As a longtime resident of a city renowned (and reviled) for its frankness, I’m still occasionally surprised about what qualifies as a controversial statement in 21st-century Philadelphia. Here is one that has gotten me embroiled in more than a few scrapes over the years: Wawa’s food is not that good.
Before The Purge-style hordes in Dave Schultz jerseys begin pelting my South Philly rowhome with day-old Sizzlis, let’s all take a beat and have a real come-to-Gritty conversation here. Blazing as it may burn at first blush, this ain’t even close to a hot take and you know it. I’m not the only taxpayer who’s lukewarm on our homegrown chain, which on Friday opened its largest-ever location a block from Independence Hall.
But it sometimes seems like I’m the only one willing to actually talk about it.
It wouldn’t be productive to legislate the merits of each and every menu item, so let’s just take my stance on their famed hoagies — consistently bland, no better or worse than Jimmy John’s or Subway — and apply it to eats across the touchscreen. They’re fine, but in a town renowned for its sandwiches, it’s not bratty to want better. It’s just honest.
Why am I even putting this out there if it’s so self-evident? Because when you live here, there’s a distinction to draw between feeling this way and actually saying it out loud. The second even a hint of anti-Wawa sentiment wisps off the lips, reasonable discussion ends and chesty equivocation begins. It’s very Philly — but I’d argue that holding a hugely successful hometown company to a high standard is even Philly-er.
I’ve been writing about food and drink here for more than 13 years, and my job gives some the impression that I’m a bourgeois dandy who takes his foie gras on crystal platters every night. That’s nowhere close to the case, but when we’re talking Wawa, the particulars of one’s tastes shouldn’t matter anyhow.
Since the nearly $11 billion Delco-born brand transitioned from a dairy producer to a storefront model in the 1960s, it has marketed itself as an egalitarian, family-friendly concept, delighting the widest possible swath of customers with affordable pricing and unifying accessibility. The flying goose’s long-standing ubiquity in the area, naturally, established Wawa as ours. But just like Chase Utley or The Roots, it has been a long time since Wawa was just ours.
Right now there more than 800 stores operating throughout six states and Washington. I grew up frequenting Wawas in Harford County, Maryland, where there are nine locations within reasonable distance of my childhood home. I’ve always been so-so on the place. You can’t beat the convenience and it does the trick after last call, but nothing about the experience is worthy of, 2017 Nick Foles levels of adulation.
I didn’t realize this was an polarizing opinion until I moved to Philly in 2002. Then and now, I’m regularly sprayed with local, sustainable venom for expressing even the mildest Wawa shade. You’re not from here so you don’t get it is the incessant refrain, as if the first three digits of my Social Security number somehow make me incapable of formulating thoughts on a cup of Macaroni & Beef that tastes exactly the same, whether it’s spooned out in Folsom or in Lake Wales, Florida.
With massive growth comes unavoidable logistical and operational changes, which brings me to another common talking point: how good Wawa used to be, before it began expanding at its current clip. I’ve heard so many people wax nostalgic about the days when Wawa was still a mom-and-pop operation; no gas pumps, the meat and bread was better, and “Associates” would take your hoagie order verbally, no touchscreens in sight.
That model went the way of the carhop as Wawa unfurled its aggressive out-of-state plans, a slow burn that sparked a population-wide existential panic. The melancholy seemed to peak in 2008, when Wawa shut down a number of its Center City stores, a strategy that was met with anger, sadness, and a literal candlelight vigil at the corner of 20th and Locust.
Philadelphians couldn’t help but feel jilted, but instead of cutting the cord, they doubled down on what they felt was their late-night birthright, caping for a brand that was no longer capable of delivering an experience identical to what they once knew.
But big-picture Philly pride is precisely what should shape our conversations about Wawa in 2018. We should be proud that a corporation like Wawa is headquartered here and remains privately owned, partly by its 30,000-plus employees. We should be proud that it is ambitiously reinvesting in Center City, a decade after unceremoniously abandoning it. We should be proud that it’s partnering with small local breweries to create specialty beers.
Just please spare me the overwrought lectures about how transcendently delicious the hoagies are. It’s just not true — and genuinely acknowledging as much might be the most Philadelphia move there is.
Drew Lazor is a freelance writer based in Point Breeze. He has been covering the Philadelphia food and drink scene since 2005 and is the author of Session Cocktails (Ten Speed Press, 2018). Lecture him about hoagies on Twitter: @drewlazor