The Philadelphia store’s renovation destroyed what made it great.

The Philadelphia store’s renovation destroyed what made it great.

It’s unfortunate that walking into your favorite fast food joint or casual fast food spot to find that it has received a futuristic facelift has become a common experience. You’ve probably noticed it: Almost all the franchises that are still christening new stores are now designing them to look like a cross between new-age mobile order pickup carriers and a modern pharmacy stripped of everything but neat rows of padded merchandise. Writer Kyle Chayka called this design goal “AirSpace” for The Verge in 2016, describing the process of digital platforms making aesthetics universally accessible, resulting in each local artisan café looking like no other of its kind across the country. A similar kind of homogeneity has taken hold in retail — earlier this year, Grub Street coined the term “convenience stores” to describe small businesses that all look alike and sell the same expensive, trendy brands of consumer packaged goods in every major city. Even Taco Bell is not immune to these so-called promotions; You’re always disappointed when you walk past a Taco Bell that has been replaced with a nod to “Mexican authenticity” — the terracotta colors of red and golden yellow, with that distinctive roof and arch — for the sterile purples and grays of the perfectly rectangular buildings, now outfitted with more dining space in favor of hydraulic elevators. To serve more customers while driving.

All these changes have been taken step by step, but this trend has finally gone further. Wawa, an East Coast chain of convenience stores known for its made-to-order foods and for being particularly beloved by Pennsylvanians, is the latest victim of antiseptic minimalist design. Introducing: Wretched Donkey Wawa.

Wawa at 34y Market Street and Street, within the West Philadelphia blocks that serve as Drexel University’s campus, was celebrated as the city’s largest location when it first opened in late 2018, until the company opened a larger location just months later. But if you walk in today, what you’ll find is almost unrecognizable as Wawa. Frankly disturbed by the photos of the store that photographer/producer David McDowell (a Philadelphia native) had shared online, I decided to witness the horror for myself on a recent visit home.

What was once an open, welcoming store — filled with booths stocked with yogurt and fruit, rows of chips and walls of drinks — has been reduced to a boxy room divided from the rest of the store. Instead of picking up the goods yourself, customers must now use touchpads for made-to-order food to “shop in store” as well. There’s still a hot coffee station, but if you want a bottle of water or a candy bar with your lunch, you’ll have to order it with your sandwich instead of just picking it up yourself. As if that wasn’t strange enough, even the typography used in store signage and decor has changed: what had been a distinctive, thick household typeface is now the thin, simple sans-serif font that is so popular today. What was once warm and cozy is now covered in muted grays and blues in our digital age. To a client who doesn’t know, it might seem pretty innocuous — “so innocuous, you could be anywhere,” is how I describe the aesthetic goal — like an airport or a hospital waiting room. But to the Wawa bosses of the world, it’s an outright farce.

Wawa Interior: Check-out area with cash registers.
This is what the checkout area looks like now.
Photography by Nadra Jouf

I’m exaggerating a bit when I say that Eastern Pennsylvanians love Wawa—it’s hard to properly convey the enthusiasm that Philadelphia tri-state area residents have for the Northeast staple. The chain first began in the 1800s as a reliable dairy farm in the Delaware County area of ​​Pennsylvania. When people switched from having milk delivered to their homes to buying it in stores, Wawa opened its first convenience store. Since its cow days in Guernsey, Wawa has, until now, managed to maintain the charm of a neighborhood family business, which in turn has inspired intense loyalty in its customers. As a native Philadelphian, I have fond memories of going to Wawa for lunch as a kid. It’s where you and your friends go after school, where every road trip or jaunt to the beach begins, where you say hello to your best friend’s big brother’s friend working behind the counter, and where you can grab a drink partnered with your favorite athletes on the local team .

It’s about the comfort and the (really good) food, sure, but it’s also about the store’s warm tones, the playful thick font, and the overwhelming nostalgia of the place. Wawa has always felt like it’s still that family-owned spot, no matter what the reality is. (The chain is now the largest privately owned company in Pennsylvania, with revenues of nearly $15 billion.) There’s comfort in seeing stock of your favorite local brands — Tastykakes, Herr’s chips, Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. There is a community to get to know and chat with the same employees every time you have your daily morning coffee. There’s hometown pride in shopping at Wawa, and nowhere near as much as its biggest competitor, the Western Pennsylvania shopping staple known as Sheetz.

What’s happening to Wawa – aligning the chain with national brands that have no sense of local specificity – is destroying its charm. Streamlining the store experience into something digital, all boiled down to a touch screen, takes away the joy of talking to employees, considering your options — seeing the peanut candy you forgot about but now want — and customizing certain items through chat up staff. But more importantly, these modern spacecraft no longer feel at home. Wawa used to be a good representation of the Philadelphia spirit — charmingly chaotic on the outside, cozy on the inside — but not anymore. We are many things, but cold, uniform, and barrenness are not one of them.

Wawa did not respond to Slate’s request for comment about the reason for the change, but a spokesperson told NBC that the new design idea, which currently exists only at this test site, is “a test of Wawa’s full shopping service.” Experience with all digitally purchased items. “This will allow busy customers to place their orders and get their purchases faster than ever before — fulfilled by friendly Wawa associates,” another Wawa spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer. But there is a possibility that this is also part of anti-theft efforts; The cashier allegedly said that to McDowell, the user who posted the miserable Wawa photo that caught my attention.

But, whatever the reason, one thing is clear: No place, neither the national chain nor the local staples, is immune to this trend, and it’s a bad thing. I doubt anyone would look for a McDonald’s or a neighborhood bodega to be the most stylish restaurant in their city. As one Slate colleague put it, who here wants their Taco Bell to look like “you could perform brain surgery in the dining room”? All Philadelphians want is for Wawa to bring back the chain’s delicious seasonal sweet potatoes — not turn our hometown stores into Teslas Showrooms.

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