ALTOONA & WAWA, Pa. -- Convenience stores, naively and inaccurately claimed The New York Times, are supposed to be interchangeable, selling low-priced gasoline and self-serve coffee based on the proposition that when you need a pit stop, you turn in to the first you see.
But in Pennsylvania, two convenience chains--Sheetz and Wawa (listed alphabetically)--stir tribal loyalties, a commitment as deep as bonds with the Philadelphia Phillies or Pittsburgh Pirates.
To residents of central Pennsylvania, the brightly lit Sheetz store in Selinsgrove, stocked with Utz chips and a Cupo'ccino machine, is a source of pride … and passion.
"I would have to say I'm a Sheetz girl," Jennifer Zack, handing the cashier a loyalty card with her coffee order, told the newspaper.
Jeff Marquette, a cable installer stopping for a sandwich, said, "I drive out of my way to go to Sheetz. That's sad, I know."
Wawa elicits similar pride and passion.
"When I moved here 13 years ago, I didn't want to go based on the name alone," Caiti Fischer, stopping at a Wawa in Glen Mills, west of Philadelphia, told the Times. It was not far from the town of Wawa, headquarters for that retailer. (Sheetz is based in Altoona.)
"[Now] I'm here at least 10 times a week," she said. "At least. I can't stay away."
Wawa's customers have been known to tattoo its name on their biceps. Its Facebook page has passed one million "likes." The tie-dyed Hoagiefest t-shirt that the chain sells each summer is a collectors' item.
Mitt Romney was excited by the technology at a Wawa on a presidential campaign bus tour last year. After keying in his meatball hoagie with pickles and sweet peppers, he declared the touch-screen pad a marvel. He was well aware of the Wawa versus Sheetz rivalry in Pennsylvania. "I know it's a very big state divide," he told voters.
A political pollster in Harrisburg even surveyed Pennsylvanians on their favorite, though results were skewed because of Sheetz's wider state footprint, said the report.
On the touch-screen issue, Sheetz was apparently first, the paper said. A store manager in the 1980s was trying to move deli meats and let customers write orders on a slip of paper to deposit in a basket. Marketing and technology folks took it from there. "I have to brag and say we beat Wawa," Sheetz spokesperson Monica Jones told the Times. "This is undisputed."
Sheetz is the slightly smaller chain, with 226 stores in Pennsylvania and a total of 435 in the region. Wawa has 216 in-state stores and 607 over all, as far south as Tampa, Fla., and north to Parsippany, N.J.
There are clear differences. Sheetz has neon colors, pumps loud country music and is overly fond of the alliterative use of its name in products. It sells Sheetz Shweetz, a CinnaShmonster and Shmuffins. Near its corporate headquarters, it offers employees a Shwellness Center.
"To Sheetz's country mouse, Wawa is a more suburban creature," the Times said. Its decor features muted browns and blonds, and a central island of healthy food includes diced mangoes and apple slices.
And so it goes …