Two letters repeated in a particular order can elicit a profound emotional response, even tears, from anyone in South Jersey. Growing up in a tourist town with a dual personality nestled on a barrier island, I became intimately acquainted with Wawa – ostensibly a convenient store, at least on the outside, but in the inside, so much more.
With over 750 locations scattered across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and, most recently, Florida, Wawa is slowly working its way to East Coast convenience store dominance. While many may transplants may view Wawa as just a 7-11 with a different exterior (forgive me, Jerseyites, for uttering the usurper’s evil name), for people like me who have always lived within a few miles of one, Wawa is special.
The name Wawa comes from the Native American Ojibwe word for the Canadian Goose, hence Wawa’s iconic logo of a goose in flight. But for me, and many others, it means so much more. The sound of it brings back many childhood memories.
The town in which I grew up, Ocean City, NJ, is billed as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” It’s a dry town that in the summer, is bursting with people looking to stuff their faces with funnel cake while spinning themselves sick on carnival rides, or simply roast themselves to a crisp lying out on the beach.
But in the winter, the town’s dual personality becomes starkly evident. Everything shuts down. No more carnival rides, boardwalk stores are shuttered against the cruel winter ocean wind, businesses and facilities tape up their “See You Next Summer” signs. It becomes a desert island only slightly more interesting than the one that marooned the Skipper and Marianne.
That’s where Wawa slips neatly into my personal history. In a town brimmed for 5 months of the year and deserted the rest, Wawa was a constant – always open, always a place for local kids to meet on their skateboards and BMX bikes to grab a snack before terrorizing tourists or fighting off frostbite and boredom.
Originally conceived as an iron foundry in 1803, Wawa, Inc. started out a far cry from the beloved hoagie slinging dairy-and-hoagie-centric convenience store everyone knows today. It was only after the company was moved to Wawa, PA in 1902 did the company get into the dairy business.
Starting with a small dairy farm and processing plant, George Wood, the owner of Wawa, wanted to set his product apart from the competition. At a time when pasteurization was not widely available, George requested that doctors certify his products and facilities sanitary to help ease the minds of people wary of tainted milk. This “certification” helped Wawa to expand its dairy delivery business rapidly. The very first Wawa Food Market opened in 1964 in Folsom, PA. To this day, the quality of its name brand products has always been Wawa’s greatest strength and why die hard fans keep coming back.
I first encountered Wawa at the breakfast table. It was the word on the milk jug, the milk I was raised on. Even to this day, for whatever reason, I can pick out Wawa milk out of a lineup while blindfolded. It simply tastes richer, creamier, better. It’s a transportive taste that brings back fleeting flashes of breakfast before walking to the beach with my family.
Wawa introduced hoagies in 1972. Starting as pre-made offerings, they quickly became a staple of any visit to Wawa. It wasn’t until 1984 that the made-to-order hoagie debuted, cementing Wawa as the bedrock of quick lunches for laborers and late night snacks for the tipsy and hungry. For me, a Wawa hoagie always came with a hint of salt water.
Summers in Ocean City meant surfing. Whether it’s tourists in town for the day with their boards strapped to the roof of Jeep Wranglers or locals padding their way across a few blocks of sidewalks wearing only flip-flops and bathing suits, everyone has waves on their mind. My teenage self was no different.
Early in the mornings, sometimes before sunrise, my friends and I would cruise the entire length of Ocean City in search of surf. Once we tracked down the right conditions, we’d spend hours upon hours catching waves, surfing the afternoon away.
Hunger – real hunger, the kind you experience after a whole day of exhausting yourself – can make anything taste good. After hours on a surfboard, a hoagie from Wawa tastes like something brought down from the dining tables of Olympus. An Italian hoagie with oil, vinegar and oregano hits those meaty, tangy, sweet and salty notes my body craved after a long day in the ocean. Paired with a half gallon of Wawa lemon iced tea and a freshly baked hot pretzel, I was in paradise.
Wawa sells over 70 million hoagies a year and they’ve got it down to a science. In 2002, Wawa was one of the first convenience stores to introduce touch-screen ordering at the deli-counter. Previously a fussy eater, I stretched my fingers ready to customize to my heart’s content. Swap out provolone for American cheese? Done. Hate tomatoes? Ditch ‘em. The perfect sandwich was within my grasp. Worried about people judging you for ordering three sides of mac and cheese? Worry no more!
When winter rolled in, Wawa was one of the few businesses that stayed open through the tourist exodus and frigid wind. Local kids had a dearth of places to meet up, hang out, and escape the monotony of being at home all winter. There were a few places like the McDonald’s on 9th street or Jilly’s Arcade on the boardwalk that were still open. But nothing chased the cold away from a chilly walk with my friends like a Wawa coffee.
Straddling the line between cheap and delicious, Wawa still has a special spot in my coffee-obsessed heart. My friends and I would swing open the door and stomp the snow off of our boots before perusing the line of flavors, wondering which was best suited to warm our bones. My personal antidote for slushy conditions is a 16oz cup filled with half french vanilla latte and half hot chocolate.
Even though I haven’t lived in Ocean City for a long time, whenever I feel a pang of homesickness, I know I’m not too far from convenient comfort food. Since recollection is so strongly tied to smell and taste, a Wawa, any Wawa, works as a sort of memory bank. A repository of my time growing up complete with memories of skateboarding and surfing with friends, bicycle rides for milk and ice cream sandwiches with my mother, and coffee runs with my uncle. Every time I walk into my Wawa, only a few blocks down the street, I can easily access some convenient memories.
*This article was originally published in January, 2018.