By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009
All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fenlands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild goose, Wawa . . .
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
"The Song of Hiawatha"
Wawa in the morning, Sheetz at night.
Sheetz in the morning, Wawa at night.
They're just convenience stores, you shouldn't think too hard about them. (Fair warning: This story thinks too hard about them.)
By late July, this much came clear: Some of us were going no place exotic in this, the bummer summer. There wasn't the time or there wasn't the money. Things keep not happening, or the wrong things happened. We never got farther than the Sheetz convenience store off the interstate. Stood there paralyzed by the choices in a Wawa -- what kind of chips, what kind of sandwich, what kind of soda, what kind of frozen chocolate thing? What kind of life? Which? What?
How about just resigning ourselves to summer's fate? What about a local sort of road trip, a mini-mart epic, bouncing between all the Sheetzes and all the Wawas you can find? Sheetz just opened its 360th location. Wawa will open its 571st this week. We live right where their territories overlap, a lovely Venn diagram of two same-but-different worlds.
Where are you going?
I got the jits tonight. I'm going for a drive.
I don't know. The Wawa store in Waldorf and back. Get a big soda and something else. The Sheetz, maybe, out toward Fredericksburg. Or up 270, then Buckeystown. Through Antietam, curving through the dark American mist. I'll do the Wawa and then a Sheetz, then turn around at Hagerstown. In either a Wawa or a Sheetz I will listen happily to the cashiers talk to one another about their love lives.
Can I go?
No. Well -- I guess. But can we not listen to the radio? Can we just roll down the windows and not talk?
* * *
Now here it is August. They went to the beach without us, to the rental house. They drove out to the cabin over the Blue Ridge. They went off on motorcycles. They took the truck, pulling the boat. They packed the Subaru with the big Coleman cooler. They stopped at a Wawa, they stopped at a Sheetz, and then -- loaded up and bevved up and revved up -- they kept going and going. Everyone's gone now, and good for them.
Eastward is a Wawa-ly direction -- the Atlantic Ocean, the DelMarValous breezes across the pastures and the outlet mall plazas. The fuel islands at those Wawas, with the young and carefree couples gassing up the Prius borrowed from Zipcar. The Range Rovers with Maryland plates spilling out bored, sun-kissed children who all dart into the Wawa for odiferous grape bubblegum and blue-red mixed Icees the size of their heads, while the gas tank drinks $58.73 worth of premium unleaded.
The Philadelphians and Jerseyans all have that unshakably loyal Wawa jones ("youse goin' to Wawa's?"), swearing allegiance to the convenience chain's coffee and its made-to-order hoagies, singing its old jingles ("They do it just a little bit better . . . "). They are Eagles fans and Princeton grads; Amish teenagers on their rumspringa year, schizzed out on doughnuts and Camel Lights. They are those soldiers in Iraq who get packs of Wawa coffee shipped from home.
They are Mr. and Mrs. Scott Gaddis, who, according to a July 2008 item in the always-dishy Convenience Store News, married each other in the Abingdon, Md., Wawa where they get their coffee every morning, their love witnessed by the loyal coffee hostesses who are in every Wawa, who tend the 12, nay 18, Bunn coffee pot burners -- the couple's nuptial bliss as fresh as the aroma of the French roast.
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?)
* * *
Wawa: It's that end-of-Sunday feeling of sand in your shoes, bikini-strap sunburns and dry hair, the last gas stop before home, the skin around your fingernails swollen from blue crab juice and Old Bay.
Sheetz: That crack-of-dawn feeling when you're on your way to shoot at something. The way your truck looks glorious with mud on it.
Wawa: They have already-sliced apples, and ooh -- hummus, carrots, yum. They have a promotion going for flatbreads made your way. Doesn't that sound good for us?
Sheetz: Calls french fries "fryz" and quesadilla "quesadillaz" -- what else can it put a Z on the end of? (Condomz?)
Wawa: Here is Howard Stoeckel on the phone, the CEO since 2005. To talk to Wawa's corporate people is to enter a world of relentless sunshine and customer satisfaction. They want to know you, the customer, all about you. That is, if you want to be known. It seems it's always free balloons and doughnuts day in a Wawa somewhere. If you're too tired for that sort of pep this morning and just want the damn coffee, they still love you.
Stoeckel says Wawa should be like Cheers, or like a good friend or an uncle, the place people go when the world falls apart (9/11, the Jersey stores were crammed with people who just needed other people), when the storms come, where the TV crews go to interview commuters about snow. Wawa's spokeswoman follows up with PDFs of press clippings (more Convenience Store News) and charts that demonstrate Wawa's utter dominance in the convenient arts.
Stoeckel also drives to a lot to different Wawas, just to see, just to chat up the staff. "The employees own 28 percent of the company, after all," he says. "The CEO works for them." He also likes to watch customers, what they do, how they put a little cappuccino in their dark roast and then add the creamer a certain way. Fascinating. In a Wawa recently in Kennett Square, Pa., Stoeckel met a man who was traveling with his daughter, a Villanova student, and they were driving south into Virginia. The man had predetermined which Wawa locations they'd be stopping at all day, until, sadly, they would leave the shaded safety zone of Wawaland, far beyond the common use of the word "hoagie." And then what? They'd be left to fate.
