An only-in-Philly moment as Center City, dine-in Wawa debuts

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Lisa Rathbun (left) and her mother, Marianne, both of Dover, Del., pose with a cutout of Pope Francis during Friday’s grand opening of the new Wawa at Broad and Walnut Streets. The store was finished in 85 days — two months ahead of schedule. (DAVID MAIALETTI/Staff Photographer)

Two hours before a brass trio from the Philadelphia Orchestra played the fanfare from Rocky and Mayor Nutter promised a hoagie for Pope Francis, the line to enter the Wawa formed Friday morning down Broad Street.

"Congratulations," a man in a suit said, as he opened the door at Broad and Walnut one minute before 8.

Enthusiasts clutching free coffee and $2.99 Shorties christened a shrine to Wawa, rushed to completion ahead of the papal visit. Even after Wawa condensed its stock of city stores in favor of profitable pastures in Maryland, Virginia, and Florida, a cultlike following flocked to this new flagship - the first Wawa in Center City to open in decades.

This was an only-in-Philly occasion - a party for a convenience store that attracted the orchestra and Obie O'Brien, a 28-year-old Navy engineer who unwrapped his sausage, egg and cheese sandwich at one of the counter tops exclusive to this 5,000-square-foot emporium.

How many times had his friends lamented the lack of a formal space to eat inside a Wawa? Now, he was the first to dine inside one.

"Awesome," O'Brien said between bites. "It's a beautiful moment."

The brass trio arrived a little later. They dutifully performed the national anthem before remarks from top Wawa executives. It was time, CEO Chris Gheysens said, to reinvest in the city. More Center City stores are planned.

Wawa will provide free meals for first responders during papal festivities next weekend. It will donate up to $15,000 to the Francis Fund and $25,000 to the mayor's fund for school supplies.

Hearing that news, the orchestra responded with a few bars from "Amazing Grace."

Nutter grinned.

"This has been the most auspicious opening of any store that I've ever participated in," Nutter said. "Oh my goodness."

The store, Wawa's 705th, was constructed in 85 days - two months ahead of schedule to coincide with the influx of visitors. One, in particular.

Nutter announced that Wawa expects to serve Pope Francis with a hoagie of his choice.

The crowd cheered.

The details of this papal hoagie remain under wraps.

"I don't know what he likes," Nutter said, "but he can have anything he wants."

Wawa has its detractors; loudest are the hoagie purists who will decry an anodyne offering to the pope. But, on Friday morning, the central location attracted slick businessmen, fresh-faced college students, those killing time, and one curious couple.

Fran Lafferty and Jim Kelly met while dancing at St. Anne's Senior Center in Port Richmond. Lafferty, 68, and Kelly, 69, are engaged. They love Wawa.

At 7:10 a.m., they arrived. First in line. The reward for a 50-minute wait? A gift basket filled with Wawa swag.

"She has to have her hoagie," Kelly said.

"He wanted to get going!" Lafferty said.

Minh-Anh Nguyen, 37, cupped a free coffee in a corner of the bustling store. Two weeks ago, he came to America from Vietnam as a visiting Fulbright Scholar at Drexel University. A 1994 viewing of Philadelphia provided his only knowledge of the city.

Now, he scanned the hoagie-makers and the long lines that awaited them. He started to understand it all.

"I bought coffee at a Wawa last week and I was so satisfied," he said. "Even if it wasn't free, I'd be here."

The building, vacant for almost two years, housed Robinson's Luggage for nearly three decades. Before that, in the halcyon days of automat, the corner shop was a Horn & Hardart's.

While still Robinson's, it was the target of looters on the night the Phillies won the 2008 World Series. On Friday morning, Nutter stood outside and proclaimed the Eagles would defeat the Cowboys this weekend. That prompted a rendition of "Fly, Eagles Fly" with team cheerleaders on the sidewalk.

"Philadelphia loves their hometown brands, whether it's the Eagles or Tastykake," Gheysens, the CEO, said.

Yeah, but this? For a company that once existed to deliver milk to suburbanites? He examined the frenzied scene that encircled his Wawa. Gheysens shook his head.

"Wow," he said. "This is phenomenal."

mgelb@philly.com

215-854-2928@MattGelb