The Wawa was ours — the collective “ours” — on the Eastern side of Pennsylvania, at the very least. I worked at a Regal Cinemas in Frazer, Pa., during my teenage years, usually tearing tickets but occasionally working in the concessions area and scooping freshly popped popcorn out of the air with a bucket to sample the product, the oil still hot enough on the kernels to burn my cheek. When the last showing finished around 12:30 a.m. or so on the weekends, me and my managers — also my closest friends — rigged the digital projectors to play jailbroken DVDs of old Lucio Fulci or Takashi Miike films.
Before we started, at least one of us stopped at the Wawa exactly 410 feet to the east to load up on supplies — a pack of Marlboro 27s, a half gallon of Wawa’s own lemon tea and a freshly made, breaded chicken parmesan sandwich for later. It was hardly unique to my friend group. With the vast majority of its 900 total stores in Eastern PA, Delaware and New Jersey, Wawa is ingrained in the culture of Eastern Pennsylvania, the first place you stopped before a night out to hit the no-fee ATM, or the first place you stumbled to the morning after to cure your hangover. Your parents stopped at the Wawa on the way home from work when you were out of milk, or to get you a Gatorade on the way to practice. It’s reliable, consistent, and most importantly, it’s there. There are hundreds of locations, some of them stacked up within a half mile of each other, so there’s never a need to settle for a lesser competitor.
The shops themselves are unremarkable. There’s the regular Wawa — an extension of a farming business, started as a dairy market in Folsom, Pennsylvania, in 1964 — which is usually tucked in a strip mall. They generally have stone-wall facades that blend into the colonial architecture of the revolutionary era and asphalt shingles with the logo smack dab in the center of it — previously a circle with orange gradients and a goose flying above the text, now a massive red WAWA in sans serif font (goose still hovering above).
The shelves are stocked with typical gas station snacks, but starting in the 1990s, they began offering breakfast sandwiches to complement the hoagies they became famous for in the 1970s. They also added fuel in the 1990s, which is when the Super Wawa was born, along with a more sterile aesthetic. Gone was the folksy wood and stone walls, replaced by massive windows and McMansion-style patterned stone. The cigarettes and sugary teas, however, remained.
Across the state, in the rural and suburban areas of Western PA (the places where people who have never been in a Primanti’s at 3 a.m. still say they are from “Pittsburgh”), under-sexed teens — and everyone else, if we’re honest — were also buying cigarettes and iced teas and breakfast sandwiches after midnight. But something was off. There were no geese flying above the entrance, the iced tea was Turner’s, and — my god! — was that a deep fryer?
This was no Wawa. This was a Sheetz. And this was theirs. The parallels go beyond just “gas station with food” for both stores. Sheetz also started in the middle of the 20th century and was also an extension of family dairy stores. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Sheetz preceded Wawa in the fuel market by about two decades, offering up fuel pumps at locations in the 1970s. Whereas Wawa started with food and hoagies, Sheetz backed into it in the 1980s with their signature “MTO” (made-to-order, naturally) that helped the franchise explode into what it is today — a 600-plus-location, family-operated rest-stop empire spanning Pennsylvania, Northeast Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
As is typical of ours-vs.-theirs types of stores, behaviors, opinions and/or dialects, the debate is often hostile. This one in particular is exacerbated slightly by the geographical inevitability of civic rivalry between two cities (including those that falsely claim them) with two massive populations, multiple professional sports franchises and the shared delusion that they’re uniquely put upon by life’s hardships, perpetually overlooked or derided and anxious to prove… something. Philadelphia will always be jealous of Pittsburgh because of how good it is at sports, and Pittsburgh will always be jealous of Philadelphia because it could never be as cool as Philly.
These things tend to blow debates out of perspective. But while the volume may be too loud on the Wawa versus Sheetz war — as Twitter user Bjorn says, “Both are really wonderful, but sometimes it’s nice to take a deep breath and remember we’re somehow fighting over regional gas station food supremacy” — there are some legitimate arguments being made as to which should claim supremacy.
Sheetz, the consensus seems to be, has the superior breakfast sandwiches, as well as the obvious advantage of a deep fryer. It also embraces the overindulgent self-loathing that should come with gas station sandwiches in a way Wawa does not. “I’m not going to a gas station for a sensible meal, I’m going because I want a breakfast burrito and popcorn chicken at 10:30 p.m. It’s tapping into chaos,” says Chris from Pittsburgh.
