Pennsylvania Gas Station Wawa is Just One Cult Classic Heading to D.C.

March 16, 2012

Pennsylvania Gas

Pennsylvania Gas Station Wawa is Just One Cult Classic Heading to D.C.

“Eeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!”

“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.

View the full article on Washington Business Journal


Sonic Drive-In Revives ‘Out of Work’ Spokesmen

March 16, 2012

Sonic Drive-In

Sonic Drive-In Revives ‘Out of Work’ Spokesmen

WITH the unemployment rate above 8 percent, Americans are taking extreme measures to get hired — even, apparently, brand spokesmen.

T. J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz, who starred in humorous and largely improvised ads for Sonic Drive-In from 2002 to 2010, appear in about a dozen videos uploaded to YouTube over the last few weeks.

Proclaiming to be commercials produced by the two, the videos include such mishaps as the spokesmen promoting popcorn chicken in a car overrun by live chickens.

“We want our old jobs back,” explains a Facebook page featuring the two. “Now we make our own commercial-things without permission from the man.”

A Web site features a petition for consumers to sign that demands their return. The effort culminated with a commercial that was posted to YouTube on Tuesday and which will go on the air this Monday. “Hey there, America,” Mr. Grosz begins in the ad. “You may remember us as the two guys who used to be in all those Sonic commercials.”

Mr. Jagodowski says, “But then they phased us out.”

“So we decided to go rogue and make our own commercials,” Mr. Grosz continues.

After a montage from the online videos, they triumphantly reveal they have been rehired, and the commercial closes with the screen text, “The two guys are back.”

It turns out, however, that this was not really a job-seeking effort by the spokesmen but a publicity stunt by the brand.

After Sonic decided to bring back the spokesmen, “we sort of imagined that they could pester the company to get their jobs back,” said Jeff Goodby, co-chairman and creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, part of the Omnicom Group, which produced the commercials and the online videos.

The spokesmen were originally cast by Barkley in Kansas City, Mo., when it was the agency of record for Sonic. They “were put away a little too early because if they stayed around they really would have come into their own in the social media context,” Mr. Goodby said.

Character-driven viral campaigns often owe much of their success to YouTube. For example, Old Spice commercials and online-only videos featuring Isaiah Mustafa have attracted nearly 200 million views.

The fictional effort of the spokesmen to get their jobs back served as a premise to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and a YouTube channel on their behalf, and all will now be repurposed to promote the characters and Sonic.

While the job-seeking premise might strike a chord with the ranks of the unemployed, Mr. Goodby said that was not the impetus.

“It wasn’t intended to resonate in that way,” Mr. Goodby said.

But Darren Tristano, an executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry consulting and market research firm, said consumers still are apt to identify with the idea of seeking employment.

“So many Americans are underemployed or unemployed that I think that’s how we are going to relate to these guys,” Mr. Tristano said. “It may be more subliminal but it’s going to be effective.”

Originally named Top Hat Drive-In, Sonic began in Shawnee, Okla., in 1953 and now has more than 3,500 locations in 43 states.

Customers order over microphones in individual parking spaces, and carhops — typically on roller skates — deliver the food. Naturally the highest concentration of restaurants is in warmer states including Texas, and, according to the company, the busiest month tends to be May, the slowest January.

Revenues of both company- and franchised-owned restaurants totaled about $3.6 billion in 2011, which made Sonic the fourth-largest fast-food chain, behind McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.

The company spent $122.5 million on advertising in 2010 and $104.9 million in the first nine months of 2011, according to the most recent data available from the Kantar Media unit of WPP.

In late January, Sonic got an unexpected jolt of publicity when Giorgio Fareira, a folk singer, was in a car with friends when they pulled into a Sonic in Connecticut. Mr. Fareira, who was in the passenger seat and happened to have his guitar, decided on the spot to sing the order into the microphone to a good-humored Sonic employee, while a friend in the backseat with an iPhone shot a video, which she posted on YouTube.

Versions of that video drew more than two million views. (“If this music video doesn’t make you happy and hungry,” advises a post about it on the Web site Gizmodo, “you are dead inside.”) While brands occasionally disapprove of unauthorized content on YouTube, Sonic embraced Mr. Fareira, and through its public relations agency helped the singer get booked on the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Feb. 14.

“We all got a big kick out of it right off the bat,” said J. Clifford Hudson, chief executive of Sonic. “Now we’re really kind of helping evolve his career a little bit further.”

As for the spokesmen, neither had expected to be returning to Sonic. Mr. Grosz previously worked as a writer for “The Colbert Report” and currently appears on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” as a panelist. Mr. Jagodowski performs improvisational comedy frequently in Chicago.

“We both thought that it had been a really nice and enjoyable run but that it was done,” Mr. Jagodowski said.

Mr. Grosz, who said income from the commercials is primarily what paid for his home in Los Angeles, had been pleased when the previous campaign kept getting renewed year after year.

“At first it was gravy, and then it was a cherry on the top of the gravy,” said Mr. Grosz. “A lot of times, if you get paid it’s for really soul-sucking things, but I’m proud of what we’re doing with Sonic.”

View the full article on The New York Times