MANATEE -- Do you even know what a Wawa is?
That's the question band Bloodhound Gang jokingly -- and incredulously -- asked in a 2005 song about their so-called love of Pennsylvania. It's also about to get an answer from strangers in this part of Florida when the Media, Pa., chain opens its first Manatee County store at 8 a.m. Dec. 18 with a ribbon-cutting scheduled for 10 a.m.
A real estate development company also knows the way of the Wawa, as another one is part of a new $6.5 million deal for a defunct shopping center in East Manatee.
On Tuesday, Wawa announced the opening date for its Bradenton convenience store at 701 First St. E., Bradenton, on the corner of U.S. 301 and Sixth Avenue.
"Our newest Bradenton store is the latest step in our Florida expansion and commitment to fulfill lives every day, and we truly hope you can be a part of the festivities," Wawa spokeswoman Colleen Labik said.
The company got its start in Wawa., Pa., where the town borrowed the Native American town's name, which roughly translates to wild goose. The first store opened in 1964 in Folsum, Pa.
The Dec. 18 grand opening will also include an event called the "Finest vs. Bravest" Hoagie Building Contest, where five representatives from local fire and police departments will compete to see who can build the most hoagies in three minutes in the "traditional Wawa way."
The winner and runner-up will each have $1,000 donated to the charities of their choice.
Members of the USO will sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" with a performance by the Suncoast Mummers String Band of Bradenton. Wawa will also present a donation to the Mummer's scholarship fund.
Wawa mascots Wally Goose and Shorti will also be on hand.
This is the first of several Wawa gas stations planned for Manatee and Sarasota counties over the next two years, joining the dozens of stations that have popped up in Tampa Bay and Orlando. The Philadelphia area-based company opened its 50th Florida store in September and has plans for 50 more as new stores will be built as far south as Fort Myers in the coming year.
The chain has built up a faithful following in Mid-Atlantic states since its first store opened. Fans tend to crave Wawa's coffee and made-to-order hoagies along with flocking to the pumps where Wawa typically has lower gas prices than competitors.
Site work has begun on another store on 4455 S.R. 64; the company also has plans to build at 5301 14th St. W., and at State Road 70 and Lorraine Road, 4536 State Road 70 E. at Lockwood Ridge Road, county line at University Parkway and Honore Avenue, U.S. 301 and Myrtle Avenue in Sarasota and another in Venice.
Wawa investors make big purchase
At least one group knows what a Wawa is: Gryboski, Howe and Gravley.
The real estate company that owns the First Street Wawa land also completed a major deal last week that will include another Wawa in East Manatee.
Land that includes a former Winn-Dixie and a failed West Lakes Plaza Community Shopping Center in East Manatee has sold for $6.5 million. Space Coast acquired the land on Dec. 31, 2013, for $5.11 million as part of a bank seizure.
GH&G Lockwood acquired the 26.5 acres of land Nov. 19 from Space Coast Credit Union, and includes the former 62,000-square-foot Winn-Dixie and several pad sites. The company already signed Wawa to a 20-year lease on a pad site for a convenience store and gas station, and plans for that gas station are under review.
GH&G Lockwood used a $4.25 million mortgage with Bank of North Georgia to finance the deal, according to records filed with the Manatee County Clerk.
Records filed with Florida Division of Corporations show that GH&G is managed by William Gryboski of Decatur, Ga., Daniel Howe of Holmes Beach and Mark Gravley of Sarasota.
The three are the same owners that paid $2.29 million in February for the land on First Street in Bradenton for the Wawa set to open Dec. 18.
Messages seeking comment left for Gryboski and Howe were not returned by deadline Tuesday. Gravley, when reached Tuesday evening, declined to comment.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.