1. Business

Wawa opens first Tampa Bay area store in Pinellas Park

Visitors crowd the new Wawa store at 3101 Gandy Blvd. in Pinellas Park on Thursday during a pre-grand opening party for local officials and the media.
Visitors crowd the new Wawa store at 3101 Gandy Blvd. in Pinellas Park on Thursday during a pre-grand opening party for local officials and the media.
Published Feb. 8, 2013

PINELLAS PARK — People of Tampa Bay have a new word to add to their vocabulary.

It's "Wawa."

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.


  1. This holiday season could be a record for travel. According to AAA, the Auto Club Group. Pictured is traffic on the Bayside Bridge in Clearwater in October. [Times file photo] [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
    According to AAA, the Auto Club Group, more Americans are traveling this year than previous years.
  2. Yankee pitcher CC Sabathia, who played 19 seasons before injuries ended his career this fall, greets children attending the Yankees holiday concert at the Straz Center in Tampa on Thursday. Sabathia was joined by his wife Amber, right. [New York Yankees]
    Long-time host and retired news anchor John Wilson passed the torch this year to a new emcee, his son Mark Wilson.
  3. NewSouth Window Solutions has a factory and its headquarters near Tampa, seven factory showrooms around Florida and in Charleston, S.C., and an eighth scheduled to open early next year in the Pensacola-Mobile, Ala. market. [LensLife Productions]
    The buyer is PGT Innovations and wants to expand. NewSouth has a factory in Tampa and eight showrooms, with a ninth on the way.
  4. Methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia sit along side the stolen DeWalt power tool and phony store receipt as evidence is collected on the hood of the car after as two men are arrested at the Home Depot at 10151 Bloomingdale Ave, in Riverview, on Tuesday, June 26, 2019. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    A Times report shows Hillsborough deputies struggle to stomp out tool theft networks tied to drugs.
  5. U.S. homeowners have gained an average of $5,300 in equity since September 2018.  [Associated Press] [JOHN BAZEMORE  |  AP]
    Nationwide, home equity increased an average of $5,300 per homeowner over the past year.
  6. This house on Schefflera Road in Tampa's Carrollwood area was occupied by squatters who say they are the owners. [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN  |  Times]
    "We were constantly asked, ‘What’s going on with that house?' "
  7. Frontier Communications this week launched tools to combat robocalls better. Pictured is a Frontier flag flies outside Frontier's regional office in Tampa in 2015. [Times file photo]
    The internet, phone and cable provider will help its customers better identify spam and fraudulent calls.
  8. Tampa Electric Co. customers will see a reduction in their rate for next year. Pictured is the utility's headquarters in Tampa in 2017. | [Chris Urso | Times (2017)] [URSO, CHRIS  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    The reduction comes because of a drop in Florida’s corporate tax rate.
  9. California-based customer service company Alorica is permanently closing its call center near U.S. 301 and Adamo Drive and laying off 482 employees. [Google street view]
    The layoffs are scheduled to take place from Feb. 9 through March 27.
  10. Check for the latest breaking news in the Tampa Bay area.
    The company already has offices in Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, but likes the Tampa Bay area’s pool of tech talent.