As Wawa expands into more East Coast cities, could the beloved Pennsylvania-based convenience store finally make its way back to New York City?

It's a definite possibility--if not an imminent one, according to CEO Chris Gheysens.

"We're still in the early stages of Manhattan, and the boroughs around New York City are interesting, but there's a lot of work we need to do," Gheysens told me earlier this year, during an interview for my Wawa profile in Inc.'s June issue.

Wawa, which has $10 billion in annual revenue, has spent the past decade or so aggressively expanding beyond its suburban Philadelphia base. The family-and-employee-owned company is establishing hundreds of stores in Florida, and last year opened its first location in the heart of Washington, D.C. That's the first of several cities where Gheysens wants to bring Wawa, as part of his focus on building more urban, restaurant-like outposts that emphasize the chain's sandwiches and coffee and other freshly-prepared food.

Crowds of Wawa fans have lined up for hours--or reportedly camped out overnight--to greet the Washington and Florida openings. So it seems reasonable to think that the country's biggest city--and one less than 100 miles away from Philadelphia--would give Wawa a warm welcome. (This Philadelphia-area native certainly would.)

There's precedent: Wawa once operated stores in Staten Island. Rival 7-Eleven, the country's largest convenience store chain, has rapidly opened Manhattan locations in the past six years. And Chick-Fil-A, the fast-food chain that Gheysens says Wawa "admires a lot," recently opened its largest location in New York's financial district.

If only the real estate weren't so expensive. Wawa has "just hypothetically" looked at rents in New York, and its current expansion targets do "not include, at this point, New York City," Gheysens says. "It's been really south of Philadelphia."

But he did walk me through how Wawa is thinking about approaching New York or other big, expensive cities on the East Coast. It's part of what Gheysens calls a "barbell" strategy of continuing to offer the longtime products that made Wawa a beloved suburban fixture, while developing new products that could appeal more to city-dwelling Millennials.

"Coffee and sandwiches are core to our offering," but "do you even have chips and candy?" he theorizes. "It's hard for us to eliminate assortment in certain categories. That will be a step that we're going to have to take to think about if we can go into a smaller, more focused model.

"Which then really does open up New York City--and other locations."

Published on: May 21, 2018