Wawa expands, remodels its empire

Before (top): The 40-something-year-old Wawa on Butler Pike in Conshohocken. After: The remodeled store on May 4 is part of the multi-million-dollar remodeling of more than 200 legacy stores.

Turns out that Wawa's trademark, the Canada goose, is also a snowbird.

Wawa will open 50 new stores this year, half in Florida.

The chain with 725 stores and $9 billion in sales last year is also undergoing a major facelift.More than 200 legacy stores are being remodeled at $1 million to $1.5 million a store. And the newer stores, which have fuel pumps, also will get a new look.

The privately held company's stock, 40 percent of which is owned by employees, continues to do well, workers report. And the first of 5,000 new hires began work this month. Most will be making sandwiches and drinks and baking fresh rolls.

"They are great merchants," said David Orkin, restaurant practice leader for the Americas for CBRE Inc., in Conshohocken "They have made themselves convenient.

"The bathrooms are clean. They have plenty of people at the checkout aisle. If I want a salad, yogurt, or apple, I can get that. It's a fresh, healthier alternative than hitting a drive-through."

Wawa added gas two decades ago - another revenue stream and reason to stop in.

"They're not an old dingy convenience store," Orkin said of Wawa, which is based in Chester Heights, Delaware County. "They really execute well."

Wawa Inc., which adopted the Canada goose in flight as its mascot, opened its first store in 1964. It now dominates the Philadelphia market in coffee sales, selling over 200 million cups a year. It is No. 6 nationally.

It sells more than 80 million hoagies a year, again topping the Philly market, while Wawa breakfast sandwiches fluctuate between No. 1 and No. 2.

Roasted chicken and hand-spun milkshakes are being added this year.

The company operates stores in six states, five in the mid-Atlantic: Pennsylvania (224), New Jersey (245), Delaware (42), Maryland (47), and Virginia (80). Wawa also operates in Florida.

Competition depends on the category. For gas, Wawa competes with other stations with pumps and food; among convenience stores, it's such places as 7-Eleven. And in food service, it's quick service restaurants, such as McDonald's or Panera Bread.

The company entered the Florida market four years ago and plans to open 25 stores there this year. The state's 87th store was to open in Palm Shores, Fla., on Thursday.

In a culture bent on constant improvement, executives are working to enhance store flow as a main goal of the redos.

At the Wawa in Yardley, the aisles near the entrance were cleared to allow for better flow from the door to the deli.

"Much better," said Marcin Kego, 32, of Trenton, who remodels homes in the area, of the redesigned Wawa on South Main Street. "There's more space to move around."

Kego visits the Yardley store several times a week to order his favorite cheesesteak. He picks out the bread and meats on the electronic kiosks.

"Customers are empowered that they control the whole experience," said Mike Sherlock, vice president of fresh food and beverage. "Customization has worked really well for us."

Worker bees, such as shift manager Michael Smith, 23, who has worked at the company for three years (his brother is also a Wawa shift manager), appreciate being part of an ESOP, an employee stock ownership plan, which began in 1992. Employees now own just over 40 percent of the company.

The ESOP does not involve profit sharing. Instead, trustees put a percentage of eligible employees' salaries into the plan each year. Those employees must be 21 or older, have completed at least one year of employment, and work at least 1,000 hours a year to participate; they are fully vested after six years. Stock is converted to cash and placed in an investment vehicle when the employee quits or retires.

"The stock is basically doubling every year," Smith said with a wide grin. "If I wanted to put my 4-year-old daughter through Harvard today, I'd be able to. We're all low-key rich."

Put more simply, "The better Wawa does, the better I do," said Elwood Swanson, 41, who has been with the company for 20 years. He works food and beverage and the deli at the Conshohocken Wawa.

Millennials, who are keen on fast and fresh, are driving the growth.

Such as Vince Damiani, 25, of Sewell, Gloucester County. He works at a production company in Conshohocken and visits a nearby Wawa several times a week. "The convenience is great," he said. "It's kind of a one-stop shop."

The associate behind the food counter suddenly called out Damiani's order, "538!" for an Italian hoagie and 12-ounce mint chocolate milkshake. Both were ready in minutes.

Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens said every store has added WiFi to court millennials, in particular. The company is also testing a better app to make it easier to order from a smartphone or home computer.

Less than half of the chain's 725 stores are legacy stores without gas pumps.

"We want them to look new, too," Gheysens said last month at the Wawa in Center City, at Broad and Walnut Streets, to celebrate the company's 52nd birthday. It was then that he announced that more city Wawas, including a second one at 1900 Market St., were in the works.

Wood grain was added to the countertops and new floor tiles as part of the redesign. There are now green signs to represent freshness in the food service area; deep brown for full service beverage and coffee; and icy blue tiles where the beverages are.

Last year, 42 Wawas were redesigned. An additional 75 will be done this year, and 100 next year.

Wawa will invest almost $700 million in remodeling 430 stores, including fuel and non-fuel stores opened before 2009, but the return on investment was worth it.

More than 55 percent of last year's $9 billion in sales came from food service.

The Wawa on 1726 Butler Pike in Conshohocken, which opened in May 1976, was shut down from March 23 to April 21 for its makeover. On April 22, there were about six dozen people, waiting to get in for the 8 a.m. reopening.

"They were all waiting for us to reopen because it's such a big part of the community," recalled store manager Bill Mecca.

Customers came for something else, too. "Everyone is so polite and respectful," said Kathy Gerrity, 65, a part-time pharmacy worker from Conshohocken. She and her husband come in daily for their coffee.

The Wawa Way

, penned by longtime employee Howard Stoeckel, sheds light on the company's obsession with this connection:

"Companies that endear themselves to customers strive for a share of their heart," he wrote. "To earn it, organizations such as ours must make a personal and emotional connection."

Management balked at installing automatic doors in the Florida stores, fearing that they would strip the down-home feel of people holding them open for one another. CEO Gheysens confirmed this.

"We want to strive to be the friendliest three minutes that anybody has in their day," he said. "That's our mission."

sparmley@phillynews.com

215-854-4184@SuzParmley