Wawa's iconic sandwiches have come a long way since 1972.
When Joshua Harris moved away from New Jersey, he deeply missed the Wawa hoagie sandwiches he used to enjoy at least twice a week—so much so he posted a special request on Wawa’s Facebook page: “We need Wawa in Denver. There is nothing for competition here!”
In fact, with 381,728 people who “like” the Wawa, Pa.-based chain on Facebook, such requests are constantly pouring in— in one day alone from Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.
Harris explains to CSP that the sandwiches are “better than 90% of the sub shops.” And if he were ever to get his wish for Wawa’s expansion to Denver, he’s “fairly positive” he would eat three meals a day there for the first three months.
For now, however, Harris and the others will have to wait. According to Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce, the company may expand beyond its current five-state swath of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, but not right now. “We are looking for a new ‘hoagieland,’ but it’s too soon to say when and where,” she says.
What is it about the hoagie that draws folks such as Emily Peto of Brookfield, Ill., to actually plan a stop at one of the company’s 570 stores on her vacation route?
“I go to the East Coast every summer, and I make it a point to go to Wawa at least twice while I’m there, if not more! It’s always part of the schedule,” she says. “It’s like eating the sandwiches that Mom would make better than anyone.”
Unlike Mom, Wawa churns out about 70 million of the hoagies annually. The sandwich’s appeal seems to stem from the fresh ingredients, the availability of customization, the company’s willingness to experiment and the technology that facilitates ordering. That appeal has expanded into a sort of hoagie culture throughout the East Coast.
‘HIGH HOAGIE RECOGNITION’
Wawa embraced the hoagie in the early 1970s, with the first hoagies kept on hand as premade sandwiches. In 1977, Wawa evolved to a built-to-order model, keeping a few premades in the express case for grab-and-go convenience.
And built-to-order is available around the clock, with only a few of the chain’s stores not open 24 hours. “Our goal is to simplify our customers’ lives, so they know they can come for a quick, quality product around the clock, and it’s consistently the same every time,” says category manager Amanda Matyok.
Bruce says, “Like most of our key product lines at Wawa, built-to-order started as a result of our general managers responding to customer requests on how we can make their lives easier.” There are 39 base hoagies (including breakfast), according to the Wawa website. They are available in four sizes, with six varieties of cheese and 22 other top- pings. Customer also can decide whether to toast their hoagies. Italian and Turkey are the most commonly sought-after hoagies. (See sidebar, p. 64.)
“The customization is a hallmark of our offer,” Bruce says. “It really gets down to a tremendous amount of variety and choices and tremendous value for our customers.” Prices vary by location, with an Internet search showing prices ranging from $2.89 for a cold junior hoagie to $13.99 for a 2-foot hoagie. And aside from adding meats, cheeses or bacon, customization doesn’t cost extra.
Despite his change in locale, hoagie fan Harris still finds a way to take advantage of that customization. “I’ve had friends from New Jersey flying to Denver to visit [who will] stop by Wawa and get me several Italian hoagies with lettuce, tomato, onion, salt, pepper, oregano, oil and vinegar and bring them on the plane,” he says. “They always complain about the smell lingering in their bags, but I don’t care. It’s totally worth it!”
Across the country, hoagies go by other names: subs, heroes, bombers, poor boys, grinders, torpedoes and rockets. But don’t even try to call it a sandwich around a Wawa employee. “We don’t call them sandwiches; we call them hoagies,” Bruce corrects during one such slip. And Wawa has spread the “hoagie” word throughout its areas of operation. Bruce says the company held “Hoagie days” when it moved into the Virginia market in the mid- to late ’90s. “The South has its unique foods, whether it’s pecan pie, barbecue, biscuits or other southern favorites. And we brought them the hoagie,” she says. “I think we have high hoagie recognition in the Virginia market.”
“We’re always changing ingredients,” says Matyok. “We’re always trying to monitor and understand trends, and keep our offer fresh. … Every year, we try to add new things.” Those ingredients aren’t likely to be too “out there,” though, with test runs on anything the company does. “We have a really good process, so any ideas that are really out there and not feasible don’t get all the way to a rollout to the stores.”
Following such testing, Wawa rolled breakfast hoagies out to all of its stores this past winter. Matyok says, “It’s just been a natural progression. We’ve been in hoagies for so long, and we’ve had a hot breakfast sandwich.” The company ran a campaign in January, with simple pricing of $2, $3 and $4 breakfast hoagies. Although Wawa doesn’t share information considered proprietary, Bruce says the breakfast hoagies, which are available from 5 to 11 a.m. compared to the other hoagies that are always available, are doing “great.”
All Wawa hoagies must have the appeal to stand on their own. Although the chain has done some promotional combos in the past, the sandwiches are typically sold as stand-alones; combos are not a regular part of the mix.
TOUCH AND GO
If taste is one of the key components of Wawa’s hoagie success, the other is technology. On the company’s website, you can check out the nutritional info of a sandwich of interest, starting with a base sandwich and adding whatever toppings you’d like.
“Customers can choose to have the works, or they can choose to keep it simple and have something that’s within their Weight Watchers points for lunch or dinner—well within it,” Bruce says.