To that end, want deep-fried mozzarella sticks on your chicken parm hoagie in lieu of (or in addition to) sliced provolone? All yours. Want to swipe through a menu of sauces that is seemingly 10x as long as the actual food menu? Stare at the soothing glow of a touch-to-order screen as long as you’d like, until your addled brain finally melts and presses the Dr. Pepper BBQ option to accompany your chicken-tender sandwich with tater tots. Sheetz allows you to build your own level of gastrointestinal misery, a la a “have it your way” Burger King in the third circle of hell.
Like Wawa to the easterners, Sheetz has also wormed their way into the brains of Western and Central Pennsylvanians via shared memory. “In the mid- to late-1990s, Sheetz was one of the only places that you could get a decent fast-food sandwich as a vegetarian — their cheese sub,” says Zack Furness, an associate professor of communications at the Penn State Greater Allegheny campus. “[That was] a lifesaver as someone who spent a lot of time playing shows with bands around Central PA. I’ve been a fan ever since.”
Wawa, by contrast, is perhaps slightly more elitist in their approach to food (likely owed to its origin as a farming business and the idea of “freshness”). This isn’t to say they only offer healthy foods, as a classic Italian hoagie or a cheesesteak will still set you back considerably in any effort to stay under a daily caloric ceiling. Rather, when you order a hoagie or a chicken sandwich at Wawa, you get the platonic ideal of a hoagie or a chicken sandwich, not some sideshow attraction at the Iowa State Fair. Whether you think that’s “better” is entirely based on how depraved you expect gas-station fare to be. Wawa provides the illusion of freshness, even as it expands down the coast into Florida, 1,200 miles from its distribution center in Pennsylvania.
The only advantage that people on either side of the argument seem to universally agree on is that Wawa has significantly superior bread, an unfair advantage given that it’s out of Sheetz’s control. “Growing up near Harrisburg as a stoned idiot, I don’t think I would have made it to 23 without Sheetz fried foods. The fried pickles, mac bites, all that shit is so good,” says Ben Meyers, who now lives in Pittsburgh. “[But] as far as hoagies go, Wawa wrecks Sheetz.”
I can personally attest to this, having moved to Pittsburgh for college and remained here for my adult life: the best bread in Western PA is about as good as the most mediocre supermarket bread in Philly. Philadelphia bread has a distinct density and chewiness to it, while still retaining the crucial snappiness of a good crust on the outside of its rolls. Urban legend attributes this to the pH levels and density of the local water, and various other things that I’m too dumb to comprehend. Regardless of the reason, the end result is indisputable, and it’s hard to claim hoagie or any other sandwich superiority when the bread in Western Pennsylvania has the same texture as a dish sponge.
“Gas station/fast food combos are truly an amazing Pennsylvania creation,” says Ryan Deto, a reporter for the Pittsburgh City Paper and a Bay Area transplant with no formative stake in the game. “Californians like me would probably scoff at the idea if we just heard about them. But when you walk in and realize how convenient and all-encompassing they are, they just have what you need. They feel like Pennsylvania that way.”
America is a culture built on insisted supremacy, and we treat our debates thusly regardless of how stupid the topic. There shouldn’t be such hotly contested beliefs about which gas-station super center is better, but there also shouldn’t be fights that break out in the stands at hockey games between the Penguins and the Flyers. It’s something that I’ve tried to rid myself of wherever possible, but that instinct to defend what you’ve determined as “yours” never truly leaves any of us.
As such, if pressed, I’ll tell you that Wawa is better, even as I raise my children here in Pittsburgh, firmly in Sheetz territory. That doesn’t mean I won’t eat there, and in fact, I often stop at Sheetz on road trips for chicken tenders or mac and cheese bites. My kids in particular love the grilled cheese at Sheetz, made with so much butter that the cardboard container becomes translucent within minutes of receiving it.
Ask a native Californian what the best fast-food restaurant in the world is and they’ll insist upon In-N-Out. It’s instinctive, near automatic. Press them on the flaws — the fries, for example, are quite literally the worst fast-food fries anyone has ever eaten — and they begin to get defensive, or show cracks in their steadfastness. Five Guys is better, but more expensive. Shake Shack has better fries, but the burger is just a smashburger ripoff. But none of those restaurants started in California. None of them were “ours” for the native Californian, and therefore, what they may have in superior preparation, they lack in formative experiences. An Angeleno never was taken to the Culver’s drive-thru after a tough Little League loss. There’s no way to compete with that, quality of fries be damned.
And so, even though I like the food, when I’m standing in line at Sheetz to pay for my order, I’m never greeted by that same rush. There’s no memory of my stomach dropping just moments before asking the cashier at age 16 if I could have a pack of Camel Lights; the split second of terror at the idea they may ask for my ID; or the thrill when they don’t and an evening of unlimited potential is unlocked.
The Wawa — just like Sheetz — isn’t a convenience store, but a museum filled with the artifacts of our youth.