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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Two hundred years after Wawa Inc. began life as a textile manufacturer, the company is making what may be its biggest leap yet -- at least, geographically speaking. Less than 24 hours before opening its doors to the public, the Pennsylvania-based retailer today offered an up-close and personal look into its first Florida convenience store.
Perfectly situated across the street from Sea World on Central Florida Parkway in the heart of the Orlando tourism market, the store near the intersection of International Drive is just the beginning of Wawa's journey into Florida. Similar in size to recent “gas station stores” in the company's portfolio, the open floor plan has been specifically designed for the Florida market -- down to the decor.
Walking through the front door, it’s immediately apparent that the main focus here is Wawa's foodservice offerings. Fresh coffee brewed hourly, baked goods delivered daily, made-to-order sandwiches, and the express case with cut fresh fruit and fresh wraps take center stage.
"We have been on a journey to simplify our customers’ lives. Tomorrow, we will begin to simplify customers lives [in Florida] and become part of their daily lives," said Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel. "It's been a 200-year journey."
Wawa executives have been working on this move to the Sunshine State for the last 10 years, and the company has done a lot of due diligence, according to the chief executive. "This is where we want to be. Florida is our future," Stoeckel explained.
That future includes hundreds of new stores and thousands of employees. But this latest expansion into "Wawa South" does not mean the company is looking to branch out further from its Mid-Atlantic core markets. "We don't want to go national. We don't want to be an interstate-type company,” Stoeckel assured. “We want to be part of Florida."
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the market is happy to have the company. "When I first heard Wawa was expanding its footprint in Orlando, I was very excited," he said. "Not just because of the infamous hoagies or its coffee, but because of the type of company it is. It is a perfect fit for central Florida."
Wawa will open six stores in Orlando this year and begin opening convenience stores in the Tampa market next year. Between the two markets, the retailer plans to open 20 stores in 2013, 25 in 2014 and 25 more in 2015. Projections call for 100 stores in the Orlando and Tampa markets in the next five years.
"Wawa is here beyond this [first store]. Wawa is here for the long term," noted company President Chris Gheysens. "We want to make central Florida more than just a stop for us or a little market. This grand opening is a dream come true."
Not only will the next few months be a transition as the company opens more ground-up locations in Florida, but it also marks another transition as Stoeckel prepares to step down as CEO and Gheysens assumes the role in January. Both men have faith that everything will continue down a smooth road.
Stoeckel told CSNews Online that he will still remain involved with Wawa as vice chairman of the board and as a consultant. "I am not disappearing completely," he said, adding that he has full confidence in the leadership change. "The company is in very good hands with Chris Gheysens."
Gheysens is ready for the challenge. "There has been more planning for this market entry than any other market for the company," he told CSNews Online. "There will be some speed bumps, of course, and we know we have competition down here, but we are ready for it."