Reporting on beloved Philadelphia institutions can be fraught for Philadelphia-raised reporters--especially when it comes to Wawa, where everyone has a strong opinion.
"Wawa is the gastronomic security blanket of Eastern Pennsylvania--a source of pride whenever we find ourselves elsewhere," reflects Michael Solomonov, the chef and co-owner of high-end Philadelphia restaurant Zahav. "One time I was in Florida and saw a new Wawa being built. I swear I shed a tear."
That's the sort of testimonial I heard frequently--from friends, family members, and Philadelphia-native celebrities--when I started reporting my feature in Inc.'s June issue on the convenience-store chain.
"Life was always better when I [worked] near a Wawa," sighed one friend, a lifelong Philadelphian, before parsing the quality of her favorite sandwich there: "I can order my turkey hoagie preferences on the touch pad almost without looking. It's not actually a great hoagie. But it's a reasonably good turkey sandwich...and a good price for a full meal."
Her husband, a self-described "steady Wawa customer since the early 2000s," says he's been known to stop by 15 to 20 times per week. Then there are the friends who invited me over for dinner after I visited Wawa's new store in Washington, D.C. I walked into their kitchen--and was greeted by its big decoration, a bright red Wawa sash.
Wawa is "extremely comforting. And if people don't appreciate it as much as you do, it feels like you've failed somehow in explaining how great it is," the Philly-born comedian Paul F. Tompkins told The Sporkful podcast in March.
He's one of several celebrities to (sometimes literally) sing the praises of Wawa. On The Tonight Show this month, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots (a group formed in Philadelphia) performed "Wawa Hoagies," an ode to the sandwiches by a Philadelphia-area rapper named Aaron Out. Tina Fey, who went to high school one town over from my suburban Philadelphia hometown, has mentioned Wawa in multiple Saturday Night Live appearances.
And Solomonov, who has won multiple James Beard awards, calls Wawa "as iconic as any of the classic Philadelphia cheesesteak joints." His favorite order? "A junior meatball sandwich."
"I'm there all the time. I go to the Wawa in Avalon, they recognize you," says Richard J. George, a professor emeritus of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University, who once consulted for Wawa and wrote the introduction to former CEO Howard Stoeckel's 2014 book, The Wawa Way.
"I love the company," adds George, expressing an opinion clearly shared by many. "I think they're doing a lot of things right."