Why they're going gaga over Wawa in Washington, D.C.

Laura Olsen/The Morning Call - For District of Columbia residents, it’s tough to satisfy a craving for a hoagie. But South Jersey native Travis Hughes does what he needs to do when he gets a Wawa fix.

Hughes once used a car-sharing service for the sole purpose of renting a vehicle to drive to the nearest Wawa location in the D.C. suburbs. With hoagie in hand, he drove back into D.C., returned the car, and went on with his Saturday.

For Hughes, who grew up near Atlantic City, N.J., and D.C.’s sizable population of Pennsylvania ex-pats, the trek to the nearest Wawa is about to get a lot shorter.

The Delaware County convenience store chain with a devoted fan base is opening its first storefront in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning.

Wawa fans have been eagerly anticipating the opening since the company announced the downtown D.C. location — a few blocks south of Dupont Circle, and not far from the White House — over the summer.

They have tweeted at Wawa, pleading for updates on any changes in the opening schedule, and planned commutes and lunch plans around when to stop by.

Hughes added it to his online work calendar when he learned when the store would be serving its first cups of coffee. His devotion to Wawa is so well-known colleagues also added event notifications to his work calendar.

“I’ve been considering if I would want to eat an Italian hoagie for breakfast,” said Aaron Myers, 39, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and now works at the Aspen Institute, a think tank based a few blocks north of the new store. “It might be nice to claim the mantle of getting the first hoagie served.” 

Wawa aficionados interviewed ahead of the D.C. store’s opening cited a reliable menu and affordability as among the reasons for the store’s intense brand loyalty.

More than a gas station or a convenience store, Wawa boasts an array of menu options. And by offering other essential items, the store has branded itself as a one-stop shop and community hub.

And as new arrivals launch careers in D.C., Wawa can be a reminder of home.

“I don’t know that there’s anywhere else that reminds me of Delaware County here,” said Deb Landau, 27, who grew up not far from Wawa’s headquarters and its original dairy.

For Landau, Wawa was a gathering place. Everyone in Nether Providence Township and the surrounding towns had their regular store, which they would frequent for a cup of coffee or a snack.

Customers more often than not would end up chatting with someone or run into a friend while waiting for a sandwich to be prepared, Landau said.

“Whether or not you planned it, you found yourself at Wawa every day,” said Hughes, 28, an editor at the sports news site SB Nation. “The Wawa parking lot was definitely the place to hang out in high school. It was more than like a town square or a park.”

While the new storefront is the first in D.C. proper, Wawa fans haven’t had to travel all the way back to Pennsylvania or New Jersey for a taste of nostalgia.

There’s a suburban Maryland location just inside the eastern side of the Washington beltway, and another north of College Park, home of the University of Maryland’s flagship campus — a location that’s a 40-minute drive or more from downtown D.C.

One die-hard devotee recalled how, as a student at Washington’s Catholic University, college officials would rent buses during finals week to shuttle sleepy students out to a suburban Wawa to stock up on coffee and other provisions.

You also don’t have to drive too far from Washington to find a Sheetz — the Altoona chain that makes up the other half of Pennsylvania’s convenience store rivalry. For Wawa groupies, it doesn’t compare.

They’ve waited patiently for Wawa. That reflects one strategy that may be at play with how the chain has expanded, retail analyst Jeff Green said.

The chain has “grown adjacently,” Green said, describing how instead of conquering huge swaths of geography, Wawa has expanded slowly and deliberately, an approach that can drum up excitement in the periphery of a brand’s territory.

“They have great word of mouth,” Green said.

The D.C. Wawa will look a bit different than the stores of Myers’ childhood, where he remembers picking up huge hoagies with his family before heading to Phillies games.

Wawa officials last week declined interviews until Wednesday, the eve of the grand opening. But they explained the allure of opening a D.C. location to The Washington Post over the summer.

The location “has all of the important demographics for us: Population growth, millennials and lot of foot traffic,” company President Chris Gheysens told the newspaper.

Perhaps best of all for Wawa fanatics: Gheysens said to expect as many as 10 Washington stores by 2020. A Georgetown store is in the works for next year, and another location is under contract in Chinatown, Wawa’s director of store operations told the Washingtonian magazine.

Fans already are hunting for clues on whether additional locations will align with their daily commutes.