Inside New Jersey’s Love Affair with Wawa

From meatball Shortis to teenage hangs to marriage proposals, Wawa culture in the Garden State is stronger than ever.

Illustration showing love for Wawa

Illustration: Sarah Hanson

It was 1968. LBJ was in the Oval Office, with the race for his presidential successor in full swing between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Woodstock was still a year away, and our troops were still very much engaged in battle in Vietnam. Meanwhile, back here in New Jersey, a store with a funny but unmistakably catchy name opened in Vineland, about halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

That was New Jersey’s first Wawa. Actually, in the early years, Wawa called each of its stores Wawa Farm Markets, then changed the name to Wawa Food Markets, and finally realized that the one four-letter word was all you really needed: Wawa.

“For people on the go,” proclaimed an advertisement for Wawa in one South Jersey newspaper. “When you’re in a hurry and on the go, stop at Wawa food market. We’re a grocery store, delicatessen, dairy, and a general store, all in one modern market. Easy to drive in—easy to park.”

While one can debate the practicality of Wawa’s parking lots these days—one regional media outlet recently ran a contest to determine the worst Wawa parking lot—there’s no denying that: If Wawa is nothing else, it is certainly convenient. And that convenience is, no doubt, one of the leading factors in Wawa’s success in New Jersey. Just how successful is Wawa here? Massively.

There are now more Wawas in New Jersey than in any other state, including in neighboring Pennsylvania. That’s where the company was born in 1964, four years before Wawa crossed the Delaware River into South Jersey. This year, Wawa has been celebrating its 60th anniversary with lots of giveaways and special merch.

Yes, Wawa is even more popular here than in its birthplace. New Jersey Wawas account for more than a quarter of all Wawa stores up and down the East Coast—Wawa has become a ubiquitous presence as far away as Florida, where hundreds dot the sunny state—and there’s approximately one New Jersey Wawa for every 30,000 residents, by far the highest Wawa rate in the country.

Plus, while Wawa has been limited to the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania—the company has just begun making inroads westward, but not very far—Wawa has managed to completely cover New Jersey with locations. If you’re anywhere in New Jersey, from the southernmost tip of Cape May to the northernmost township of Montague, chances are there’s a Wawa within a 15- or 20-minute drive, and usually much closer.

At the first New Jersey Wawa, you could get Wawa-branded hamburger and frankfurter rolls for 25 cents per eight-pack. A half-gallon of premium Wawa ice cream made from Wawa’s own cows would cost you about a buck. Deli workers would slice up boiled ham (99 cents per pound) and American cheese (49 cents per pound) to order; freshly sliced deli meats are something Wawa has, regrettably, since done away with.

Unlike many local markets, New Jersey’s earliest Wawa was open every day—including Sunday, which wasn’t all that common back then—from 7 am to 11 pm. Wawa was even open on certain holidays when other stores would normally close, including the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. “When they’re closed, we’re open” was Wawa’s tagline in 1968.

The original Vineland Wawa proved to be popular with the locals. By December of that year, Vineland boasted three Wawa stores. Wawas opened in Mount Laurel, Pleasantville and Millville around the same time. The whole Wawa thing was starting to catch on. When South Jersey newspapers announced a new Wawa opening in those days, they sometimes had to explain this new kind of shopping experience to their readers.

“A convenience store is a small grocery store which opens early in the morning and closes late at night,” read the Millville Daily in 1968. “It provides convenient service to the hurried worker and harried housewife.” (Hey, it was the 1960s.)

My first memories of Wawa date back to the late 1980s, when you could get a Shorti hoagie for less than $2.50, and it came with a free fountain soda. My nerdy friends and I would rendezvous at our local Wawa near Pine Hill after school and on weekends for snacks, sandwiches and those free fountain sodas. Or, if we had enough money on us, we’d spring for that addictive Wawa iced tea or lemonade. Some kids hung out at the local malls—Deptford, Echelon, or Cherry Hill. We all hung out at Wawa.

Well, here it is, 2024, and mall culture is on a swift decline, while Wawa culture is anything but.

I visited several New Jersey Wawas while reporting this story, and I’m here to tell you: Business is strong, and a new generation of Wawa devotees is in the making, something that’s key to the brand’s continued success.

Once the teens I approached at South Jersey Wawas got over their understandable, “Who is this old dude coming up to me?” reaction, they were more than happy to share their thoughts on the company and favorite items at the store.

“We’ve been going to the beach in Ventnor each summer since I was born,” one kid told me. “We’d always get subs from Wawa. And we thought it was so cool when we were old enough that our parents would let us start walking to Wawa ourselves to fill the cooler with subs. Now we just complain because carrying that full cooler can get hot in August!” (I suggested he invest in a cooler with wheels.)

Another youthful Wawa devotee told me that, while her dad goes on and on about how bad Wawa’s new pizza is, she and all her friends love it. “Wawa’s pizza is lit,” she insisted. Another said his parents tell him he can get any food he wants for his birthday party each year, and each year, he and his friends all scarf down dozens of Wawa hoagies. His favorite: “Meatball parmigiana Shorti. I can eat two.”

Wawa devotion has trickled down into my own family. While my son will eat pretty much any Wawa hoagie you put in front of him (he’s 18, so…), his go-to is an Italian, though he insists on no tomatoes unless he’s eating it right away because, he says, tomatoes make the sandwich soggy. Pro-tip! My daughter, 16, only eats Wawa chicken salad as far as the hoagies go, but she’ll happily indulge in Wawa’s quesadillas, something I’m afraid to admit to my foodie friends. Just the other day, I needed to order lunch for my kids and their church friends who were participating in a volunteer event. I offered pizza. I offered Chipotle. I offered to get pretty much whatever they chose. And what did every single kid want? Yep, Wawa.

Wawa has also spilled into our lives in ways neither us nor Wawa could have ever predicted. Kate Winslet talked about Wawa in the hit HBO crime series Mare of Easttown. Harry Styles declared his love for Wawa at a concert a few years back. Jack Antonoff alludes to Wawa on his latest album. Grace Potter pianist Eliza Hardy Jones has penned a wistful tune, “Where the Streets Are Lined With Wawa” in which she envisions a Wawa utopia. And get this: People are even getting engaged and married at Wawas. Clearly, we’ve reached peak Wawa-ness—or have we?

What may have originally caught on just because of convenience has morphed into something much more: true tradition. When we think back on those beach-blanket memories at the Jersey Shore, we remember when that seagull tried to snatch that Italian Shorti right out of our hands. (Yes, this actually happened to me.) Birthday memories include sharing Wawa subs with our friends as much as they include memories of blowing out the candles on the cake. Wedding photos now sit on our mantles with Wawa workers in the background.

Wawa has truly become a part of our lives and doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Which is good. Because now I’m craving a meatball parm.

Victor Fiorillo grew up in South Jersey and is a lifelong writer and meatball Shorti fan.

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