to build more stores in northern New Jersey, but has no plans to enter New York City. He cited the difficulties of offering gas in the city as one reason.

In the end, Stoeckel said Wawa enjoys "a cult-like status here and we want to create a cult-like status elsewhere."