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WAWA, Pa. -- In 1902, Wawa Dairy Farms began operation with a small herd of cows and a new processing and bottling facility in Wawa, Pa. Today, 100 years later, Wawa Inc. has grown into a thriving convenience store company with 543 stores focused on operational issues that founder George Wood couldn't have possibly dreamed about.
Wood, a Philadelphia textile merchant, saw an opportunity and began his dairy with the goal of offering quality milk products. Milk produced and bottled in Wawa was sent by rail to Wood's new "milk depot" in West Philadelphia and from there was delivered by horse-drawn wagon to customers throughout the region. And so, the century-old Wawa tradition of quality and freshness began.
Wawa still processes its own milk, though now it comes from local dairy farmers. But the company has grown in so many other ways. Wawa, which ranks 23rd on the Convenience Store New list of Top 50 Convenience Store Companies, is viewed as an industry leader in developing foodservice programs, committing to retail technology and rapidly become a leading petroleum retailer in its core mid-Atlantic markets.
Wawa takes in about $95 million in revenue annually from processing its own milk and other drinks for both its convenience stores and more than 900 institutional customers. The institutions range from upscale restaurants, including Le Bec-Fin and those of the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, country clubs and prisons, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Yet the dairy's revenue is less than 5 percent of Wawa's total sales of about $2 billion annually.
"We're very rare in that we still own our own dairy," Wawa executive vice president Howard Stoeckel told the Inquirer. "And the halo of our dairy carries over to the other parts of our business."
Wawa is privately held, still controlled by descendants of Wood -- his grandson Richard Wood is president and CEO. But industry observers familiar with Wawa's operations say it has had a steady evolution, from a dairy to one of the nation's most innovative convenience store operators, by knowing what its customers want.
Playing on its name -- which sounds odd only to those from outside the region -- Wawa has become a brand in its own right, as familiar as the national brands on its shelves, said Richard George, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University.
When people shop, they are "looking for good feelings and solutions to problems," George said. "Wawa has done a good job of getting close to the market and providing solutions to problems... . They'll do well as long as they don't take their eye off the customer."
Wawa specialized in home delivery of dairy products until the 1960s, when changing lifestyles caused that business to fall off. To boost sales, the company opened its first Wawa Food Market in 1964 in Folsom, Delaware County. Stores now spread from central Pennsylvania and central New Jersey to southern Virginia.
In the 1970s, the company began selling more coffee by the cup, and then fresh food. Wawa followed that with deli counters that sell prepared sandwiches and salads. In the last few years, it has added gasoline, which it now sells at 100 of its stores. About 20 percent of the beverages Wawa sells are its own brand.
While Wawa is proud of the growth the company has made in the past 100 years, Stoeckel said the company is continuing to mature and focused on preparing for the next century.
"We're enveloped in growing three businesses now: the traditional convenience store... foodservice, competing against McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's... and petroleum," Stoeckel said.
ABOVE: Wawa's first convenience store opened in Folsom, Pa. in 1964.
Photo courtesy of Wawa and Hagley Museum & Library.