The first thing you should know about Wawa is that it’s ... fine. You enter a Wawa, and you can get your Coke or your Doritos or whatever specific stomach ache you’d like to have 90 minutes hence, and you can pop into the facilities and pee, and at many, you can refuel your car, too. A Wawa is clean and well-lighted; for six-ish weeks every summer, sandwiches—hoagies, you may only call them hoagies—are on sale, and around the holidays you can get one dressed up with gravy and cranberry sauce. Most importantly, you can do this on a touch screen. But the basics of it, the simple facts of the convenience store chain that snakes out of Philadelphia and across the Delaware Valley and on Thursday morning will officially open its very first location in Washington, D.C., are essentially normal.
The other thing you should know about Wawa is that it drives people from Philadelphia—which is to say the great South Jersey–Pennsylvania sprawl radiating out of the City of Brotherly Love, which is to say Eagles country, which is to say a place where sporting fandom is taken about as seriously as anyone over the age of 9 has ever taken it, which is to say the land where if you tell that goddamn Santa story one more time you’re going to have problems, which is to say a region where this has been a very difficult week—out of their otherwise mostly reasonable minds.
“I think the reason many Pennsylvanians like myself are devoted to Wawa is that we tend to see Wawa as OUR corner store,” says U.S. Representative Brendan F. Boyle, a noted Wawa fan whose district includes part of Philadelphia. “The other national convenience store chains just don’t have the appeal (or the coffee) that Wawa does.”
This has been a bad few days for denizens of the greater Wawa region. On Sunday, en route to the Eagles’ 43–35 win over the Rams, quarterback Carson Wentz took a helmet to the left knee; the next day, news arrived that the collision ruptured his ACL, ending what was shaping up to be a potential MVP season. Philadelphia, never a place that takes its sporting news in stride, has responded with a collective meltdown. The city has won a single championship in the big-four sports over the last 34 years, the 2008 World Series. Sunday brought the Birds to 11–2, tied for the best record in a mostly dismal NFL. Wentz’s departure, and the less-than-inspiring ascension of Nick Foles in his place, feels to many like the end of what seemed like a Super Bowl–bound season, and, well, it is not a development that has been well-received. A grown man wept on local sports radio. “There's no guarantee that Carson Wentz will ever be the same quarterback again,” one columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer soberly opined.
If Philadelphia sports fans have a tendency to feel things ever so slightly more intensely than the supporters of other cities, I offer this as a humble suggestion: Rejoice, you grievers, and take solace in the arrival of Wawa in our nation’s capital. Perhaps you reside here, or perhaps you can take only vicarious joy in the opening—perhaps your Wawas are closer and more numerous—but enjoy it all the same, and let it wash over you like so many half-gallons of iced tea.
Wawa coming to DC is the most exciting news of my month. Bigger event than law school graduation— eoff (@GeoffWithNoJ) May 18, 2017
It is difficult to overstate just how intense the cult of Wawa is. Asked if he had any thoughts about Wawa, my colleague John Gonzalez—a native of greater Wawaland—responded, “Do I?! Let me switch to my computer,” and then offered to send me 3,500 words on the subject. (Here are six of them: “blessed,” “thrilled,” “excited,” “wonderful,” “personal salvation.” He added: “I should also note that I almost never use exclamation points. I save them for truly important moments. Like Wawa!”) “People in D.C. are counting down for the city’s first Wawa, opening Thursday,” recounted The Philly Voice; “If There's One Thing That Will Finally Get Politics Working In Washington DC, It's Wawa,” declared Barstool.
If @Wawa coming to DC is not a breaking news story on CNN or the DC channels then I don't know what is.— Aaron Aber (@Aaron_Aber) May 19, 2017
“It is truly a Pennsylvania thing to ‘run to Wawa’ for milk, or bread, or a hoagie,” says Boyle, “and as silly as it might seem, the name—‘Wawa’—just has such a unique sound. Need proof?—just ask my 4-year-old daughter, Abby, who giggles every time she says ‘Wawa.’ She’s already a big fan.”
Or ask The Ringer’s Michael Baumann. “I've spent untold tens of thousands of dollars at Wawa in my life,” Baumann, a native of South Jersey—“or in terms of this conversation,” he says, “my local Wawa is the one at the corner of 561 and Kresson-Gibbsboro Road in Voorhees”—explains. “When I go home, the first thing I do is buy a big jug of iced tea from Wawa. In other words, I make sure to visit Wawa before I even see my mom.”
The first modern incarnation of Wawa opened in Folsom, Pennsylvania, in 1964, and for many years it was a strictly regional chain. In recent decades, Wawa has slowly expanded, and you can now treat yourself to hyper-compact Philly-style pretzels from the edge of New York City all the way down to Florida, and at least one Floridian has brought a horse to celebrate the expansion. When new stores open—and many have, as the chain now operates more than 750 outposts—they do not simply begin business in the way that your average Circle K or 7-Eleven might. Wawas have grand openings, setting up big red ribbons and shipping in oversized shears for an ornamental ribbon-cutting. The inaugural events have proved to be a remarkable draw for Wawa-ites. When the original Folsom location was shuttered in 2016 in favor of a larger site down the street, a parade was held from the old store to the new one, complete with an antique milk truck, cheerleaders, and Swoop, the avian mascot of the Eagles, brought in from Philadelphia proper for the occasion.
The year before, the Eagles started an official partnership with Wawa, a deal that was announced with the ceremonial naming of the convenience store’s goods as the “Official Hoagie of the Philadelphia Eagles” and the presentation of a tie-dye Hoagiefest T-shirt to then–head coach Chip Kelly. Earlier this year, retweeting a message from @Wawa meant a chance at winning Eagles tickets; in 2016, tight end Brent Celek spent a day undercover at one branch, selling iced tea and the best roadside coffee you’ll ever find.
“For Eagles fans, walking into a Wawa is like walking into their seating section at Lincoln Financial Field—it feels like home,” explained Eagles president Don Smolenski in 2015.
When the doors to Washington’s inaugural Wawa swing open on 19th Street NW—0.6 miles to the White House, 1.6 miles to the Smithsonian Castle, and 4,482.1 miles to the Vatican, where one might choose to imagine Francis including hoagies in his nightly prayers—the ornamental ribbon will be snipped, because this convenience store is not like every other convenience store. It will be the biggest Wawa there has ever been, and it will, like its fellow outposts, be open 24 hours a day.
“Back home, I've got a network of Wawas that I go to, depending on where in South Jersey I am at the moment,” says Baumann. “You can navigate by Wawas.”
Wentz, North Dakota boy that he is, grew up far from the shadow of Wawa. But while his knee heals, and the dreams of Eagles country are at least temporarily dampened, he—and now the denizens of Washington, D.C.—can at least dine on his hoagie of choice: turkey, bacon, and avocado.