Also, with such heavy customization, the actual ordering process might seem daunting. But Wawa added touch screens from Atlanta-based Radiant Systems Inc. to the mix in 2000 to facilitate ordering. Wawa uses Radiant Customer Self-Service software on Radiant P1550 hardware.
Again, testing determined the outcome, first in one store, then rolled out to a 25-store pilot and now available in all stores. “Wawa saw tremendous rev- enue lift through upselling and selling new menu items,” says Douglas Henderson, director of global product marketing for the global petroleum and convenience retail division for Radiant. “In addition, customer service improved because the Wawa store associate was able to concentrate on the customer, rather than just being an order taker.”
Matyok says, “A big focus of ours is speed of service; the customer wants to get in and get out and get on with their day. So it’s really helped in that way.” (Each store has three to four touch screens.)
“And it’s also helped for the associates because handwritten sheets are prone to mistakes,” Matyok continues. “So now it prints out either on paper or on a screen in front of them, and they can work right from their screen or from a ticket that prints out. It makes their lives easier.”
THE HOAGIE EXPERIENCE
For those who aren’t in the know about the hoagie phenomenon, Wawa’s Facebook status on May 18 would seem quite cryptic: “Hoagie- Man has been spotted! Stop by Wawa No. 678, 2501 Virginia Beach Blvd. in Virginia Beach, Va., at 11 a.m. today to catch a glimpse of HoagieMan, hear the Hoagiefest tunes, and get some Hoagiefest goodies!”
That symbolizes the start of Wawa’s third annual Hoagiefest, which runs through Aug. 1. “The whole point of Hoagiefest,” says Bruce, “is to celebrate the hoagie, what it means to Wawa and what it means to our customers and community—and to give them a great price on the products they love.”
The ’60s-inspired campaign means $2.99 value pricing on 6-inch Shorti hoagies, music inspired by the hoagie, the HoagieMan (a Wawa hoagie mascot) and Hoagieband, and tie-dyed graphics and tie-dyed-T-shirt giveaways.
Tie-dye is strongly linked to Wawa’s heritage. It was reportedly brought into the mainstream of American culture in the 1960s by Don Price, who at the time was working for Best Foods, trying to promote the company’s Rit Dye. Price eventually went on to serve as Wawa’s executive vice president until 1998.
Chainwide Hoagiefest events are held throughout the summer to “bring the campaign to life” and to “reach customers in new ways and gain media exposure,” Bruce says. “It’s kind of become synonymous with summer: Here comes Hoagiefest.”
Wawa associates, as well as CEO Howard Stoeckel, will build a quartermile hoagie at each event, serving it free to the public. Associates also decorate stores with the tie-dyed graphics, inflatable guitars and musical notes and posters from the Woodstock era.
“Our associates are known as the hoagie experts and hoagie ambassadors in this region,” Bruce says. “This gives them a chance to shine and really share their skills.”
Wawa also embraces its philanthropic side during Hoagiefest. Bruce explains, “With every event, part of what we want to do is give back to the community. … Not only are we serving hoagies free to the public, but we’re sending truckloads of hoagies from each event out to the local food banks and food shelters.”
Another philanthropic effort is a hoagie-building contest, with fire and police departments competing. “We call it ‘Hoagies for Heroes,’ and we make a charitable donation to whoever builds the most hoagies in three minutes,” she says. “They have a lot of fun and it turns into a bit of a lettuce-throwing match sometimes—a very heated competition for bragging rights.”
AFTER THE FEST
Even when Hoagiefest is not in session, associates continue to take pride in their hoagies, with the ability to post photos on Wawa’s internal website. Bruce says, “They actually can win prizes for showing the best store spirit to their customers, and interpreting the hoagie in their own way.”
And that hoagie spirit also remains with Wawa customers. Bruce says she’s even heard from a bride who wanted to incorporate Hoagiefest memorabilia into her wedding in tribute to her husband, who is nicknamed Hoagie.
“Sure, we absolutely get stories like that,” she says. “It’s part of the culture here, and people think of us along with hoagies.” 70 million: The number of hoagies that Wawa sells each year. The top two are the Italian and turkey hoagies.
Paying Tribute to the ‘Almighty Hoagie’
In early June an estimated 500 to 600 hoagie aficionados crowded the lot of a colossal Wawa store in Rio Grande, N.J., for the official launch of Hoagiefest, a 1960s-themed bash featuring a carnival-type atmosphere of games, giveaways and more lunchmeat-laden sandwiches than one person can eat in a lifetime.
Now in its third year, Hoagiefest comprises a series of one-day festivals designed to “pay tribute to the almighty hoagie,” in the parlance of event host Wawa Inc. Billed as “a celebration of peace, savings and Shortis,” each Hoagiefest begins with a morning hoagie-build, in which tie-dyeclad store associates construct a quarter-mile’s worth of Wawa’s beloved 6-inch hoagies to serve to hungry patrons later that day.
“The Shorti is our signature product,” says David Johnston, Wawa’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “The goal [of Hoagiefest] is to drive sales but also to re-devote ourselves to the signature product for which we’re famous.”
