BRADENTON -- The first customers will find their way to Wawa at 10 a.m. Thursday as the convenience store opens its first Bradenton location; a ribbon cutting.
At First Street and Sixth Avenue East, the company's pumps are ready to dispense fuel, employees ready to handle hoagie orders and caffeine junkies filling until their coffee cups runneth over.
Mayor Wayne Poston is one of the many who will have their first Wawa run at 701 First St. E.
"My friends in Tampa told me to come to the one there, but I said no, we have one in Bradenton opening so I'm waiting," Poston said.
The mayor heralded the convenience store's aesthetics and design, which even features sculptures.
"It looks like Florida, and you know what? It looks like Bradenton," Poston said during a tour Wednesday.
A Tropical Smoothie Cafe is under construction, Zeko's Mediterranean Grill opened last year and developers are trying to bring retail to the southwest corner of First and Manatee.
"I think it says First Street is coming back. It's been down for quite awhile, we've had turnover all up and down it," said Carl Callahan, city clerk and treasurer. "Everybody wants to be back here."
Wawa for its part wants to be in Florida. The Bradenton store marks the 59th in the Sunshine State for the 50-year-old convenience store chain.
Wawa expects to open four more stores in Manatee County by 2016, said Carol Jensen, chief marketing officer for Wawa. Stores at 14th Street West and 53rd Avenue plus State Road 64 at 43rd Street will be under construction shortly, she said. Others in Manatee are planned at State Road 70 at Lorraine Road and State Road 70 at Lockwood Ridge Road.
Other locations are planned at U.S. 301 and Myrtle Avenue in Sarasota, Venice, Fort Myers and Wawa's first Daytona Beach location in the
"There was such an opportunity for growth -- available land, great intersections, growing customer base and individuals who knew our brand from our core market," Jensen said about Wawa's Florida expansion.
While the company is celebrating 50 years in the convenience store industry, Wawa itself is about 200 years old, Jensen said.
The company started as an iron foundry in southern New Jersey, moved to dry good services, then as a dairy in 1902, then as a food store and finally a gas station/convenience store in 1964 in Folsom, Pa., outside of Philadelphia.
The name Wawa comes from the Native American word for the Canada Goose and that's why the goose is on Wawa's corporate logo, according to the company's website.
The company also has a presidential connection.
"Abraham Lincoln, before he was president of the United States did some business on Wawa's behalf," Jensen said. "He helped us secure a debt when we were a dry goods manufacturing company and wrote letters on our behalf."
As the company grew, it gained a feverish fanbase. A Harvard Business Review report said the company's low 22 percent turnover, employee stock ownership plan and upscale offerings helped build that culture.
"We enjoy a level of brand loyalty that our associates have made and created," Jensen said
Wawa isn't the lone innovator. In Pennsylvania customers rave about their favorite stop-n-go whether it's Sheetz that had the first touchscreen sub ordering or Turkey Hill Mini-Mart's ice cream and tea. In Florida, Atlanta-based RaceTrac is renovating its stores to mirror Wawa and Sheetz with indoor seating, free WiFi, upgraded coffee station and touchscreen ordering for Mexican food. Those upgrades don't faze Wawa.
"The more we can lift the overall level of what people expect -- food service -- it's going to help everyone do better," Jensen said. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
At the pump, the Bradenton Wawa is only a handful of Florida stores to offer ethanol-free fuel for boaters and light landscaping equipment, Jensen said.
"We thought it needed to be close to water or close to an access point at a beach, but that's not necessarily true," she said. "There are other uses for it that are pretty large uses in Florida."
The Bradenton store offers a new kitchen design for its in-store baked rolls, hoagies and a barista bar that offers mochas and milkshakes. Just find a touch-screen kiosk to punch in an order. In another corner, a walk-in beer cooler starts off the drink area featuring a variety of Wawa's own tea. Two Coca-Cola Freestyle machines stand nearby where more than a hundred flavors of soda are dispensed. Wawa is the only convenience store in the nation to roll these machines out, Jensen said. Smokers even have their own registers. Part of the grand opening includes 10 days of free Wawa coffee, too.
"Customers' needs are changing. Certainly convenience plays very high because people are time starved because they're running from one place to another," Jensen said. "But they're also looking for something fresh -- sometimes indulgent, sometimes healthy."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.