Page 3 of 5   <       >

Wawa vs. Sheetz

Convenience store news: Wawa stores are spread across Punslvaynya, Dullware, Mer'lend, Joisey and Virginya. Last year, the company sold nearly 200 million cups of coffee (which puts it on par nationally with Starbucks and the other top coffee sellers) and 1 percent of all the gasoline pumped in the United States.

With a history that goes back to 19th- and early 20th-century mercantiles and dairy farms of one Richard D. Wood and his descendants, the Wawa, Pa., corporation ("wawa," a word derived from the Ojibwa tribe's word for Canadian goose), upped its game in the 1980s, becoming less pit-stop and more what cultural analysts call the "third place" (neither home nor workplace -- what America has instead of sidewalk cafes). They put the checkout counter in the center of a newer, bigger store layout, creating a theater-in-the-round, and went for the commuter/traveler market.

Wawa built those spacious fuel islands with the silky smooth concrete and macadam parking lots and the canopies angled at the sky. It focused on the outer-rim communities, the edge cities, the ruburbs. Lately they've been closing some locations that date back to the dairy-store origins and milkman delivery routes, because, in a bittersweet way, those are too small to contain all Wawa has to offer.

And the toilets! Monitored constantly by dedicated assistant managers who are alert to any hint of filth. Why, the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to . . .

* * *

Now turn the car westward, toward the hills, west of 95, in a Sheetz-ish direction.

More convenience store news: Sheetz is Wawa's main competitor, also tracing its corporate history to things like milk bottles and Amish-country dairy farms and family-run grocery marts.

Sheetz the central Pennsylvania farmer begat Sheetz the convenience-store impresario, who begat more Sheetzes. On the map, Sheetz hews to central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia. The woods, the hills! It cedes Jersey and Delaware and anything across the Bay Bridge, and instead dominates in the un-Wawa worlds of West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina. How can something so similar be so perfectly dissimilar, possess a character all its own, no less adored by its regular addicts? These are the subtle divides to look for while passing through. You can always find a new way in which America self-sorts.

Sheetz, Wawa. A mile away in some towns, and a chasm apart. That same glowing, reassuring fluorescence for night sojourners with bursting bladders and Red Bull desires. Both have the fuel island, the cornucopia of jerkies and chips and 24-hour made-to-order sandwiches and the paralyzing choice in beverages.

Sheetz is faster, zippier, more macho, with its race-car-red-and-orange filling-station canopies and interiors trimmed in hot neon. ("Some people say gauche," says Stan Sheetz, the company's president and CEO. "We said, 'We're gonna make these things as big and bright as we can.' ") Deep within a really good, primo-deluxe Sheetz, past the every-brand-of-soft-drink fountain of youth, after you note the Skoal and the skin magazines and the cookies in the bakery case, there's the BeerCave. It's a walk-in fridge trimmed in stonework, stacked high with cases of Bud, Miller, Coors, Corona.

In some towns, the farther out you get, it feels like the Sheetz is the only thing left. Both chains see the same people every day. Wawa customers and Sheetz customers are known to make three, four, even, legendarily, 12 visits a day. Living in a limitless Wawa-or-Sheetz world is a miraculous thing. It might even be too much convenience. (Too much convenience?)

* * *

<          3           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company