TAMPA — John Kelley remembers when Wawa was a dairy farm near his home in Delaware County, Pa.
"We used to go there on elementary school field trips to see how they milk the cows and operate the farm," he said.
Wawa started making the conversion from dairy farm to convenience store in 1964, becoming not just a place to buy coffee, but also a slice of culture for Kelley, his wife, Norma, and thousands of others in the Mid-Atlantic region.
The Kelleys, both 74, found themselves a little homesick for Wawa after retiring to Florida years later, so they understandably grew excited when Wawa began opening stores in Florida. The Kelleys made a special trek from their Plant City home to Orlando when the state's first Wawa opened in July 2012.
Now, they try to attend the grand opening of every Wawa in the Tampa Bay area
"We've collected several Wawa T-shirts just by stopping in at the new stores during their grand openings," John said with a laugh.
John and Norma love the store's hoagies, especially the Amoroso rolls made from dough shipped from Pennsylvania. Herr's potato chips of Pennsylvania also sit on the Kelleys' favorites list.
Wawa plans to open 25 stores on a yearly basis in the Sunshine State, including several locations in Hillsborough County. It just opened a store at 1760 W Hillsborough Ave., and in the spring, another location will go up at E Fletcher Avenue near Livingston Avenue.
"Florida has been begging for Wawa," John said.
He may have a point. Native Pennsylvanians alone account for 4 percent of Florida's population — that figure represents nearly 800,000 people, not even counting current Florida residents originally from other states in Wawa's Mid-Atlantic home region.
At the debut of the Wawa store on W Hillsborough Avenue last month, grand opening events included a hoagie-building contest between members of the Tampa Police Department and the Tampa Fire Department.
Free coffee also is a common giveaway during the first few days after a new store opens, and customers can always use air pumps for free. All ATM transactions also are free.
It's those little freebies that matter to people like the Kelleys. While the Kelleys (and many others) sing praises about Wawa, John said he has come across a few people who don't embrace Wawa the way he and other enthusiasts do.
"I tell people to try Wawa and see if they like it," Norma said. "Most of them go back again."
Wawa spokesperson Lori Bruce said some even show their Wawa love in more permanent ways.
"I know many people who have gotten Wawa tattoos and have even had their weddings in Wawa stores."
The Kelleys may not have said their vows by the hoagie counter or donned Wawa-themed tattoos, but they love the Pennsylvania company nonetheless.
"I'm just glad they're here in Florida," John said.
Contact Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez at [email protected]