Within the fall of 2015, the pope got here to Philadelphia. There have been perimeters, there have been port-a-potties, there was Mass for tons of of hundreds on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In distinction to what goes down throughout another public occasion in Philadelphia, nonetheless, everyone was very nice. C-collars went unused; nobody lit anything on fire. Philadelphia loves the pope, however not with its well-known booing, projectile-throwing, climbing-greased-poles form of love. The adoration that greeted Our Holy Father was loyal, reverent, perhaps too uncritical, and really acquainted. Philadelphia loves the pope the way in which it loves Wawa.
So it makes excellent sense that Wawa, the regional comfort retailer and deli that has over 850 shops in six states and Washington, D.C., and that can not be written about with out using the word “cult,” was concerned in each side of the pope’s go to. They rushed to open their flagship downtown store earlier than His Holiness’s arrival; when the mayor reduce the ribbon, he promised to supply the pontifex a hoagie of his choice. Wawa distributed branded water throughout Mass, fed legions of first responders, and put up a cardboard Bishop of Rome for selfies.
Towering over the skyline was a billboard studying, “Wawa welcomes Pope Francis,” encapsulating my whole childhood so succinctly it virtually felt impolite. I grew up within the Philadelphia suburbs and spent 13 years in Catholic faculty. In our plaid skirts and undoubtedly untucked Oxford shirts, my classmates and I haunted the native Wawa, gobbling down turkey Shorti Hoagies and ingesting countless quantities of French vanilla espresso. I can’t bear in mind the final time I had communion, however every time I am going dwelling, I hunt down the touchscreen sacrament of the Wawa hoagie.
The primary Wawa comfort retailer opened in 1964 in Folsom, Pennsylvania, as an outgrowth of the corporate’s dairy enterprise. Growth throughout the tri-state space of New Jersey and Delaware quickly adopted, however the Wawa folks now know and love got here into existence within the Nineteen Eighties, when the deli counter and occasional have been launched. (The extraordinarily useful company timeline notes that the chain received “Best of Philly” for coffee and deli in 1986.) Wawa was a creature of the suburbs throughout that period, and its choices mirrored middle-class wants and tastes virtually too exactly: Shorti Hoagies have been launched in 1992 for the diet-conscious, no-fee ATMs in 1995, sizzling breakfast sandwiches for commuters in 1996 — which was additionally the identical yr some shops added gasoline.
That’s the factor about my Wawa: It’s not a gasoline station retailer. The Tremendous Wawas (as they’re referred to as) are creatures of the exurbs and the chain’s enlargement into further-flung states, or a minimum of, that’s how I nonetheless consider them. Some suburban townships fight Super Wawas as a result of they threaten family-owned gas stations close by, or as a result of their giant footprint and 24-hour openings threaten ill-defined chaos involving site visitors and riff-raff. For all of the regional loyalty to the chain, there’s pushback towards how huge Wawa has develop into. And Wawa is admittedly, actually huge. A 2011 Philadelphia magazine story famous the chain was the No. 8 vendor of espresso within the nation on the time, and that if it weren’t privately held, it will be among the many Fortune 500. 2011 was the eve of Wawa’s enormous enlargement run down I-95; 10 years later, the corporate has added greater than 300 shops.
However all this development hasn’t put a lot of a dent within the cult of Wawa, which will get to the center of the contradiction of the regional chain. The beloved regional comfort retailer or fast-food restaurant should, like all chains, develop to please its buyers, but it surely additionally should stay particular to its territory, and provide a stage of high quality, actual or perceived, to justify the area’s delight. While you go into Wawa, which you are able to do with ease practically anyplace within the Delaware Valley, it presents not the placeless comforts and disappointments of nationwide chains, however the parochial comforts and constraints of what Philadelphia has to supply. Wawa helps a whole mini-economy of different Philadelphia-area firms by stocking manufacturers like Herr’s potato chips and Tastykakes, and loads of its personal Wawa-branded merchandise, together with milk. Its hoagies are made on Amoroso’s rolls, a neighborhood bakery whose crusty, flaky Italian rolls are to Philadelphia’s culinary id what a nook deli bagel is to New York or a generic boulangerie baguette is to Paris — a ubiquitous each day staple, with out which life wouldn’t style appropriate.
And because it stretches additional and farther from dwelling, it doesn’t neglect itself: Wawa calls a hoagie a hoagie, even in Florida. The regional rivalry with Sheetz, one other gasoline station/comfort retailer model, emphasizes that Wawa belongs to the area the place it grew — Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley — and to not different, extra suspect areas of Pennsylvania, the place the touchscreen-ordered gasoline station sandwiches are referred to as “subz.”
It’s form of troublesome to clarify what it’s prefer to be from Philadelphia, or a minimum of from my suburban Nineties Philadelphia. Lots of people throughout America grew up in suburbs constructed over farms, and went to Catholic faculty, and drank treacly French vanilla espresso in an try to appear grownup. There’s a model of that individual whose suburbs have been constructed over orange groves as an alternative of dairy farms, or whose Catholic faculty was outdoors Toledo as an alternative of Philadelphia, or whose French vanilla espresso got here from 7/11 and even Sheetz. The genericness of suburban life makes us cling to handholds of specificity, even when they’re not that particular. Possibly we cling to these probably the most. A robust pang of nostalgia hit me once I encountered a pin whose design was the Wawa emblem — the nice one, the previous one, with the sundown and a silhouetted goose — emblazoned with “Jawn” within the Wawa font. It was on the market on the checkout line at a Complete Meals again dwelling; a second after feeling seen, I felt pandered to.
I downloaded the Wawa app as analysis for penning this essay, and each time I see the brand, I really feel a pang of homesickness and uneasy pandemic uncertainty. I would like to have the ability to open that app and order an Italian hoagie; on the very least, I wish to know when I may be shut sufficient to a Wawa once more to do this. However I don’t want there have been a Wawa for me to order from, in Los Angeles. If there have been just one or two Wawas right here, it will be novel, not a staple. If there have been Wawas throughout Southern California, the chain would lose its sense of dwelling. Wawa’s energy comes from being each large and particular, a regional behemoth. And in a metropolis the place we threw off kings, it’s the one model large enough and beloved sufficient (sorry, Comcast) to welcome dignitaries and deal with them to a hoagie of their alternative.
Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.