Sheetz: Here is Stan Sheetz on the phone, the CEO. He's at the headquarters in Altoona, Pa. To talk to Sheetz is to speak a different language than Wawa. "This is America and people have choices," Sheetz says, and you have to be way out in front of giving them endless choices. "Like pizza. We've tried pizza three different times in our stores, and either we're morons or customers don't get it, and if you can believe this, we're trying it again. You have to keep trying and keep trying and over time it all evolves. . . . Thirty years ago, we didn't have restrooms in the store. . . ."
He is the son of Sheetz ("My father started [the convenience store] and he's still involved, not day-to-day, but enough to be a pain . . . which is fine," Stan says), and he is the brother of the other two Sheetzes, and the uncle to the future of Sheetz. In all, there are five Sheetzes at the top of the company's org chart.
Wawa: Spent all summer celebrating some 45th anniversary or momentous occasion of its hoagie and its convenience stores, with a sort of '60s-style Peter Max-ish ad campaign and employees wearing tie-dye tees. There are infinite ways to order the Wawa hoagie, on touch-screens set up in front of the sandwich counter. Even at 2 in the morning. (In fact, that's when it gets really interesting in a Wawa, when the bars close and the hoagie Red Bull zombies of the night begin to muster.)
Sheetz: Wants to be Wawa? Certainly not. The antipode to Wawa, then? No, but sort of yes. Fans argue the merits. Some who live right in the middle of the Sheetz-or-Wawa divide will sometimes swear off one and devote themselves entirely to the other.
It's even a toss-up to which one gets stranger as the night wears on. They come into the Sheetz on Prince William Parkway in Dale City in the darkest of night, and poke-poke-poke at the made-to-order menus on the touch-screens. Touch the picture of the sandwich you want. Touch the picture of the kind of cheese. Now touch the pictures of lettuce, the pickles. Now touch the mustard, the ketchup. The touch-screen system is not merely there to impress you. "We used to do it where you fill out a paper form and leave it in the basket, but people got smart and realized the paper at the bottom of the basket comes first, so they'd stick theirs in at the bottom and then you get problems," Stan Sheetz says.
Also: "You would be shocked how many people can't read and write."
* * *
Another Wawa, hours later, on Monday morning just after sunrise: Because just look at it. Here we are, in the Capitol Heights store, a brand-new (virginal, practically) Wawa that opened late last month, set down off the Beltway in a realm of office parks, warehouses, across the street from a new Chick-fil-A, on what's left of Longfellow's melancholy marshes and chattering loons.
Sometimes you walk into Sheetz or a Wawa and there's too much to consider. How it all got here, the plastic for the lids and the cups, the tomatoes, the people who sliced them, somewhere, the beer trucks, the bakeries, the Tylenol, the warehouses, the trash, the couple having the fight outside, the smell of sugar, and meat, and milk and coffee, the electronic checkout scanners beeping tiny little signals back to the warehouses so as to most accurately resupply it all for tomorrow. It's the microcosmic story of us, the convenience people.
Sometimes you just want to stare at it, watch the customer consume. "I know that feeling," area manager Stephany Mooningham says. "I know exactly what you're saying." She's been with Wawa for 16 years. She started working at one in Maryland when she was a teenager and needed a job to pay for her car insurance. Later, she got to wear the Wawa goose costume and dance around the stores. From behind the eyeholes in a giant goose costume, she says, "the world starts to look really different."
What will they pick, out of all this? "Look, see," Mooningham notes, "Combos and Gatorade. That's an interesting choice." It could be his breakfast or it could be his bed snack. It's that time of day (people getting off work, people going to work) and it's that sort of Wawa.
* * *
Don't listen to anybody who loves one more than the other. Sheetz and Wawa are both right, in their way, for infinitesimal reasons. Get the parking space in front of the big plate glass window at a big Wawa or a big Sheetz. Just sit there and snack. It's like watching a movie at the drive-in. The characters come in from one side of the cinema screen, act out their part, then waft out of the frame through the other side. Little dramas play out, light comedies. At the Wawa, the cop comes in and gets a 44-ounce Mountain Dew and everyone in the place watches him. Watches him close.
The canned '80s music, early evening, wafting out from speakers above the Wawa fuel island, serenading you while you sip your coffee. Tears for Fears, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."
Welcome to your life, there's no turning back . . .
The canned '80s music, past midnight now, drifting over the Sheetz fuel island, while you eat a strawberry frosted sprinkly doughnut with pastry tissue clinging to it. Genesis, "No Reply at All."
I've been trying, but we cannot connect . . .
Now the summer is going, gone.
Where are you off to?
Dunno. Sheetz, I think. Maybe the Wawa.
Always, it feels like.