Wawa Claims, Names 'Fast-Casual-to-Go' Segment

CEO Stoeckel guided by Blue Ocean Strategy

Pat Cobe, Senior Editor, Restaurant Business

Howard Stoeckel

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.-- Convenience stores have been taking a page or two from the fast-casual playbook for a while now, but Pennsylvania-based c-store chain Wawa 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 recent Restaurant Leadership Conference (RLC). 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 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Stoeckel's redirection was guided by the principles of Blue Ocean Strategy, in which 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 such as 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 No. 1 driver and profit center," said Stoeckel. "We'll begin to offer full-service, barista-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 such as 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 said. 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 touch-screen 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 gasoline and tobacco. "We learn from your industry," Stoeckel concluded.

Restaurant Leadership Conference (RLC) is a product of CSP Information Group. For more information, go to Monkeydish.com.

By Pat Cobe, Senior Editor, Restaurant Business
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