The isolation feels palpable at this convenience store, even though I know it’s an illusion. The strip centers and gas stations of Bowie, Md., lie just up the road. Still, as I sit in my car and sink my teeth into an Italian hoagie, I feel as if I’m biting into the finest sandwich in a five-mile radius. Come to think of it: I probably am.
Several hours earlier, I had purchased the very same sandwich at Wawa’s store on 19th Street NW, the chain’s debut location in Washington. The experience could not have been more different. The 24-hour downtown shop plays the fashionable foil to its unpolished sibling in the country: It boasts exposed ventilation ducts, glossy subway-tile walls, epoxy terrazzo floors, wood finishes and hanging light fixtures that would look right at home in some warehouse-chic restaurant.
The D.C. location tends to attract a different customer, too: Men in suits and expensive haircuts. Women in suits and expensive haircuts. Men with beards as a lifestyle choice, not thermal insulation in winter. Women in boots as a fashion statement, not footware to trek across slick January sidewalks. Many navigate the store in ear buds, or with their faces buried in their phones. When they check out, they may punch in their PIN with the middle knuckle of their index finger. Avoidance of people, conversation and germs is paramount.
This gleaming storefront, once home to the State Department’s Washington Passport Agency, is not situated off a lonely highway in rural Maryland. It’s nestled in a city with dozens of other sandwich options within easy striking distance. To select Wawa for lunch in the District, you must stubbornly overlook far superior destinations, including Bub and Pop’s, Sundevich, Taylor Gourmet, Smoked and Stacked, Beef ’N Bread, Duke’s Grocery and more. The list is almost bottomless.
This knowledge is impossible to ignore, and it informs every bite of your sandwich at Wawa. Take that Italian sub that I ordered at the D.C. shop: It was not substantially different from the one I ordered later in the day at the Wawa off Crain Highway. Yes, the Amoroso’s roll was underbaked, which only emphasized the bread’s gumminess, but the fillings were the same in both hoagies. Thinly sliced deli meats, shredded lettuce, onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, provolone cheese, vinegar and oil.
My reaction to each sandwich was wholly dependent on its location: In the parking lot off a remote highway, the hoagie was a handmade comfort, warm, toasty and satisfying. In downtown Washington, it was a confession: I was too lazy to go somewhere better. Context is a prime ingredient in the Wawa experience.
Believe me, I understand that I’m playing pickup sticks with dynamite here. Wawa belongs to class of regional chains beloved by those who are indoctrinated early into their charms. Midwesterners have their Runza shops. Texans drool over Whataburger. Californians brag endlessly about In-N-Out Burger. And those in Pennsylvania pledge their allegiance to Wawa, which began as a dairy concern more than a century ago in Delaware County, Pa. Outsiders are often baffled by what the faithful see in these places, which pretty much sums up my position on Wawa.
As a convenience store, the Wawa in Washington has a degree of magnetism. Its line of baked goods — pastries, doughnuts, rolls, muffins, cinnamon buns — is grander and sweeter than, say, the bakery case at 7-Eleven. Wawa even has an entire display devoted to Tastykake, the Philadelphia bakery whose packaged cakes and doughnuts have their own ravenous followers (though not me). You can wash down these sweets with your choice of coffee from Wawa’s wide selection, including a medium-roast Kenyan that I’d rank among the best cups of convenience store mud anywhere. Skip the French Vanilla, that junk food of joe, and the nitro cold-brew, which is just a watery imitation of the real thing.
Wawa’s other attraction: Its touch screen ordering system, which was fast-casual before fast-
casual was even a passing thought in Chipotle founder Steve Ells’s brain. These push-button kiosks offer vast amounts of customization without requiring diners to speak with actual humans, apparently a win-win for the wired generation, according to the Field Guide to the Common Millennial.
The sandwiches, subs, flatbreads and salads that appear minutes later aren’t nearly as engaging as the system on which to order them. The lifeless meatball sub makes me pine for the one at G by Mike Isabella. The gray slices of meat tucked inside the roast beef hoagie make me want to flee to the safer environs of MGM Roast Beef. The wan turkey club, with its sad strips of bacon, has me daydreaming about the Cali Turkey sandwich at Beef ’N Bread. The cold and clammy Chipotle Turkey Hoagie Bowl is a carbophobe’s version of a Philly hoagie by way of Mexico. It’s 50 shades of wrong.
Finding an item that’s more than just fuel for the body can take some digging. I sampled more than 20 items in all, including a sweet cream-cheese-stuffed pretzel that should be used by dentists to scare kids off sugar. The best of the bunch were the most unexpected ones: a juicy beef-and-cheese quesadilla, with a griddled flour tortilla that wasn’t nearly as dehydrated as it first appeared; a kale-and-quinoa salad with champagne vinaigrette (and goat cheese!); and a turkey sausage, egg and American cheese sandwich on croissant (part of Wawa’s generally reliable breakfast offerings).
Wawa devotees will, no doubt, disagree with every word I write. They will point out the value of the chain’s offerings. They will emphasize its speed and convenience. They will defend those hoagies until their last breath. I get it. Nostalgia, like love, is blind.
1111 19th St. NW, 202-869-2286,
Nearest Metro: Farragut North, with a 0.2-mile walk to the store.
Prices: Packaged and prepared-to-order foods range from about 99 cents to $6.89, not including extras.