Convenience Store Wars in PA
As published in Keystone Crossroads by Eleanor Klibanoff on May 30, 2017
There are millions of Americans out there who don’t have much of an opinion about their local convenience store brand. They’ll stop at a 7-Eleven for a snack, a Shell station for gas and any old truck stop to use the bathroom. They’re not likely to describe their relationship with a convenience store as “love.”
Those people don’t live in Pennsylvania.
“I love Wawa,” said Ben Lampe, a med student at Thomas Jefferson University. He’s outside the Wawa at 9th and Walnut in Center City Philadelphia, a popular stop for hospital employees. When Lampe went to school in South Carolina, “I always knew the last Wawa in the middle of Virginia, so I’d always have to stop there to get lunch there: tuna salad classic hoagie.”
“I’ll drive out of my way to get gas at a Sheetz,” said Karen Rhoades, who manages one of the Altoona stores. “I eat lunch here for work, but I’ll usually eat dinner at a Sheetz, too. I don’t like to go to any other chain.”
“I hit the one up the mountain in Cresson if I don’t make it to the Sheetz in Altoona,” says Brenda Lisden, who was at Rhoades’ store in Altoona, getting her classic order: hot dog with nacho cheese and a large Mountain Dew. “I’m always in a Sheetz. It’s always clean, the people are always nice.”
And these strong feelings extend to the other side as well.
Rhoades admits her great secret: she once went to a Wawa. “I didn’t like it. There was no welcoming. I would not go back.”
For Lampe, Sheetz is “a poor man’s Wawa. It’s the same concept as Wawa with the sandwiches and the other convenience foods. But I mean, no one can beat Wawa.”
Kim Schwalje grew up in Altoona but now lives in Philadelphia. She thinks Wawa’s food is better and fresher. She feels bad for her hometown: “Sheetz is all they have.”
Convenience store competition, explained
Sheetz and Wawa are convenience store brands, but in many ways, they’re so much more than that. They are what Don Longo, editorial director of Convenience Store News, describes as “top-of-the-line best in class in the industry.”
Both stores have moved the dial on food beyond warmed-over taquitos spinning in a dusty case. You can get made-to-order sandwiches and hot food, grab-and-go gourmet snacks and more drink options than you could ever really need. The stores are uniformly clean, well-maintained and well-lit, the pit stop trifecta.
There are some differences between the brands. Sheetz is a little more lively and fun with their loud pop music and bright red and yellow decor. Everything aligns with the brand — the bakery sells shweetz, sandwiches are subz, and even the employee gym is called the Shwellness Center. Sheetz got its start in Altoona and has since expanded to 500 stores throughout Central and Western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina.
“We’re in smaller towns,” said President and CEO Joe Sheetz, speaking from his company’s headquarters in Altoona. “In a lot of those places, we’re kind of the general store, the corner store. Sometimes we’re the social center of that small town where people meet.”
Wawa stores, on the other hand, are decorated more sedately in browns, greens and yellows. The 700 stores across six states (Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Florida) tend to be in more densely populated areas. Employees are expected to have “goose blood” — a nod to the company’s flying mascot. Spokeswoman Lori Bruce says the company’s focus is on being “the best three minutes of your day,” making you feel welcome while also moving you along.
But despite the sense of rivalry between customers, there’s a lot more that unites these brands than separates them. The biggest ties? Their Pennsylvania roots and the impact they’ve had on their home communities.
Two companies, one origin story
Sheetz and Wawa both started as family-owned dairies in Pennsylvania around the turn of the 20th century — Sheetz in Altoona, Wawa in Wawa, Delaware County. By 1952, Bob Sheetz had spun off a few stores in Altoona to sell the dairy products that were going to spoil. In 1964, Grahame Wood opened the first Wawa store in Folsom, Delaware County.
Joe Sheetz attributes the state’s robust convenience store economy to a few factors — the many highways, the commuter culture near the cities — but the biggest one is the state’s dairy background.
Whatever it is, Wawa sees itself as Pennsylvanian at the heart of it.
“We take a great deal of pride in our Pennsylvania roots and heritage,” said Bruce. “We are always looking for ways we can improve and serve the community.”
Now hiring — and paying well
Perhaps the biggest impact is through jobs. More stores means more jobs on the homefront — warehouse and distribution jobs, trucking and logistics work and other jobs outside the stores.
“I don’t think we’re the reason Blair County is a great place to live but I’d like to think the jobs we’ve been able to create, particularly the jobs in the last 15 years, [are] not only well-paying jobs but lots of career opportunities that we’ve been able to provide people in this geography,” said Joe Sheetz, referencing the county where Altoona is located.
Sheetz employs nearly 10,000 people in Pennsylvania — 7,500 of them work in the stores. The lowest starting salary is $9 an hour, though that quickly increases with time worked. That’s comparable to Wawa, where the 11,000 store employees in Pennsylvania start at $10 an hour.
Both companies offer healthcare and retirement benefits and opportunities for promotions. And that’s where the real money is — store managers at both chains earn $75,000 or more a year with bonuses. Wawa offers employee stock ownership, while Sheetz has a tuition reimbursement program for employees pursuing college.
In 2017, Forbes Magazine ranked Sheetz the 83rd best employer in the country and Wawa the 146th best.
Longo said this isn’t typical for a convenience store brand. But thanks to Sheetz and Wawa, and a few other industry leaders, it’s becoming common strategy.
“It helps with employee retention and growth. You don’t want to rely on minimum wage workers if you’re a growing company. You want workers who want to grow with you,” he said. “The leading companies in this business treat their employees well.”
Giving more than just hoagies and subz
Beyond jobs, you can see the Sheetz impact just by driving around Altoona. There’s the Sheetz Family Health Center, the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence and Penn State Altoona’s Sheetz Fellows program, just to name a few.
Sheetz has a charity that provides Christmas presents for low-income families in their six-state region and is a sponsor of the Special Olympics, offering food donations, employee time and money.
Wawa has had a similar impact on Southeast Pennsylvania. In 2016, the Wawa Foundation gave more than $5 million to Pennsylvania organizations including the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Both companies empower their store managers to contribute locally, whether it’s water bottles for a fun run or a tray of subs for a community event. Wawa also helps stores donate their unused food products to groups like Philabundance.
“In Pennsylvania in 2016 alone, over 1.3 million pounds of food were donated from our stores to local kitchens and pantries surrounding them,” said Bruce.
Both companies see Pennsylvania as the place that gave them their start, and they’re happy to give back.
Rivalry no more?
They’re also happy to stay on their respective sides of the state. Joe Sheetz said his company has no plans to expand into eastern Pennsylvania; and Wawa is skipping the western part of the state and expanding, instead, in Florida.
In fact, the whole rivalry thing is a little amusing to both companies.
“You’d think that everyone was walking down the street and there was a Sheetz and a Wawa on every corner, and we were competing for their business,” said Sheetz. “Really only 40, maybe 50 of our stores are in the same area at all.”
But still, the loyalty runs deep. Maybe — just maybe — that rivalry is what unites us after all. To be a Sheetz Freak or have “goose blood” in your veins is to be a Pennsylvanian — fanatically obsessed with your convenience store chain of choice.