Wawa's Southern Exposure

First of 100 Florida sites provide runway for long-term growth

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There are the white-sand beaches, warm weather and amusement parks, but for retailers looking to grow, the main attraction of Florida is an expanding population and plenty of room to innovate. Just ask major quick-serve restaurant (QSR) chains such as Dunkin Donuts and Panera, convenience store chains like Thorntons Inc., and Wawa, which recently broke ground on its sixth location in the Sunshine State.

The Wawa, Pa.-based chain made a 1,000-mile leap from its core market to establish "Wawa South," which by the end of the next five years is targeted to number 100 sites, with the Orlando and Tampa markets as launch pads. This may seem like a big jump for a company that in the past has spread from its Mid-Atlantic base, but as company leaders explain, the move was 100% organic.

"We've never looked for acquisitions because we've never found acquisitions that make sense for us in terms of real estate or location," Howard Stoeckel, CEO of Wawa, told CSP Daily News.

[For a profile of Stoeckel and Wawa's Florida expansion, see the exclusive cover story in the September issue of CSP magazine.]

"We're not an M&A-type company; we're an organic company, one store at a time, one market at a time. And we believe in filling in markets and becoming part of our customers' daily lives."

[For a CSPTV video interview with Stoeckel and incoming CEO Chris Gheysens on the allure of Florida, as well as other CSP Daily News coverage, see Related Content below.]

The promise of Florida has several facets. Consider that it is the third-largest gasoline market in the country, and that state and local governments have attempted to grease the wheels for development.

"It's a great place to do business for many reasons," said Kim Lodrup, a Wawa board member and senior vice president of business development with Darden Restaurants, whose brands include Red Lobster and Olive Garden. "It's an attractive state with terrific long-term growth potential. It's a well-managed state with an excellent government that makes it easy to do business. I live here, and I think it's a great place to live."

"Our association has had nothing but a great working relationship with the state agencies," said Ned Bowman, executive director with the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association (FPMA), Tallahassee, Fla., which now counts Wawa as a member. "They've been very helpful. The attitude is, how can we help you, how can we get it done? It's not about putting a roadblock in front of you."

Beyond major and mid-tier oil, key c-store retailers in the Orlando and Tampa markets include RaceTrac, 7-Eleven, The Pantry and soon, Thorntons, which announced plans to open its first of 15 to 20 stores in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area this November.

For Wawa, the key to success hinges on its ability to portray itself as a restaurant that sells gasoline, as a purveyor of "fast-casual-to-go," with its made-to-order hoagies, smoothies and full-service barista. That's why the new Florida sites have been engineered to put foodservice front and center, with such features as outdoor seating, an in-store kitchen and expansive glass windows that showcase the offer within.

"It's very hard when you go to a new territory like that to convey the impression that you're a gasoline retailer selling restaurant-quality food," said Dick Wood, chairman and former CEO. "So the design of the store has gone into that, the interior layout, when you walk into front door, you won't miss food aspect.

"The buildings are just beautiful," said Wood. "The people in Florida will have never seen anything like this, but neither have the people of Wawa."