So last week, a group of us – friends from the neighborhood, with our children in tow – drove up to Coca-Cola Park in Allentown for a Lehigh Valley IronPigs game. We met in a parking lot near the ballpark about an hour before the game to tailgate: sandwiches and chips, an adult beverage or two, juice and water for the kids. One family had packed hoagies from Wawa. There were 27 of us. The odds were good someone would, but the predictability didn’t make it any easier to take. I died inside a little.
If Philadelphia has an official deli sandwich, it’s the hoagie, and if Philadelphia has an official hoagie, it’s the Wawa hoagie. Just Tuesday morning, 150 Wawa workers assembled and distributed 22,000 Shorti hoagies to the public on Independence Mall. It was the company’s annual Hoagie Day, and the event was part of the lead-up to Philadelphia’s celebration of July 4, and the Shortis were free. So it was understandable that one of the most historically significant sites in the country, let alone the city, would be transformed into the terrestrial equivalent of a sharking chum line. But this wasn’t a one-time thing, a strange or unusual scene. Around here, the affection for the Wawa hoagie has long been a point of civic pride, a mark of whether you’re a true Philadelphian or just a poser who’ll happily set foot into a Sheetz, and I don’t get it.
You might be asking, Is this guy really going to rant about Wawa in a sports column? Excuse me, but food is at the core of any satisfying sports-spectator experience, and there’s no better time to ask Philadelphia fans to stop settling for such culinary mediocrity. Summer is at its peak. The Phillies could be in a pennant race for the next three months. The Eagles report for training camp in three weeks. There will be plenty of reasons and opportunities to tailgate at Citizens Bank Park or Lincoln Financial Field, and unless you get yourself so soused before a game that you would gobble up a liverwurst-and-canned-cling-peaches-on-wheat without knowing any better, you should want to enjoy yourself as much as possible, right? That means better pregame noshing. That means being better than a Wawa hoagie.
In a region full of terrific delis, our fetishizing of the Wawa hoagie remains mystifying. You don’t need me to list the small businesses and family-owned sandwich shops that can make a hoagie that puts anything Wawa produces to shame. Craig LaBan, our restaurant critic, has been doing that for years.
From the cheesesteak with fried onions to the roast pork with broccoli rabe, Philadelphia is the best sandwich city in America. There isn’t any neighborhood or town or suburb in the Delaware Valley that doesn’t offer several tastier and fresher alternatives. Yet we act like a Wawa hoagie is a delicacy. It’s not. Not even close.
Does this sound elitist? I suppose it might, though hoagies are hardly the food of elitists. After all, Wawa has risen to become one of the great equalizers in our society, one of our great egalitarian achievements. We get in. We get our stuff quickly – our gas, our coffee, our Tastykakes, our cup of meatballs, our hoagie. We get out, and we get on with our day. Everyone’s treated the same, and that efficiency has turned Wawa into a business behemoth.
» OPINION: Wawa’s hoagies are just not that good
But that’s just it. We’re supposed to be the city that champions the little guy, and Wawa is the dynasty, the overwhelming favorite. Buying your hoagie from Wawa is like rooting for Apollo Creed, and Apollo ain’t what he used to be. The champ has been slipping. The dynasty has gotten arrogant and sloppy. Years ago, if you ordered a hoagie at a Wawa, its deli workers cut the lunchmeat to order. Now, they reach into the refrigerator for a pre-cut slab of dried-out ham, salami, and provolone. I know what I’m gonna get there, its defenders will say. So what? I’d rather try a local, lesser-known deli or pizzeria and run the risk that it can’t make a decent Italian hoagie (hot peppers, a splash of oil, and no mayo within a mile of it) than accept the flaccid lettuce, the unripe tomatoes, the soggy tuna salad from Wawa. It gets tiresome, relying on the same old, same old out of habit or misplaced loyalty.
To borrow an appropriate analogy from my friend and colleague Frank Fitzpatrick, Wawa hoagies are the mop-up pitchers of hoagies. You go to them when there are no other available alternatives, but they’re not going to the All-Star Game, and they’re not winning you any championships. Frank’s right. When it comes to sandwiches, Philadelphia has All-Stars everywhere.
So please, hear my plea: The next time you’re planning an outing to a game, resist the temptation to bring Wawa hoagies to your tailgate. Be better. Aim higher. Say no to the Shorti.
Direct complaints about this column to email@example.com.