When the New England Patriots played the Seattle Seahawks in the 2015 Super Bowl, a secondary battle brewed between coffee giants Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. Now the Patriots are gearing up to battle the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2018 Super Bowl, and New Englanders may not realize that the city of brotherly love has its own coffee-selling chain with the same cult-like fandom as Dunkin’. Talk to New Englanders with roots in the tri-state area (or vice-versa), however, and you’ll hear one name over and over: Wawa.
So what is a Wawa, exactly?
The company was founded in 1803 as an iron foundry. By the end of the 19th century, owner George Wood became interested in dairy farming, and opened a dairy processing plant in 1902. Wawa entered the convenience store business in 1964, debuting its first store as milk home delivery began to wane. Headquartered 30 minutes outside Philadelphia, the company has 789 locations in six states, all of which are in the Mid-Atlantic region except for Florida. According to Wawa public relations manager Lori Bruce, Wawa sells more than 195 million cups of coffee each year and ranks sixth in market share nationally within the brewed coffee market.
“I don’t know if it’s just my Philadelphia loyalty, but I just think Wawa is so much better than Dunkin’ Donuts,” said Ashley Kline, a Philly area native who has lived in Boston for 13 years after moving here for college. “If it was Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts, I’d pick Dunkin’ in a heartbeat. I understand the loyalty people have with Dunkin’ and the cult following it has, but when it comes to Wawa, there just isn’t a comparison.”
Sean Hutchinson, a writer and editor living in Brooklyn who is originally from New Haven, Connecticut, said he fell in love with Wawa after visiting his fiance’s family in Philadelphia. Hutchinson said that Wawa’s iced coffee is “next-level good,” and even their hot coffee beats out Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Dunkin’s coffee is a little more burnt on purpose, and can be stronger,” Hutchinson wrote in an email. “But I think Wawa’s is smoother, sweeter, and has more consistency between stores, so you know exactly what you’re going to get.”
Not everyone said that Wawa’s coffee reigned supreme, though. Rich Thuma, a political campaign manager raised in the Boston area who has spent plenty of time working in Wawa territory, said that Dunkin’ holds the edge in terms of coffee and doughnuts.
“Wawa is the highest quality convenience store food you can get, but their coffee is average,” Thuma wrote in a Facebook message. “Dunks is better for coffee and doughnuts, but for breakfast sandwiches, I have to give it to the Wawa Sizzli.”
Wawa is even better known for its food than its coffee. The chain serves a wide range of breakfast sandwiches (the”Sizzlis” Thuma mentioned), hoagies, paninis, burritos, and other made-to-order foods, available fully customized via an intuitive touchscreen ordering system. You can find milkshakes, ice cream, salads, soups, and everything you could hope to buy in your average convenience store. Many locations double as gas stations, creating a haven for hungry commuters.
Of course, Dunkin’ sells sandwiches, too, offering an array of breakfast options all day. And Dunkin’ got props for its versions, as well. Hutchinson said he’s tried both brands’ bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, and that “both have their strengths.”
“I usually shoot for the bacon, egg, and cheese on a croissant at Wawa because of its buttery texture,” Hutchinson wrote. “But the bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel at Dunkin’ is just the essential foundation of any New England kid’s fast food breakfast.”
Greg Donelan-Rapacki, a native of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, who moved to Boston for college, said that he ultimately gives Wawa the edge for breakfast sandwiches.
“Dunkin’ Donuts does have a great croissant breakfast sandwich, but it’s pretty hard to compare to Wawa,” Donelan-Rapacki said. “If I had to choose one to have, it’d be Wawa hands down.”
Finally, any comparison of Wawa and Dunkin’ Donuts wouldn’t be complete without examining the two stores’ doughnuts. It’s right there in Dunkin’ Donuts’ name, after all, even though the company has been experimenting with dropping the “Donuts” at select locations.
Michael Nourie, who has lived in Boston for more than a decade but was raised in Philadelphia, said that doughnuts aren’t a focus point at Wawa, adding that his local Wawa sold Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
“It’s a little different; it’s not like the doughnuts are sitting there on the shelf like at a Dunks up here,” Nourie said. “There isn’t as much variety either.”
But Donelan-Rapacki said that Wawa’s doughnuts reign supreme.
“To be honest, I love Wawa’s chocolate glazed doughnuts,” Donelan-Rapacki said. “They’re much better quality than Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Most of the dozen people interviewed for this article said there’s nothing like Wawa in New England. The general consensus was that Wawa was something like a Cumberland Farms combined with a local deli.
Others said the convenience store/Cumberland Farms comparison understates Wawa’s quality. Greg Epstein, a production manager originally from New Jersey who moved to Boston to attend Emerson College, said that after raving about Wawa to his Massachusetts native college girlfriend, she insisted they go to Cumberland Farms.
“She made a huge deal over ‘Cumby’s’ and swore it was the same thing as Wawa,” Epstein wrote in an email (noting that he wearing a Wawa hoodie while he typed it). “Over the summer we finally got out to Attleboro, Massachusetts, where she was from, and stopped at one. It was on that day I knew we weren’t going to work out.”
New Englanders are familiar with stories of how devoted fans of Dunkin’ Donuts can be. People have showcased Dunkin’ Donuts in their engagement photos and gotten Dunkin’ Donuts tattoos. One couple held their wedding at a local Dunkin’ Donuts. When Dunkin’ Donuts opened its first location in San Diego, a line of at least 100 cars backed up for traffic into the next neighborhood, and police were called to help direct traffic as people waited for up to 90 minutes.
According to Bruce, Wawa has seen much of the same.
“We’ve had customers get married in our stores, we’ve hosted wedding proposals, [and had] songs written about our hoagies,” Bruce wrote in an email. “Sometimes [customers] will plan their trips based on the Wawa stores along the route, and we very often have customers call and write to tell us they miss us most after moving away from the region. We’ve even received photos of people with Wawa tattoos!
“We are always humbled by this amazing customer response to our brand and the special relationship we have with the community,” Bruce continued, “and we consider it the most treasured part of the Wawa story.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced his Super Bowl bet with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday. In the event of an Eagles loss, the menu of items that will be sent to Boston includes coffee from La Colombe, a Philadelphia chain that recently opened two locations in Boston and that supplies coffee for the beverage programs at local spots like Bagelsaurus and Moody’s Deli. The wager doesn’t include anything from Wawa, but if Nourie had his way, that wouldn’t be necessary because Boston would already have its own outpost.
“To be fair, it’s hard to mail a hoagie,” Nourie said. “Maybe they could send some coffee beans up instead. Or maybe next time they should bet to bring a Wawa franchise to Boston!”