Last month, while white-knuckling the steering wheel in commuter frustration on I-76 East outside Philadelphia, I looked around for something, anything to draw my eye from the ocean of brown-gray automobiles that stood between my apartment and me. I caught a teal billboard to the right. I glimpsed Wawa’s newest menu item, an option so out of character for the beloved convenience store chain that I full-on Macaulay Caulkined in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Wawa has chalupas now?
The company isn’t known for Mexican food. Founded in 1803 in New Jersey as an iron foundry, Wawa pivoted to a milk plant in 1902 and eventually a food market in 1964. In 1972, the store began selling its signature menu item: hoagies.
Hoagies (known as subs, grinders, or heroes in different parts of the U.S.) are a defining culinary staple of Wawa’s home in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Wawa even sponsors a Hoagie Day in Philadelphia, celebrated annually around the Fourth of July; the event will serve seven tons of hoagies this year.
How Wawa designs its food menu
So if hoagies are the soul of Wawa, how did we get to chalupas?
For most of its history, Wawa kept entrees to anything you could slap on a long roll or in between slices of bread, ranging from classic Italian hoagies to barbecue chicken cheesesteaks to turkey clubs. But burritos and burrito bowls came in 2016. Brisket showed up in 2019, then left, then came back. Even salads made an appearance. But none of these were given the special post-4 p.m. dinner distinction of the newest menu item, the chalupa.
At lunchtime a few weeks after seeing the billboard, I stopped at my local Wawa and asked an employee for his thoughts, but he had no opinion; his shift ends before 4 p.m. when Wawa kicks off dinner service, so he hasn’t tried or served one.
That 4 p.m. dinner menu launched on February 14, 2021, with burgers as its flagship product. Since then, Wawa’s touchscreen menus have expanded to include tacos, fries, quesadillas, and even pasta—a response to the surprising success of burgers, CEO Chris Gheysens told the Philadelphia Business Journal in April. Now, Wawa rolls out new products to select stores to get a feel for what sells.
I observed it firsthand as another employee handed out free samples of new loaded fries, which come topped with either cheese, chili, buffalo chicken, or Philly-style steak. I missed out on trying the samples (the last one was snatched out from under me), but it made me think: What could be next for the made-to-order convenience store? Wawa pizza is already confirmed, and Chick-Fil-A–style sandwiches just made their debut as well.
“The strategy there is to take those intuitive products that people know and love—pizza, burgers, tacos—and get into those businesses and start to grow,” Gheysens explained. He called the company’s growth plan “aggressive,” which might be an understatement.
Wawa currently operates 950 stores throughout Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Washington DC and plans to open 1,800 locations by 2030—that’s 100 stores per year. I theorize that launching new products simultaneously with a spike in growth could potentially result in a quality drop.
How does the Wawa chalupa taste?
The strength of Wawa hoagies is that they’re remarkably consistent. My go-to order consists of honey turkey, Swiss, peppers, onions, spinach, cherry pepper relish, and light mayo on a 10-inch roll. It’s simple, tidy, fast, and tasty, and no matter where I am on the East Coast, it tastes the same. However, opinions vary on how “good” the sandwiches are. Some people compare the modern Wawa to the days of old, when you ordered verbally instead of tapping a screen and the ingredients were allegedly higher quality. But younger folks like me have never had that Wawa, so I have nothing to compare its hoagies against except the new menu items—which, to be honest, isn’t even a fair fight.
I head to Wawa after 4 p.m. to see what this new menu item is all about. I prod through the touchscreen, order a pork adobo and beans chalupa, pay at the register, and wait with a grumbling tummy. After a few minutes, the worker hands me my meal, and I inquire about its popularity.
“Everybody’s getting them,” he says, to my surprise.
I firmly believed most Wawa consumers were like me, puzzled by the new menu items when the old staples had always satisfied. But it turns out, as I should have always understood, Wawa isn’t a monolith—it grows and changes based on customer desires, and it has to find out what those desires are through some trial and error.
Emphasis on “error.” As I pull my chalupa from the brown paper bag and unwrap the foil, I see a soggy mess of pulled pork—wrapped in what I’m confident is pita bread—and a few clusters of beans, salsa, cheese, and corn. For $8.39, it’s miserably small; a 10-inch hoagie costs less. My first bite is much too salty. But I continue chewing, wishing for more corn and salsa to break up the flavor. The chalupa is gone before I know it, and I’m still hungry. Even though customers are buying it, I wonder if there’s any repeat business to be found with these new menu items. In an attempt to become a jack-of-all-trades, Wawa is on its way to becoming a master of none.