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PhillyDeals: Wawa hoagie rolls now from Vineland

Wawa sells 70 million hoagies a year. "If you know anyone who makes more, I'd like to meet them," says Philadelphia bread-factory owner Leonard Amoroso Jr.

Wawa sells 70 million hoagies a year.

"If you know anyone who makes more, I'd like to meet them," says Philadelphia bread-factory owner Leonard Amoroso Jr.

Wawa does big business in Cokes, smokes and gasoline. But what sets it apart from 7-Eleven, Sunoco's Atlantic mini-marts, or the Pantry 1 chain that occupies discarded Wawa stores is the labor-intensive fresh-hoagie counter. Which depends on hoagie rolls.

Until recently, most Wawa hoagies were served on rolls made by Amoroso's Baking Co. at its 55th Street plant in Southwest Philadelphia. Both are century-old family firms.

But earlier this year, Wawa quietly switched production to a new factory in a tax-break zone in Vineland - just in time for the company's hippie-themed summer Hoagiefest promotion, with sandwiches starting at $2.99.

The Vineland bakery, Omni Baking Co., is co-owned by Leonard Amoroso and his cousin Daniel Amoroso, in partnership with members of the Mulloy family, who own Ginsburg Bakery Inc. in Atlantic City.

Philadelphia's loss has been Vineland's gain. In January, as the Wawa contract with Amoroso's was running out, Amoroso's told the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry that it was cutting 115 of its nearly 400 Philadelphia workers. Since then, "we laid off about 70," Amoroso said.

In February, Omni told New Jersey it would hire at least 140 workers to prepare the plant to make 28,000 dozen rolls a day for its new customer.

"We're up to about 350 [employees] from 180 a year ago," said Omni co-owner Dan Mulloy. Amoroso's handled about three-quarters of Wawa's rolls; Omni does all of them. Omni's other clients include New York Frozen Foods Inc.

New Jersey taxpayers helped make this possible, with state and local tax breaks and $14 million in cut-rate financing for Omni's expansion.

The bakery owners say it was Wawa that wanted the switch. "It's a project we've been working on for a while. It's all directed by Wawa," Mulloy said.

"For years, they've been looking for ways to eliminate all the trucks going to their stores," Amoroso said. "There's too many trucks in the driveway. Us. The Inquirer. Stroehmann's. Herr's. Tastykake."

Now there's no more Amoroso trucks at Wawa. Instead, Wawa has the Vineland bread hauled to its commissary center near Swedesboro and puts it on Penske trailers that bring it to stores with pretzels, doughnuts, muffins and bagels from Pennsauken-based J&J Snack Foods.

Why grow in Vineland, not Philadelphia? "We went to the city years ago" about expanding the Southwest Philadelphia plant, Amoroso said. "But we were landlocked. And Vineland was an attractive area because it had a good development program."

Plus cheap labor? "This has nothing to do with

the cost of the drivers. This is about consolidating deliveries and simplifying procedures," said Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce.

The drivers' union sees it differently. "They put everything out for bid, to try to get a cheaper price," said Bob Ryder, business agent for Teamsters Local 463, which represents Amoroso drivers. "They're not union now."

He added, "Lenny's probably making more money. The company got it cheaper. Everybody made out but the workers."

No wallpaper

Sure, your neighborhood baker sells a fancier, pricier bread that doesn't list "corn sugar" as an ingredient.

But Amoroso's and Philadelphia's other Italian-style bread factories deserve credit for making real sandwich rolls the everyday choice of what a Time magazine writer once called "the Philadelphia-South Jersey axis of ethnic indigestibles."

Anyone who has bought

a Chicago beef sandwich

or Manhattan shish kabab knows what happens when you try to serve meat and dressing on some kind of crumbly, weak grain-based baked product: You end up wearing your lunch. My Nonno used to call that

kind of bread "wallpaper."

That doesn't happen to Philadelphia hoagies or cheesesteaks. "Nobody wants a sandwich that the hinge falls apart," Amoroso said. "Chicago is notorious for that."

How good are Wawa's rolls from the Omni bakery in Vineland, compared with Amoroso's Southwest Philly-made rolls? My kids liked the Vineland rolls better, mostly.

More to come

We're doing more PhillyDeals. The Inquirer is expanding this column to five days from one: It now will run Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays - in addition to Sundays - starting this week.

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