“Oh my goodness, this isn’t a Wawa!”; Old locations retain familiar look even as restaurants, Laundromat

Apr 19, 2009Journalism

Author’s Note:

Lee wrote this story in 2009 for The Press of Atlantic City.

Most of his best story ideas stem from the same initial thought: “What’s up with that?” In this case, it lead to a very popular article, for which he collaborated with multiple photographers and designers to create an impressive full-page spread in the print edition.

His editors enjoyed the end result so much that they blew it up and hung it on the wall of the newsroom. He also received all kinds of feedback from readers submitting their own “Ghost Wawas.”

Robert Bozzuto remembers buying milk and butter from the local Wawa dairy salesman with his mother in Clifton Heights, Pa., several years before the company opened its first convenience store nearby on April 16, 1964.

Now, 45 years later, Wawa seems to be everywhere – there are more than 570 stores in five states, including 250 in New Jersey and counting.

Bozzuto, who now lives in Galloway Township, learned just how ingrained the company is in locals’ lifestyles after he moved his commercial real estate business into a vacated Wawa in Egg Harbor Township in 2007.

“We still have people walk in on their cell phones that look up and say, ‘Oh my goodness, this isn’t a Wawa,'” he said. “People are creatures of habit. It’s amazing.”

The phenomenon he describes illustrates a truism about Wawa’s past and present and serves as an indication of its future plans.

Wawa is so widespread, its stores so distinctive, that only a few visual cues are enough to trigger the senses – the pitched roof with shingles, the stone facade and the dual glass doors bring to mind a coffee and Sizzli sandwich, despite the absence of the backlit sign and Canada goose logo.

The company has saturated southern New Jersey so much that it has closed many of its older stores, leaving “ghost Wawas” for other businesses to move into, only to replace them with “super Wawas” close by.

Like a hermit crab, the company has been moving into larger shells – littering the landscape with its former, smaller ones.

“We are committed to keeping our facilities up to date, convenient and relevant to our customers and to their changing needs – so whenever possible we expand them, renovate them, add parking or bring the facilities up to date,” company spokeswoman Lori A. Bruce said. “At the same time, through the years, we have closed some stores when not able to do that.”

Leaving a legacy

Richard J. George, of Avalon, was one person responsible for Wawa’s growth, and he understands where it plans to go. A professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University and a Wawa consultant, he helped craft the system it uses to pick locations for new stores.

“I think if you look at the whole concept of Wawa, they thought they’d be the alternative to the supermarket,” he said, the appeal being convenient access to household necessities.

He said the company also prides itself on quality control, which is partly why it has chosen to close some older buildings – what he called “legacy stores” – to consolidate resources and make room for expanded facilities.

That has resulted in a slew of “ghost Wawas” in locations carefully considered ideal for attracting traffic, now hosting a variety of other businesses – there’s the Lakeview Laundromat in Millville, the Sylvan Learning Center in Stafford Township, the CJ’s American Grill in Cape May and the Walt’s Original Primo Pizza in Egg Harbor Township.

Some of the legacy stores have been converted into other convenience stores, but the company more often restricts its deeds against potential competitors, including convenience stores, coffee shops, fast-food restaurants and gas stations. There are nine vacant Wawas for sale in New Jersey on Wawa’s Web site, all of which are restricted.

Frank Lasalandra, owner of Martino’s Trattoria and Pizzeria on Chestnut Avenue in Vineland, was able to move into a former Wawa only because the company leased its location there. That store was one of the first Wawas in the state.

Lasalandra said even though his business has been open for eight years and he has spent tens of thousands of dollars remodeling the interior, plenty of people have mistaken it for a Wawa.

“From outside, it still looks like a Wawa,” he said. “Believe it or not, up until a couple years ago, some people came in, even though there’s a super Wawa right across the street.”

Roots in New Jersey

While Wawa’s first dairy farm and corporate headquarters are still located in the Delaware County, Pa., neighborhood that bears its name, the company’s story actually begins in Cumberland County.

In the early 1800s, the Wood family sold dry goods, pork, cheese and other products in Greenwich Township. In 1902, George Wood moved to Wawa, Pa., which is named after the Native American word that describes a Canada goose in flight, and started Wawa Dairy Farms.

For more than 50 years, the company delivered its milk to doorsteps, but when the demand for door-to-door delivery waned, Wawa opened its first convenience store in Ridley Township, Pa. Four years later, it built its first store in New Jersey in Vineland.

The expansion from there was swift. Only eight years after opening its first store, the company opened its 100th in Evesham Township, Burlington County. The mid-1970s brought coffee, in 1982 the deli counter was separated from the cashier counter, in 1995 the no-surcharge ATM was introduced, a year later the first store with a gas station was built and in 1999 came touch screens for ordering sandwiches.

The company’s conversion to gas stations has almost doubled the pace of the first wave of expansion. In 2006, the company had already built 200 super Wawas, only 10 years after its first debuted.

That expansion surely continues. The company opened its newest super store on Route 37 in Toms River just this past Friday, preceded by another in Plumstead Township, also in Ocean County, that opened at the end of March. Next month, another will open in Flemington Borough, Hunterdon Township.

And to make way for the future, more and more legacy stores will be left behind – the ghosts of Wawa’s past.