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PHILADELPHIA -- Wawa Inc. was at the forefront of meeting changing consumer demands when it opened its first convenience store in Folsom, Pa., on April 16, 1964. The retailer has continued that tradition over the last 50 years, and has no plans of slowing down now.
Wawa executives, associates and members of the company's founding Wood Family gathered today at the Wawa store on 17th and Arch streets in Center City Philadelphia to mark the retailer's 50th anniversary.
"We are all here in the City of Brotherly Love, our hometown, and it's all about neighbors serving neighbors," said Wawa President and CEO Chris Gheysens.
Calling out the company's 22,000 associates as "the best in the business," he added that on the occasion of Wawa's golden anniversary, it really is about the customers. And the brand's loyal customers turned out in full force to help the Golden Goose celebrate the milestone.
The Center City store, which is busy on a normal day, bustled with even more activity than usual as morning commuters stopped in for a breakfast sandwich, a cup of coffee -- free in recognition of the anniversary -- and to join in the celebration festivities. Gheysens estimated that the retailer would give away approximately 1 million free cups of coffee.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was on hand to help pour the ceremonial first cup of coffee. Before reading an official proclamation declaring Wednesday, April 16, 2014 as "Wawa Day," Nutter cited the retailer's partnership with, and service to, the community such as sponsoring the annual Wawa Welcome America! Festival around July 4 and donating 300 hoagies each year for the Toss Your Cap Day when Philadelphia graduates celebrate at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"It is great to be here to celebrate a major milestone of a local company," the mayor said. "Wawa has helped our local economy grow and donated millions of dollars to the community."
Fittingly, Wawa's charitable and philanthropic culture received a boost today with the official launch of the Wawa Foundation. According to Gheysens, the foundation's goal is to give back $50 million over the next five years to the local communities the retailer serves in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Florida.
Noting that 50 years is a long time, Howard Stoeckel, Wawa's vice chairman and former president and CEO, said he prefers to think of Wawa as 50 years young with the "best yet to come." The 50th anniversary marked the release of Stoeckel's book, "The Wawa Way: How a funny name and six core values revolutionized convenience."
"There are many good chapters in this book, but I think we have more chapters to write," he said.
The Next Chapter: Digital
While the printed word chronicled the chain's first 50 years, digital will tell the story of the next 50. Admitting that the bar has been set high, Gheysens told CSNews Online that Wawa will roll out its first mobile app and loyalty program later this year.
The differentiating factor for Wawa will be a true integration of the in-store experience and outside world. Features will include mobile ordering and social sharing of customers' "Wawa Runs."
"Technology is moving so quickly and consumers are upgrading so quickly," said Gheysens. "We want to bring the in-store experience outside."
The retailer's next chapter will also include expanded foodservice offerings. Pointing to the ovens installed in each store, Gheysens explained that while they are now used to bake hoagie bread, those restaurant-grade ovens can handle upgraded fresh offerings.
With an eye toward the current foodservice trends of fresh, customizable and better-for-you offerings, Wawa has a "huge pipeline" of activity to elevate its foodservice, the CEO hinted.
With its first 50 years now in the books, one can only wonder where the 600-plus convenience store retailer will be in the next 50 or even 100 years. One thing is for sure: it will be a memorable ride.
"Here's a toast to 50 years of fulfilling lives every day and here is a toast to 50 more years of innovation, community connections and the Wawa Way," said Ben Franklin, who was joined by fellow historical figure Betsy Ross and store manager Ryan Weinsheimer in cutting the first slice of anniversary cake.
The Center City store event was the second 50th anniversary celebration to take place today. From 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., the original Folsom store at 1212 MacDade Blvd. hosted similar festivities. There, Wawa Chairman Richard D. Wood Jr. reenacted the first-ever store transaction and unveiled a special plaque dedicated to Wawa founder Grahame Wood.