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WaWa Claims and Names the 'Fast-Casual-to-Go' Segment

C-Stores have been taking a page or two from the fast-casual playbook for a while now, but WaWa, the Pennsylvania-based convenience store chain, is rewriting entire chapters. As the 592-unit mid-Atlantic brand expands south into Florida, it has redesigned its prototype, upgraded its menu and ramped up service. The new stores will look and act a lot more like fast-casual concepts than C-stores, explained WaWa CEO and “lead goose” Howard Stoeckel during a packed general session at the Restaurant Leadership Conferenc. He’s using the tagline “fast-casual-to-go” to define this new direction.

“WaWa has always been viewed as a C-Store, but we now want to be viewed as a restaurant that sells gas. We want to be more like you when we grow up,” Stoeckel told the audience of restaurant franchisors and franchisees.

Stoeckel’s redirection was guided by the principles of Blue Ocean Strategy, where an enterprise shoots for success by trying to create a whole new market. The company focused on the foodservice channel to differentiate the brand and create WaWa’s own “blue ocean,” a sea where the competition has yet to sail. He benchmarked against chains like Panera Bread, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin'  Donuts to offer healthier food with great appetite appeal and speedy in-and-out service.

“My dream is to become the world’s most appetizing convenience retailer—not an easy feat when you sell gas,” he admitted. But WaWa is following several key strategies to make this dream a reality.

  1. Develop a fresh and inviting beverage experience. WaWa has entered into the smoothie and espresso business to keep pace with those beverage trends. “Coffee is the number one driver and profit center,” noted Stoeckel. “We’ll begin to offer full-service, barrista-style coffee.” Right now, customers serve themselves, choosing from a variety of brews dispensed by vacuum containers.
  2. Focus on quality food and proprietary brands. Hoagies— WaWa’s version of the sub sandwich—are a chain signature. In addition to the popular Turkey Hoagie and Prime Rib Hoagie, WaWa is introducing “enhanced freshness” items such as the California Classic Hoagie, layered with bacon, avocado and cucumber. Fresh salads and cut fruits are delivered daily for an array of healthy options. Hot foods are getting the culinary treatment, too. Customers can purchase a variety of soups and stews to go, as well as house-made entrees like chicken strips over mac and cheese. For the breakfast crowd, there are egg sandwiches “like McDonald’s does, but we’ll also be serving pancakes and wraps,” Stoeckel added. Hot snacks include signature quesadillas and stuffed pretzels—no roller dogs in sight.
  3. Design a fast-casual prototype. “We cleaned up the clutter,” Stoeckel said, showing evidence on the screen. Bright colors, sleek display units to showcase the food and dedicated stations for coffee, smoothies, sandwiches, etc., all add to the fast-casual aura. Digital signage and touchscreen terminals simplify and speed the ordering process. Plus, every new WaWa boasts its own in-store prep kitchen.

“Fast-casual-to-go” is the way WaWa is overcoming the C-store’s image as a destination for gas and tobacco. “We learn from your industry,” Stoeckel concluded.

Watch out, WaWa may be poised to become your next big competitor.

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