Pennsylvania Gas Station Wawa is Just One Cult Classic Heading to D.C.
“Breathe in. Breathe out.”
“Omg, yes please.”
Those were just some of the reactions on Twitter to news that Pennsylvania-based convenience store and deli chain Wawa is interested in opening locations closer to metro Washington. Some may call such enthusiasm for a gas station with food overblown. But others know that Wawa has a huge cult following. It even has a rival in fellow Pennsylvania-based convenience chain Sheetz (each has its passionate defenders).
Wawa is part of a growing group of restaurant and food chains that share two qualities: They have a built-in set of fans, and they hope to bring their operations closer to Washington soon.
“We have several sites in the works,” said Peter Gilligan of Wawa Inc., at the International Council of Shopping Center’s Mid-Atlantic conference in late February. The company is in talks for locations in Virginia and Maryland but would ultimately like to be in the District as well, provided it can find a site big enough to house a gas station.
It’s all part of the conventional wisdom that the region’s demographics make it a no brainer.
“Many folks in the restaurant arena look at the D.C. market as a place where you almost can’t go wrong,” said Chicago restaurant consultant Darren Tristano of Technomic Inc., citing residents’ tendency to eat out frequently and the mix of international consumers.
Another cult favorite targeting Washington is Sonic, a drive-thru style fast-food operation beloved for unusual drinks like cherry rickeys and greasy fare like tater tots. Senior Real Estate Director Gary George said the company expects to sign a Washington-area franchisee within 60 days. Its closest location right now is in Fredericksburg, Va.
The Washington area has seen several other cult favorites recently open or expand in the market.
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is popular on the West Coast, particularly among Hollywood celebrities; it opened its first location at the Washington Hilton in February. Bojangles, heralded by North Carolinians for its spicy chicken, opened its first D.C. location last year in Union Station, and the owners hope to get as many as 30 open locally in the next five to seven years. Jersey Shore favorite Jersey Mike’s Subs, known for its hoagies, has opened 11 spots around this region in two years and has plans for about 15 more. Jimmy Johns, particularly embraced by college students, has opened in areas such as Leesburg and Crystal City. And now, not just New Yorkers stand in line for Shake Shack’s hamburgers. The restaurant opened in Dupont Circle last year.
Tristano thinks the Washington area is seeing an influx of new entrants partially because of the growing popularity of the franchise model for restaurant expansions.
To succeed, cult favorite restaurants ideally should have consumers in a market with some knowledge of their products. Tristano said that’s why Washington is seeing interest in particular from chains with locations on the East Coast, such as Bojangles and Wawa. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, which has expanded its presence in this area dramatically, is a proven success story that others can look to, he said.
Marketing can also build awareness, but those efforts can be tricky, Tristano added. Sonic has run national commercials for its products in Tristano’s home city of Chicago and in the Washington area, leading impatient customers in both cities to wonder why the restaurants are not there yet.
Some cult favorites will always have Washington-area residents originally from elsewhere pleading for their arrival, even if the likelihood is slim. One example is California-based In-N-Out Burger, which has devotees of its “animal style” sandwiches nationwide. Is it coming?
“We don’t have any immediate plans for the D.C. area,” said In-N-Out spokesman Carl Van Fleet. “We continue to grow pretty slowly and, while we hope to get there someday, our current growth plans are only focused on the five states in which we currently operate.”
Wait, did he say “someday”? There may still be hope.