Wawa's Coffee 'Rejavanation'

Energy-saving thermals take center stage as Wawa "retires" glass coffee pots

VINELAND, N.J. -- The glass pots customers have been using to pour freshly brewed coffee into more than a billion Wawa-branded cups over the past three and a half decades edged one step closer to retirement yesterday during a festively raucous celebration at a Wawa convenience store in Vineland, N.J., as part of a chainwide "Brew Tour" (click here for previous coverage). In their place, Wawa has introduced energy-saving thermal units designed to serve a superior cup of coffee, regardless of time of day.

"Here in this marketplace, the coffee landscape has changed dramatically, and you definitely have to change with the times," Howard Stoeckel, Wawa Inc.'s president and CEO, told CSP Daily News. "We're a habit-forming, ritualistic type of experience, and when you change the experience, sometimes you worry. Change is part of our DNA, and through communication, through research and through the processwe've made [the changeover] as painless as possible."

Wawa embarked on a region-by-region makeover of its coffee stations earlier this year, featuring not only the energy-efficient thermal containers to replace its longstanding glass pots, but also new graphics and other coffee-area improvements for its more than 570 stores in five Mid-Atlantic states. Each store conversion takes approximately 12 hours and is designed to update and refresh the coffee area, reduce waste and conserve energy, all while providing customers with what company officials call the "ultimate level of coffee freshness" during all dayparts.

With the advent of Starbucks and other fast-casual restaurants with a thirst for hot dispensed beverages, customers nationwide have come to embrace and expect more sophisticated coffee offerings. Wawa officials believe the revamped program, complete with a rotating lineup of limited-time-only exotic coffee blends as part of a "World Brew" initiative, will not only invigorate sales but also facilitate the company's planned expansion beyond its current operating territory.

"Our focus is one state, one store, one customer at a time, but this will help us as we position ourselves elsewhere in the country, in places like Florida," Stoeckel said (click here for previous coverage). "It shows that we stand for coffee, and you need that kind of clarity when you build a brand.... I talk about the 'Cheers' experiencea place where customers can say, 'I feel safe,' a place that feels like homeand that's the type of experience we want to deliver. With what we've done here, we've become almost a store within a store, and it enables us to take our coffee brand on the road and expand."

The new coffee-delivery system has been in development since 2008, and in-store testing began in 2009, according to company officials. Each newly installed thermal unit contains one gallon of coffee, or twice the capacity of a single glass pot. In addition to volume enhancements, the thermals are designed to provide a higher-quality product with each pour, preserving the signature taste coffee drinkers have grown to adore.

With the glass pots, which have served the company faithfully for 35 years, the direct heat of a coffee burner tended to make batches bitter after 20 minutes. The new thermal units, meanwhile, preserve the coffee's flavor and integrity for as long as two hours, according to company officials. Due to Wawa's tremendous coffee volume, however, thermals tend to empty within 30 minutes, thereby guaranteeing consumers a consistently superior cup. Company officials also expect the transition to thermals to lead to further gains in safety and quality control.

"This shows a re-commitment to our coffee brand," said Michael Sherlock, Wawa's director of foodservice. "We expect to see a sales increase as a result of [the makeover], but more importantly the customer is going to get a better-quality cup of coffee, and a consistent-quality cup of coffee, and we'll have stronger execution during all dayparts."

In addition to the symbolic retirement of a glass coffee pot, which is slated for preservation in the archives of the Hagley Museum & Library in Wilmington, Del., the Vineland event also featured a toast to the company's long-tenured coffee hosts and hostesses, and a coffee cup "fashion show" in which store associates donned sandwich boards bearing likenesses of past and present coffee cups, using an aisle near the point of sale as their runway. Wawa mascot "Wally" kickstarted the proceedings by leading spirited renditions of "The Chicken Dance," Village People's "Y.M.C.A." and Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A.," all performed with characteristic Wawa flair.

The Vineland event was one of seven scheduled Brew Tour stops, with upcoming visits slated for a store in New Castle, Del., on September 24, and a store in Virginia Beach, Va., on November 17. The Vineland Wawa was one of the last stores in the central/southern New Jersey market to receive the makeover; nearly 160 stores in New Jersey, and more than 380 stores chainwide, have been transformed.

All stores, including those in Maryland and Virginia, will have their coffee stations made over by early December.

Wawa began offering freshly brewed coffee in 1975 and has served more than 1 billion cups of coffee since 2000. Over the course of the past three and a half decades, Wawa has expanded and refined its hot-dispensed-beverage offering so much that the company has become the No. 1 coffee retailer in the Philadelphia market and the No. 7 coffee retailer nationally, even though it does business in only five states.

Privately held Wawa Inc., headquartered in Wawa, Pa., began in 1803 as an iron foundry in New Jersey, and began operating a dairy processing plant in 1902. The company opened its first Wawa Food Market in 1964 as an outlet for dairy products. Today, Wawa has more than 570 c-stores throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia.