There was no shortage of Wawa enthusiasts at the kick-off for construction on the convenience store chain’s new location in the Town of Vienna on Sept. 24.
Such passion might be expected from the employees and more than 100 “VIP customers” invited to the celebration, which included samples of Wawa’s signature hoagies and an appearance by its mascot, Wally the Goose.
Yet, even the local and state elected officials on hand made no secret of their excitement for the newest addition to Vienna’s business community.
State Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) declared that Wawa is “exactly what we need” in Vienna to keep the town vibrant amid the development transforming Tysons just down the street.
Keam’s colleague in the Virginia General Assembly, Del. Ken Plum (D-36th), told the assembled crowd that he regularly makes pit stops at Wawa when driving down to Richmond, but he looks forward to having a store closer to home.
Vienna Mayor Laurie DiRocco grew up frequenting Wawa as a native of New Jersey, the company’s birth place, so she was thrilled to hear from the town’s planning and zoning department that Wawa was interested in taking over a vacated space along Maple Avenue.
“It was exciting to hear Wawa coming in and really wanting to be part of the neighborhood,” DiRocco said. “…The fact that they’re reaching out to all the different nonprofits, community organizations, schools, I think, is really positive. It’s a nice way to want to enter the community and get involved and really be part of the community.”
Expected to officially open in April 2020, Vienna’s Wawa will occupy 6,290 square feet on a roughly 9,000 square-foot site at the corner of Maple Avenue and Nutley Street. It will feature an open kitchen food service area, a self-service coffee bar, and on-the-go items, such as packaged goods and beverages.
The store’s location at 465 Maple Avenue is currently taken up by a nondescript office building that has been vacant since the departure of former tenant Coldwell Banker.
The Vienna Wawa is the company’s first store to be retrofitted to an existing building and its first in Virginia without an attached gas station, though Wawa has partnered with the electric car company Tesla to install eight charging stations in the parking lot.
With more than 860 convenience retail stores, at least 600 of which offer fuel, in six states and Washington, D.C., Wawa expects to sell over 3 billion gallons of fuel this year, Wawa chief real estate and fuel officer Brian Schaller says.
While it remains committed to its standard food-and-gas model, the company saw Tesla as an important partner to help expand its approach to include electric vehicles. The Vienna store will be the 21st Wawa in the country to have electric charging stations.
“We see changes coming, and we don’t want to stand in the way of that change,” Schaller said. “We want to be adapting.”
The incorporation of electric vehicle infrastructure is just one reason why Wawa sees its Vienna store as a critical step forward that will determine its future in Northern Virginia.
While Wawa is well-established in central and southern Virginia with stores around Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Fredericksburg, the chain has been much slower to enter the D.C. suburbs, opening its first Fairfax County location in Chantilly in December 2015 and its first Loudoun County store in Sterling in June 2017.
According to Schaller, permitting difficulties and skepticism from communities worried about the attractiveness of a gas station in their neighborhood contributed to Wawa’s lack of presence in Northern Virginia, but with the introduction of a non-fuel store in Vienna, the company has found a way to overcome those challenges.
The Vienna store is the beginning of what Wawa envisions as a rapid expansion throughout the region.
The company already has contracts on three additional Northern Virginia locations with plans for the City of Fairfax and Manassas, along with a second Sterling site. All of those stores will have fuel stations, making them more traditional for Wawa.
With four projects in development in Fairfax County alone, Wawa plans to open two to three new stores in Northern Virginia per year starting in 2020 with the goal of introducing 40 stores to the market over the next 15 years.
The company says that expansion will create 2,000 new jobs with each store requiring at least 40 employees to run efficiently and effectively, according to Sisi Hannibal, who is in charge of Wawa’s diversity and inclusion programs.
Schaller says population is a major factor for Wawa when determining where to put new stores, and the density of Northern Virginia, and Fairfax County in particular, became impossible to ignore.
Though it is not part of Vienna’s much-debated Maple Avenue Commercial zone, Wawa still fits into the town’s vision of a walkable corridor with a mix of existing properties and redeveloped ones, according to DiRocco.
Schaller acknowledged that impacts on traffic and parking are always a concern with development, particularly in a town like Vienna that already grapples with those issues, but he believes Wawa’s emphasis on speedy, efficient customer service will mitigate potential issues with vehicles crowding the parking lot, which will adhere to the site’s existing footprint.
Wawa has also been working with the Town of Vienna throughout the design process to ensure the site will have appropriate access points and to make some slight modifications, offering to refurbish some of the asphalt and pavement around the building and create extended parking cuts.
“We believe that we can enter the environment, serve our customer, and we will not have a negative impact on the community,” Schaller said.
To the contrary, Wawa made clear on Tuesday that it hopes to have a positive effect on the local community.
In addition to giving out food samples and virtual-reality goggles for visitors to explore the store’s design renderings, the construction kick-off featured a booth promoting the Wawa Foundation, which has donated more than $75 million since 2014.
A philanthropic nonprofit founded by Wawa, Inc., the foundation supports organizations that focus on its core interests of health, hunger, and “heroes,” a broad category that encompasses support for first responders and the military as well as education and mentoring for at-risk youth.
During the construction kick-off celebration, Adam Schall, a Wawa Foundation board member and Wawa’s senior director of store operations, processes, and technology, presented a $30,000 grant from the nonprofit to the Virginia Special Olympics.
Wawa is a partner of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, a national campaign that raises awareness and funds for the Special Olympics, and it will be a presenting sponsor of the torch run’s 2019-2020 activities, which include school programs throughout the state.
“We really try to connect with each store location on a very localized level,” Wawa director of store operations Robert Yeatts said. “…Any way that we can help and we can be part of the community, that’s what we want to do.”
While it remains to be seen whether Wawa is embraced by the Vienna community as a whole, a number of local business owners expressed optimism about the chain’s arrival to the town.
Andy’s Barber Shop has occupied 431 Maple Avenue for years and will be just two buildings down from the new Wawa.
Owner Andy Tom is hopeful that his business will be able to benefit from new customers drawn to the store.
“I think it’s good for Wawa to come to the city,” Tom said. “It’s going to be convenient for a lot of people. I think they have a good product to serve.”
Chefs at Amphora, the restaurant and bakery that has become a Maple Avenue mainstay over the past 40 years, employed their culinary skills to welcome Wawa, crafting a five-tiered cake decorated with icons of the convenience store chain and the Town of Vienna.
Amphora Group general manager Mike Jones believes the town has room for a variety of businesses, both old and new, and he sees Wawa as a strong potential partner, since it is food-oriented like Amphora.
He also likes that the new store will be supporting the local transportation network by creating essentially a fuel station for electric vehicles.
“Amphora’s an institution, so we know, being somebody of historical experience here, that they're only going to accentuate that…capability for Vienna,” Jones said. “We’re delighted that they’re a partner of ours, and we look forward to great things ahead.”