A visitor from another planet–or from, say, Wales–might wonder why a gas station and convenience store would have the same effect on customers as (dare we say it?) a cultural force, with its own fan club, its own song, its own clothing line (well, t-shirts), that strange name evoking something between a baby’s wail and a Cherokee signal, and of course its own hoagie cult.
But that’s the inexplicable effect Wawa has, the effect it’s had locally since Palm Coast government revealed in 2016 that the first Wawa in Flagler could go up at the intersection of Bulldog Drive and State Road 100. The store was anticipated with something like reverential anxiety.
At 8 this morning, that store, with its hoagies, its coffees, its interiors lit brighter than the set of a sitcom, and of course its plexiglass and social distancing markers, in recognition of viral times, opened to the public after a softer, virtual ribbon cutting opening on Tuesday. Wawa didn’t exactly go out of its way to broadcast the grand opening, given the response such an announcement might have had in times when a 50-person crowd limit still applies in public places, and customers’ reactions to a prodigal opening could be unpredictable.
Nevertheless the parking lot was full today, though no one was quite rushing to get a taste of $1.99-a-gallon gas. The action was inside, with cops, civilians and the near-totality of nearby Flagler Palm Coast High School’s top team there for the occasion.
“It’s just been a staple for us up north,” Beverly Lietz, a former New Jersey resident in Palm Coast for the past five years, said as she prepared her coffee. “It wasn’t ever this big and it didn’t have as much, it’s evolved over the years. I had one down the street from my house, you got lunch meat, little sandwiches here and there, but it’s just evolved over the years. It’s reasonably priced. I used to go to Dunkin Donuts all the time to get coffee, and it was ridiculous how much it cost. Here it’s a different experience.” She said she’d been “waiting for five years for this to happen. I love it. I came by here last night and there was nothing outside, and I was like, I guess they’re not opening. But I came out to check, and here it was.”
Two days ago, Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland described the opening as “the most anticipated project here in our community in a long time, so our residents have been looking forward to this.” She said the store will fit in well with residents who’ve converged on Palm Coast from many areas that had Wawas in their communities. “I’m honored to build and present the ceremonial hoagie for the opening of our Wawa.” The mayor donned a red Wawa apron, gloves and mask and went to work preparing the mysteriously sought-after sub sandwich that took its nickname from the language of the Irish and Italian immigrant working class in the northeast.
The store, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will employ 30 people in all, six of them full-timers, says Pat Liney, who’s opened some 14 Wawa stores, is managing the Palm Coast store and has lived locally two years.The company opened its first store in 1964. It opened its 900th today in Springfield, N.J., at the same time that it opened the Palm Coast store, which in company records is either the 899th or the 901st. Yesterday it opened a store in Gainesville. (The company got a bit of bad publicity this week when an employee in a South New Jersey store was forbidden from wearing a Black Lives Matter mask or leave. He left. The company says it supports the movement, within company-sanctioned uniform guidelines).
More planned stores for Flagler? As with everything else, the Covid pandemic has thrown any of those questions up in the air. This particular store was initially expected to open last July, but a series of design and construction delays and the pandemic pushed the opening to this week.
Mike Carragher started working at a Wawa store on a friend’s recommendation 30 years ago when he was a 17-year-old high school student, starting at $5.25 an hour, around the minimum wage at the time. (Store clerks start at $10.50 an hour today.)
“As I continued to work with the company I fell in love with it and decided to make a career out of it,” Carragher said today at the Palm Coast opening. He was general manager for 17 years and a district manager for five. The Palm Coast store is the 11th in his district (districts have between eight and 14 stores), with seven in Volusia, two in Sanford and one in Lake Mary–what adds up to some 300 employees.
As for that teddy bear effect Wawa has on customers–the comfort they get from its presence, the familiarity, the giddiness–“I think it’s our food service offer,” Carragher said, “it’s all built to order food, it’s all customized, it’s fresh, it;s a high quality QSR food option with a one-stop shop convenience of fuel.” (QSR is the industry acronym for Quick Service Food Restaurant, itself a more bowtied way of saying fast food).
From what the mayor tells us there’s a lot of transplants from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware that know us already,” says Steve Hasher, director of store operations in Florida. The store opening at 8 was a modest moment of applause and a little celebratory noisemaking before a group of customers were let in. Tom Russell, FPC’s principal, was outside with members of his staff and Joe Rizzo, the executive director of the Flagler Education Foundation, the school district’s non-profit arm.
“Wawa is supporting our flagship fire academy, which is really great,” Russell said. “I just wanted to come over and introduce my two AP’s and myself. We just want to be good neighbors. We have 2,700 students and I’m sure they’re going to frequent here, we just want to build relationships with local businesses.” Expect some Wawa catering across the street. He was there with assistant principals Kerri Sands, Kiera Roe and Abude Koushajky. Wawa donated backpacks to the fire academy participants in certain competitions and donated $1,000. Wawa also presented the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office three large boxes full of “Hoagies for Heroes” at Tuesday’s soft opening, and a $1,000 donation to the Flagler Sheriff’s Employee Assistance Trust fund.
FPC’s students and staff amount to a small city across the street from Wawa, but Russell isn;t expecting the store to affect attendance that much. “Here’s the thing,” he said, “we don’t allow students to go off campus for lunch. They’ll be here in the morning and after school.”