The first two of dozens of stores planned for region by the convenience store chain open Wednesday.
Northeast Florida residents who ask “what’s a Wawa?” can answer it for themselves starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday at two stores in Duval and Clay counties.
Northeastern natives who grew up with the Pennsylvania-based gas station and convenience store chain swear by its made-to-order hoagies and self-serve coffee.
Catherine Pulos, chief operations officer, said Tuesday it’s the experience in the store made possible by the employees, who own 41 percent of the privately held company and have a direct stake in how customers are treated.
Wawa leadership invited guests to a tasting Tuesday in advance of the Wednesday opening. Wawa said the stores will offer free coffee for 10 days.
Wednesday celebrations are scheduled at 9 a.m. at 6787 Wilson Blvd. in Jacksonville and 1 p.m. at 678 Blanding Blvd. in Orange Park.
The opening at 4866 Gate Parkway is set for Dec. 21.
Wawa Regional Real Estate Manager Brian Duke said the chain, with more than 770 stores in six states and more than 130 in Florida, will open six locations in Northeast Florida next year and three to five annually after that for several years to reach 20-25.
The first nine stores are in Duval and Clay counties. Sites are targeted for St. Johns County, and Nassau County is of interest as well, he said.
“We’re keeping an eye on Nassau,” Duke said.
The 2018 openings in Duval County are scheduled at 11812 Beach Blvd. in the first quarter; at 9371 Beach Blvd. and 8251 Old Middleburg Road S. in the third quarter; and at 5735 Philips Highway in the fourth quarter.
Two Clay County stores are scheduled to open in the third quarter at 1563 Blanding Blvd. and 300 Park Ave.
Duke said 16 more sites are under contract in Duval and Clay counties and contracts are out on another six in the region.
He declined to identify those sites pending permitting and a completed deal.
Those plus the nine set to open by year-end 2018 mean Wawa has identified 31 locations, which is well on the way for the up to 40 that executives said could open in the area, based on demand and support.
Considering each location is an estimated more than $6 million investment with 40 employees, the 31 stores work out to be a $186 million deal and 1,240 employees.
At 40, that would indicate a Wawa investment of $240 million and 1,600 employees.
Donna Plant, manager at the Wilson Boulevard location, said Tuesday that 40 of the 46 employees at her Westside store live within a five-minute drive, and some walk to work.
She emphasized the neighborhood hiring.
On Tuesday, Wawa offered food samples, such as soft pretzels, cookies, soup, cheese quesadillas, macaroni and cheese topped with bacon, meatballs, flatbreads, hot chocolate, smoothies and hoagies.
Wawa said Turkey Classic hoagies are the best-sellers in Florida.
The store also has 16 gas pumps and outside seating for customers. In addition to a regular menu, it offers hot food from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily with a rotating variety of soups, along with a stable set of sides and hoagies.
The Wednesday menu offers four soups, four sides and seven hoagies, including meatballs, pulled pork and roasted chicken.
Made-to-order hoagies are available all the time.
Pulos said the company, formed more than 200 years ago in 1803, considers itself a food retailer that sells gasoline — 1.5 percent of all the gas sold in the country.
The company started as an iron foundry in New Jersey. The family took an interest in dairy farming and started a small processing plant in Wawa, Pennsylvania, in 1902. In 1964, the founder’s grandson opened the first Wawa Food Market as an outlet for dairy products.
Pulos said the company’s more than 30,000 employees include more than 5,000 in Florida. It entered the Florida market in 2012 with five stores and expects to open 20-30 a year to reach more than 300 locations.
The chain operates 24 hours daily, serves more than 600 million customers a year and annually brews more than 195 million cups of coffee a year and makes more than 80 million hoagies.
It runs The Wawa Foundation to benefit initiatives for health, hunger relief and “everyday heroes.”