A little dairy with a big idea How success came to Wawa

Posted: April 16, 2009

Rich George noticed the brand-new Wawa store, not far from his house, and wondered what the milkmen were doing selling groceries.

That was 45 years ago, when Wawa meant uniformed men delivering glass bottles of milk, a delta of cream on top; when the subtle clinking of glass outside front doors and vestibules might be the first clue that daylight was spreading across the sky.

In 1964, the inelegant terms Wawa and grocery might have been incongruous.

But George, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University and Wawa recidivist, now realizes he was witnessing the birth of a phenomenon, part of a burgeoning cultural shift that would redefine towns and change how people shop and eat.

As Main Streets yielded ever more ground to the cul-de-sacs, "courts," and terraces of suburbia, George and other experts say, Wawa read the trend right, trading on its dairy image and relying on tough, aggressive business savvy.

Today, Wawa celebrates the 45th anniversary of the opening of its first food market, in the Folsom section of Ridley Township - the one George noticed.

From a modest Delaware County milk-delivery business, Wawa has become the region's third-largest food merchant, behind Acme and ShopRite, according to Food Trade News. It employs 16,000 people and sells 195 million cups of coffee a year at its 570 stores in five states, and is among the top 10 coffee sellers in the country. Its revenue was about $1.6 billion last year, not counting the gas it pumped, which constitutes about 1 percent of the nation's total.

And it all started humbly in Folsom.

"I was here before it opened," said Dan Garrison, 56, one of the customers who comes back daily to renew counter-width relationships and buy coffee. "I played in the foundation."

Yes, he recalls the milkmen fondly, acknowledging that he and his friends used to follow them on their rounds and pilfer some of their doorstep leavings.

He has more than made amends. The burly, bearded Garrison, a mechanic on disability, figures he buys eight to 10 cups of Wawa coffee a day.

Coffee might be the chain's signature product, but it took more than a decade for Wawa to get into it, and it happened more or less serendipitously, said Vic Russo, a regional manager.

In the early days, Wawa stores carried convenience-store staples - no prepared foods or coffee. It also had butcher counters, which it eventually abandoned.

Russo was general manager of the Aston Township store, the second Wawa, 35 years ago, and one day he brought in a 30-cup percolator to make coffee for the staff. A customer noticed.

"One gentleman asked if I would sell him a cup," Russo said. "I put the money in the cash register."

Grahame Wood, a member of the founding Wawa family, lived nearby and used to stop in the store on his way to the airport. One day, he remarked on the percolator.

"Vic," he said, "you're drinking a lot of coffee." Russo 'fessed up. "I put all the money in the register," Russo still insists. Headquarters liked his idea, and Wawas began selling coffee in 1975.

It was Wood's idea to open convenience stores. Home milk delivery was reaching a dead end because of competition from supermarkets and other factors, and customers were becoming more mobile as people moved out of the old urban centers.

The Wawa stores instantly gained a huge marketing advantage because convenience stores were exempt from the old Pennsylvania "blue laws," which prevented most businesses from operating on Sunday. "That was an important niche that convenience stores filled," said Howard Stoeckel, chief executive officer.

The stores kept the name Wawa - defined as "wild goose" in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow epic The Song of Hiawatha - adopting the name for the section of Middletown Township that is the original farm's venue.

It also kept the goose logo, which dates from a time when a Canada goose was a welcome site. (It has been that long.)

The company traces its beginnings to a 19th-century New Jersey iron foundry owned by Wood's grandfather George Wood, who moved to Wawa and took up dairy farming, which led to the home-delivery business.

Once Wawa got into convenience stores, the growth was rapid. By 1972, it had 100 of them, catering to what it called "people on the go."

"They were seeing the opportunities to locate in a place that was convenient for a new mode of life," said Susan Nigra Snyder, an architect and a University of Pennsylvania lecturer.

Not all Wawa ventures have been successful. Partnerships with Taco Bell and Pizza Hut fizzled, but Wawa redefined its food business in the late 1970s by becoming a dominant force in the lunch and sandwich market.

Today it is a major player in the gas market. Wawa has about 200 sites with service stations, and all new Wawas will sell gas, Stoeckel said. The company has its own storage facility in the Port of Wilmington, he said.

Snyder said it was a good move because customers viewed it as a time-saver. "If you can combine the activities, that's one less errand you can do," she said. "It's not about how far. It's how long will it take me to do it."

"What they do particularly well is that they are very customer-focused," George said. "People are time-starved."

The new stores require bigger sites, and they won't have the long-standing problem of ultra-tight parking at Wawas in King of Prussia, Stone Harbor, and elsewhere. "We've outgrown a lot of our sites," Stoeckel said.

Customers including William J. Wasson evidently are willing to put up with it. Wasson, 69, has been going to the Folsom store for about 40 years, the last 13 accompanied by his white parrot, Tiki. Wasson, who lives nearby with his wife, said that from the early days, he felt welcome there.

"It was just like being home," he said as the parrot, perched on a trash can outside the store, gnawed his coffee cup into neat strips, "only a little more [friendly] sometimes."

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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