The wave of new specialty food stores descending on Philadelphia was joined this week by the food-focused convenience chain Wawa, which opened its largest unit Dec. 14 at 6th in a high-profile Independence Mall site.
The store at the southwest corner of 6th and Chestnut streets will measure 11,500 square feet—about a third larger than any of Wawa’s 800 existing stores—and occupy a portion of the historic Public Ledger building near attractions such as the Liberty Bell and Independence National Historic Park, which draw heavy tourist traffic. The store will debut a number of new product platforms for the chain, including a bakery, according to chain, whose headquarters are in the Philadelphia suburb of Wawa, Pa., in Delaware County.
“All of us at Wawa are incredibly proud to open our largest store ever in this historic building situated right in the heart of Philadelphia’s Historic District,” said Chris Gheysens, Wawa president and CEO, in a statement. “This store is truly special for all of us at Wawa. It combines Philadelphia’s unique place in history and the site of many ‘Philly firsts’ with a unique, brand-new look and the very latest Wawa offerings. We look forward to welcoming new customers into this legendary space and fulfilling the lives of Philadelphians and the millions of people exploring our city’s incredible history every year.”
Philadelphia has been the site of a number of recent high-profile small-food store debuts, with Sprouts opening its first site there in September and Giant Food Stores announcing plans for a new banner called Giant Heirloom Market at as many as four sites in the city.
Wawa is a much-loved brand in and around Philadelphia, where it has proven a challenger to quick-service restaurants and supermarkets alike. It's one of the pioneers of a convenience and foodservice hybrid known for items such as fresh-made sandwiches and other meals to go in addition to staple groceries, gasoline and other traditional convenience categories.
According to Wawa, the new flagship will also feature:
• Two murals within the store created in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program that feature “Philly Firsts” as imagery.
• Seating zones flanking the entrance, providing customers with the comfort of couches or the convenience of cafe seating, both with a view of the historic downtown.
• Industrial and art deco designs and vaulted ceilings.
• A “living greenery wall” celebrating freshness and quality.
• Large digital screens and free Wi-Fi.
• An extensive foodservice selection ranging from Wawa’s signature hoagies to new freshly made salads. The store has a large bakery area with new pastries, baguettes and French loaves along with an indulgent dessert line featuring chocolate cake slices, cupcakes and gluten-free brownies.
• A unique self-serve beverage offer with Wawa Reserve coffees and a full-service beverage area with Americanos and lattes, as well as beverages on tap such as nitro cold brew, teas and kombucha. The store also offering a “Molten Lava Liberty Latte” for a limited time, which Wawa describes as a “decadent signature latte made with steamed hot chocolate.”
Sprouts Farmers Markets’ rapid expansion landed the upstart fresh food retailer in the heart of Philadelphia, where it opened its first store Sept. 19 in the high-profile Lincoln Square development. Located at the corner of Broad and Carpenter streets in a restored freight railroad shed that once was a stop along President Lincoln’s funeral route, the new store is part of a mixed-use development that also includes a newly built 320-unit apartment building and other retail tenants, including a forthcoming Target. The project is bringing new life to the well-located but long underused neighborhood between South Philadelphia and Center City.
For Sprouts Chief Operations Officer Dan Sanders, the new store represents a bit of a homecoming. Sanders at one time was president of Malvern, Pa.-based Acme Markets, and has since hired one of his Acme successors—Dan Croce—as EVP of the region. “We have a lot of people very experienced in the trade who know this market well," Sanders told WGB in an interview. "We also have 160 people on staff in the store, and virtually every one grew up in this area.”
According to Sanders, Sprouts' better-for-you appeal is reaching older shoppers who are pursuing better foods for health reasons and younger consumers who tend to choose sustainable and healthy foods as a lifestyle statement.
“Millennials are particularly interested in the stories behind the products, responsible sourcing, sustainability and looking at the retail stores through a different lens,” he said. “They’re not as product-loyal as people who grew up in my generation might have been, but they are fascinated by stories and we’re lucky at Sprouts to have a lot of products like that.”
While Sprouts officials insist they see conventional supermarkets as their primary competitors, that doesn’t mean other formats won’t see Sprouts as a rival. Natural-focused personal-care aisles are likely to post a threat to drugstores and other specialty food stores with personal-care sections, such as Whole Foods.
WGB observed a diverse group of shoppers on opening morning, many appearing happy to have finally come to experience a store they’d only heard of before. More than a few curious members of the trade were also in to have a look.
“All the comments we’ve heard have been very positive, and it seems like there’s almost a pent-up demand for a store offering great value and healthier choices,” Sanders said. “I’ve been in this industry for a long time. If I were to take a clean sheet of paper and sketch out what the future needed to be, it would look a lot like this.”