- June 9, 2016
Free coffee, a free smoothie and even a free Wawa hoagie sandwich: Diana Young said she started her 69th birthday right.
The Pennsylvania-based chain opened its first Wawa east of U.S. 301 Thursday, Sept. 10, complete with free samples, speeches from CEO Chris Gheysens and state Rep. Greg Steube, and of course the company mascot, Wally Goose.
When a store associate found out about Young’s birthday, however, staff immediately leapt at the chance to help her celebrate.
Young and her husband, Bill, are big fans of the food and gas station: the two of them have attended every grand opening they can, including the other two locations in Bradenton. Young said her husband was the real fanatic, but with his influence, she’s come to love the store, too.
“They care about people and the community,” she said.
But the store was also filled with Wawa’s biggest followers, and a few Eagles fans. The retail stores, some of which also have gas stations, have developed a cult-like fan club over the past few decades, when the store first opened a food market in 1964.
Frank Rupertus, a Bradenton resident, is a retired postman who picked up a part-time job at the Wawa in West Bradenton. He came to the new Wawa on S.R. 64 to help out with the grand opening, cheerfully passing out free meatball samples.
Rupertus used to live in Philadelphia, so he’s no stranger to the Wawa brand. He tried to explain the reason why people seem to be so passionate about the store, even those who didn’t grow up with it.
He said the food is consistent and the quality is good, but the most important reason may be less obvious:You have fun when you go to Wawa.
“People who work here are friendly,” he said. “They’ll do everything they can to get you to come back — they greet you, ask you how you are. You probably don’t think about it until you get home. But when you’re hungry again, you might think about going back because you had a good time.”
From an employee’s perspective, Rupertus said he felt like the company really cares about its employees and takes care of them, too. The night before the grand opening, Wawa had a special family night for the employees, who could bring guests to the new store, get free samples and take photos with Wally.
“It’s pretty neat,” he said. “I’m retired, I don’t need to work. I’m just working here because I want to.”
Chris Hutchko, master patrol officer for the city of Bradenton Police Department, goes to Wawa every day at the existing Bradenton locations. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Wawa was part of every day life. It was your corner grocery store, he said.
Seeing Wawa descend into Florida brings a little piece of home to Hutchko, who has lived in Bradenton for 14 years. Some of his favorite food items at the store are its soups, which he rated “fantastic,” but he also loves the pretzels.
“Pretzels in South Philadelphia, it’s a hometown thing,” he said. “When they announced Wawa was coming to Florida…I told everyone about it.”
Wawa isn’t finished with its Florida expansion: more stores are already planned and underway for Sarasota and Bradenton, including one on Lorraine Road and S.R. 70 set to open in late 2015 and another at the southwest corner of the intersection of University Parkway and Honore Avenue, tentatively opening in 2017.