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Wawa is coming to Washington — but won’t be selling gas

Wawa’s first District store, scheduled to open in December, will be the company’s largest. (Courtesy of Wawa)
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Wawa, the regional convenience store chain with a mysterious cult following for its cheap gas and hoagies, will open its first District location later this year.

The store, scheduled to open at 1111 19th Street NW in December, will include Wawa’s signature touches: Sandwiches, milkshakes, free Wifi and digital kiosks.

But it also be different from many of the company’s 750 roadside locations along the east coast. For one, the downtown store won’t sell gas. It’ll have a sit-down cafe with outdoor seating, and it’ll be big — 9,200, square feet, making it the company’s largest store.

“The urban customer is time-strapped and looking to get in and out quickly,” said Chris Gheysens, the company’s president and chief executive. “We’re not thinking about this as a convenience store, but more of a restaurant-style store. Especially when you take out the fuel, it competes with more of a Panera than a 7-11.”

Wawa’s expansion to Washington comes as fast-casual eateries and grocery chains alike rapidly expand into the area. Eatsa, Honeygrow and Halal Guys have all recently opened in the District, and supermarket chain Wegmans last month announced it would be opening its first D.C. store in 2022. Non-traditional retailers are getting into the grab-and-go food business, too, with new Walgreens and Rite Aid stores stocking everything from sushi and champagne to creme brulee and quiche.

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Executives were drawn to the location on 19th Street, Gheysens said, because of its concentration of hungry pedestrians. The area is not without stiff competition, though. Among the quick-service eateries within a one-block radius: Taylor Gourmet, McDonald’s, Pret A Manger, Corner Bakery Cafe, Potbelly, Sweetgreen, Chop’t and Dunkin Donuts. There is also a 7-Eleven a few doors down. (One advantage Wawa might have over its competitors: Price. The company, which is advertising an upcoming $4.99 hoagie special on its website, is considerably cheaper than many downtown eateries. At Taylor Gourmet, by comparison, hoagies start at $7.99, while salads at Chop’t can easily cost $11.)

To compete with nearby restaurants, Wawa is experimenting with a new seating area dubbed Wild Goose Cafe. It will also have bar-style seating, as well as outdoor tables and chairs.

“We recognized that not everybody wants to eat at their office desk,” Gheysens said. “We’re providing basic seating — not a tremendously comfortable experience, but one that provides them some room to take a break and then move on.”

In addition to its usual line-up, the new Wawa store will also sell custom salad and cold brew coffee. The company, which started as an iron foundry in 1803, has legions of die-hard fans, some of whom have the Wawa logo tattooed on their bodies. (Among them: the actor Johnny Knoxville, who has the company’s red letters etched onto his upper arm.) The company has its own dairy, where it produces milk and ice cream, and for years has allowed customers to place their orders using digital kiosks.

The Wawa, Penn.-based company has long been focused on suburban markets, where it tends to have 5,500-square-foot stores with 16 fuel pumps and 50 or 60 parking spaces, Gheysens said. The company’s new urban model is a departure from its roots, but also an opportunity to reach new types of shoppers, he said.

“D.C. has all of the important demographics for us: Population growth, millennials and lot of foot traffic,” he said. “We are an East Coast brand that’s been around the Beltway for a long time, but a couple of years ago it became clear to us that Washington would be a good market for us long-term.”

The company plans to open up to 10 stores in Washington by 2020, and is eyeing locations near George Washington and Georgetown Universities, Gheysens said. Eventually, he says the company will have “a few dozen” stores in the nation’s capital.

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