Throughout Hoagiefest, which runs from late May through mid- July, Wawa offers a different Wawa Shorti for a reduced $2.99 price point. The rotation: roast beef Shortis from May 24 to June 6, cheesesteak Shortis from June 7 to June 20, turkey Shortis from June 21 to July 4, and meatball Shortis from July 5 to July 18. Italian Shortis are available at the reduced price for the duration of the promotion.
The 10-week promotion represents an “enormous challenge” in terms of preparation, adjusted ordering and execution, but it’s also an enormous opportunity to boost sales and strengthen Wawa’s relationship with an extremely loyal customer base. Johnston could not share specific details regarding Hoagiefest’s effect on Wawa’s inside sales but says the fact that the promotion is now in its third rendition is in itself proof of its success.
Hoagiefest has become something of a phenomenon, with an interactive website (www.hoagiefest.com), an album’s worth of original hoagie-themed songs in the vein of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
Wawa Hoagie Milestones
1964 Wawa Food Market welcomes first customer.
1972 Wawa begins serving premade hoagies and sandwiches.
1977 Wawa introduces built-to-order deli sandwich program.
1981 Hoagie selection expands to include hot items.
1986 The 2-foot hoagie is introduced.
1992 Wawa’s Shorti (6-inch) hoagie is born.
2000 Deli touch screens are added to speed up ordering process; vegetarian hoagie introduced.
2006 Wawa hoagies now available toasted.
2008 Wawa celebrates first Hoagiefest, described as a festival of peace, savings and Shortis, honoring the great hoagie tradition.
(“Here comes the Hoagieman / Hoagiefest is here again / Up in the sky, he’ll be here soon / Floating into town in his hoagie balloon” ), a so-called “Hoagie-mobile” and a peace-loving character named Hoagieman who dons a tie-dyed T-shirt and John Lennon shades while spreading the gospel according to Shorti.
‘The Biggest Yet’
Considering the staggering number of fresh-made Italian hoagies on hand for the first Hoagiefest event of 2010, it was only a matter of time before a friendly food fight broke out. The tomatoes, lettuce and Genoa salami began flying during a good-natured hoagie-building competition between the Middle Township Police and the Rio Grande Fire Co., in which both teams had to construct as many hoagies as possible within a three-minute span. The police came out on top, with 25 completed hoagies to the firefighters’ 15.
Wawa gets plenty of support for Hoagiefest, not just from area customers and service providers but also from locally based vendors. At the Rio Grande event, vendors such as Herr Foods Inc., Jack & Jill Ice Cream Co. and Tasty Baking Co. turned out to distribute free items as accompaniment to customers’ favorite Wawa Shortis.
“I don’t know if we thought [Hoagiefest] would ever get this big,” Johnston says. “Now it’s a tradition, and it’s been such a hit that we’ve made it a central part of every summer. We’re confident that this year is going to the biggest yet, and we think so because we have this deep customer connection. … It’s just a big party to celebrate something good.”
After mid-June treks to Wawa stores in Toms River, N.J., and Sandston, Va., as well as a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for “Hoagie Day” as part of the city’s Welcome America! Festival—of which Wawa is the title sponsor—at month’s end, Hoagiefest concludes with a stop at a Wawa in Lewes, Del., on July 16. —Bill Donahue
From the Menu Board
Hoagies are available in four sizes to suit every appetite: Junior (4-inch), Shorti (6-inch) Classic (10-inch) and the 2-foot Hoagie. All hoagies can be toasted to suit customer preferences.
Breakfast hoagie selections: These contain scrambled eggs, and customers can add bacon, beef cheesesteak, ham, imported brand ham, Italian, honey smoked turkey, premium turkey, roast beef or turkey.
Lunch/dinner cold hoagie selections: BLT, chicken salad, egg salad, Genoa salami, ham, imported brand ham, Italian, honey smoked turkey, premium turkey, roast beef, tuna salad, turkey or veggie. Limited availability: American hoagie, bologna, cooked salami, hard salami, liverwurst, tavern ham
Lunch/dinner hot hoagies selections: Homestyle roast beef, hot turkey (seasonal), meatball, beef cheesesteak, chicken cheesesteak, the Gobbler (seasonal), homestyle roast beef, hot turkey or meatball.
Cheese choices: cheddar, Cooper sharp, pepper jack, provolone, Swiss, white American and yellow American.
Spreads and spices: Buffalo Blue spread, Caesar dressing, honey mustard, horseradish, horseradish sauce, ketchup, mayo, Miracle Whip, oil, ranch dressing, spicy mustard, vinegar and yellow mustard.
Condiments: Bacon strips, hot peppers, lettuce, pickles, roasted peppers, onions, sweet peppers, tomato and sautéed onions.
Birth of the Hoagie
According to local legend, hoagies initially were big cold-cut sandwiches workers ate to sustain themselves during the Depression. Philadelphian Al DePalma opened a luncheonette selling the large sandwiches near naval shipyards and called them “hoggies,” attributed to the luncheonette’s proximity to Hog Island and the sandwiches’ large size. The name eventually evolved into hoagies sometime after World War II.
Former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell declared hoagies the “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia” in 1992.