For Wawa, Sandy delivered an unprecedented crisis

Posted: October 31, 2012

For a convenience-store chain that takes the postal-carrier mantra to the retailing extreme - on the job in any weather, plus holidays - what happened to Wawa in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy can be called a crisis of unprecedented scope.

Nearly a third of Wawa's 601 stores - 194 in all - were without power Tuesday, most of them closed and in areas most affected by hobbled utility systems in New Jersey, Southeastern Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

While Wawa was not alone in its struggle - Giant Food Stores said 33 of its supermarkets in the Philadelphia suburbs and as far west as Reading were open but subsisting on generators and ice-packed trucks in parking lots - Wawa's troubles were acutely startling.

After all, its customers dash to Wawa for gasoline, coffee, hoagies, and other provisions during holy holidays, unholy ones, late nights and, yes, weather emergencies.

As residents rushed around for gasoline for their own emergency generators Tuesday, or for early-morning java fixes because they had no electricity to fire up their own coffee makers, they found empty parking lots and, where the chain also dispenses gasoline, idled pumps.

Wawa was frantically searching for spare generators, despite what its top operations executive described as days of preparations in anticipation of the storm that pummeled the northeastern United States Monday night.

"Our facilities team worked days in advance to get a hold of generators," Wawa's senior vice president of store operations, Sal Mattera, said midday. "That team is in the process of determining which stores get those generators."

At store after store, employees like Kulpsville manager Tim Bowers, remained behind locked doors, dusting displays in dark, chilly quarters until power had been restored. By evening, 126 stores were still closed due to power outages, spokeswoman Lori Bruce said.

Even though the chain has experienced closures associated with storms in the past, the high winds of Sandy and resultant power outages presented challenges beyond, say, plowing snow off lots or cleaning up after floods. Hence, the shortage in generators on hand.

"There's just a limited number of generators that are available in a crisis of this nature," Mattera said.

The towns affected by the highest concentrations of Wawa closures were in central New Jersey, the flooded barrier islands of South Jersey's shore towns, upper Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

"As an organization, it's frustrating to us because we want to be there," Mattera said. "We're 24-by-7, 365," he added, shorthand for all day, all week, all year.

It was striking to drive through Wawa's core market of the Philadelphia suburbs and see so many of its stores closed. A ride up Route 309 north of Montgomeryville saw one store after another off-line.

At each outpost, motorists pulled up, and noticed signs like one handwritten in marker, that said, "CLOSED," the letters scrawled onto the backs of hoagie wrappers and taped to the front door, as was the case at the store in Kulpsville.

"I am well prepared for the storm," said David Garrison, 65, of Hatfield, a would-be customer who greeted the closure with an ironic reflection. "I got everything: I got water in the bathtub, all the food - but I'm out of smokes."

Garrison would take his hunt for a pack of Ducal Lights 100s elsewhere.

After power began to fail on Monday, Wawa closed 450 stores overnight - 289 due to power outages, the rest to protect workers, Mattera said.

But overnight wind gusts of great force brought more headaches Tuesday.

Giant's power-restricted supermarkets were keeping freezer and refrigerator doors closed while closely monitoring the temperatures of perishables. If temperatures rose too far, they'd be rushed into trucks filled with dry ice outside.

Such was the case at a Giant on Route 309 at South West End Boulevard in Quakertown. Anxiety grew as time passed.

"Everything out in the [refrigerated] cases is rising by a degree every hour, more or less," said assistant manager Judy Abboud.


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter.

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