By Tim Jimenez
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Wawa celebrates a milestone five decades in the making this week.
The very first Wawa store opened its doors in Folsom, Delaware County 50 years ago on Wednesday.
The company has evolved from a single store to an operation of 645 shops in six states and, to many area residents, it’s ingrained into the fabric of the Delaware Valley.
It was a bustling Thursday morning at the Wawa at 17th and Arch when company President and CEO Chris Gheysens walked in.
On Wednesday, at this Center City location, Gheysens will be joined by other store officials and Mayor Nutter, who will declare it “Wawa Day” in Philadelphia.
However, about a week before the festivities, he met with the store’s associates, paid for a cup of coffee and spent some time reflecting on a company he’s been with for nearly 17 years.
“So, in Wawa terms, I’m still a rookie,” he said. Gheysens has been in charge since January 2013, taking over from the retiring Howard Stoeckel.
“I think the 50th for us is about thanking Philadelphia, thanking the customers in the Delaware Valley and really the six states we operate in,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here without how well and warmly embraced we’ve been.”
The company says they serve 400 million customers a year, which may be hard to believe for those who were around for the very first store opening in Folsom on April 16, 1964.
“The original design was really as an outlet for the Wawa dairy products at store number one,” he said. Fast forward to today and customers are able to fill up their gas tanks, get that morning cup of coffee and tap on a touch screen to get their lunch or dinner for the day. It’s the idea of “casual comfortableness” that Gheysens says has them competing with other convenience stores, coffee shops and restaurants.
“It’s really all about following the customers trends,” he said. One aspect, according to Gheysens, will be a customer rewards program that may look to capitalize on the company’s million-plus Facebook likes and 32,000-plus Twitter followers.
“Available on your mobile device, later this year, will be a way to really connect and shop better at Wawa. In the future it will have ordering and it will also have a loyalty program,” he said.
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary will be the launch of The Wawa Foundation which Gheysens says will be a $50 million committment towards health and hunger initiatives among other ideas. So, how big can Wawa get? Gheysens said their goal is to build “roughly 40 to 50 stores a year.” Part of that will be the continued growth of the Florida market, which they call “Wawa South.”
“We have 36 stores open in just 21 months in the Central Florida area – Orlando and Tampa,” he said. “Because of our business model we like to have a lot of stores in a very dense area. Wawa in Florida, we think can be a 300-plus store market across the state over the long-term.”
How about adding other states to the fold?
“No other states in the works. Northern New Jersey is a focus for us but not yet creeping over into New York and not looking to connecting the Virginia to Florida market just yet.”
Listen to the entire interview with Wawa President and CEO Chris Gheysens in this CBS Philly podcast: