PINELLAS PARK — People of Tampa Bay have a new word to add to their vocabulary.
Get ready to start hearing and saying it a lot. The Pennsylvania-based convenience store chain opens its first location in the area today, at 3101 Gandy Blvd. in Pinellas Park. The store is part of a major expansion into Central Florida and one of 100 locations planned over the next five years.
"It's just the beginning,'' declared Wawa president and chief executive officer Chris Gheysens, during a preview party Thursday.
About 100 local officials, vendors and community partners attended the event to celebrate Wawa's arrival and sample the store's signature hoagie sandwiches, coffee and smoothie drinks. For residents of Pinellas Park, it was a momentous day.
"We're elated to say the least,'' said former Mayor Bill Mischler, who drew applause for his efforts to make the project happen.
Anyone from Pennsylvania or New Jersey needs no introduction. Wawa is a familiar name, with about 600 stores blanketing those states, plus Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and, now, Florida.
The chain migrated to the Sunshine State last year, opening its first location in July in Orlando, across from SeaWorld. Seven more have followed in Orlando, drawing larger crowds than expected for its hoagies and prepared food.
The Pinellas Park Wawa is the first of five opening locally in the next five weeks. Another 20 in Central Florida are under construction, and dozens more are in the planning stages.
Stores are anything but blah-blah.
Each averages 5,600 to 6,000 square feet, quite a bit larger than a typical convenience store. Cheap gas is a lure, but not the focus, and certainly not the chain's breadwinner. Wawa wants to be known for its built-to-order sandwiches, breakfast bowls, salads and other grab-and-go meals. Stores carry more than 6,000 items, from candy to chips to cigarettes.
Gheysens became CEO in January after 15 years with the company. He replaced Howard Stoeckel, who retired after many years. He considers planting a Florida foothold a top priority in the coming years.
Wawa chose Florida based on its strong market for fast-casual food and availability of real estate on the "corner of Main and Main,'' Gheysens said. It also helped that many transplants from the North are familiar with the brand and consider it a nostalgic reminder of home.
"You wear a Wawa shirt in the airport, on a plane or around town and you get stopped every five feet,'' he said. "It gets that type of reception.''
Wawa competes with convenience stores but also with Starbucks, Subway, Panera Bread, Chipotle, McDonald's and even dollar stores. It's a direct competitor of Thorntons, another local newcomer, which opened stores in Largo and Clearwater in December and has plans for 15 to 20 more in the next three years.
Expanding to Florida reflects a major commitment for the chain, which spends about $6 million on each store. Gov. Rick Scott attended the opening of the first Orlando store, and former Gov. Bob Martinez is expected to take part in today's festivities in Pinellas Park.
Over the next decade, Wawa expects to spend upward of $1 billion on store construction, said Todd Souders, director of store operations in Florida. It also will hire thousands of people.
Each store employs about 35 people — the majority of them full-time. The chain has 19,000 employees nationwide, many of whom are enrolled in the company's employee stock ownership plan. Employees own 37 percent of the company; the founding Wood family holds the majority interest.
Wawa was started in 1803 as an iron foundry and added a dairy business in 1904 in a rural area of Pennsylvania called Wawa. As home delivery of milk declined, the owner's grandson, Grahame Wood, opened the first Wawa Food Market in 1964 to sell dairy products.
The stores still sell Wawa milk, except for ones in Florida, which is too far away from distribution centers. People from the Philadelphia area will recognize Herr's potato chips and Tastykakes, big favorites hoping to gain a following among Wawa's shoppers down South.
Charlie and Deane Grebinger, snowbirds from Virginia who live part-time in Pinellas Park, describe Wawa as "not your average convenience store,'' with quality food and friendly employees similar to what you find at Publix. They find it amusing so many of their friends ask, "What's a Wawa?''
The name comes from an American Indian word for the Canada goose and serves as the company logo and mantra. Much like geese use teamwork to fly together in perfect formation, so, says the company, do Wawa employees.
Gheysens says people often mistake the name as baby talk or a made-up word. But they never forget it.