The Tampa, FL area has recently become a hotbed for aggressive convenience store companies, with some of the best in the business showcasing new formats and prototypes. A recent drive through the region with Chain Store Guide’s foodservice research management team consisting of Senior Research Editor Linda Helman and Managing Editor Matt Werhner found four stores within a roughly two mile radius of one another.  The store visits with my coworkers were informative from both a retail and foodservice perspective. One location stood out in particular as innovative, unique, and successful, and it had the foot-traffic during a busy Thursday lunch-hour to prove it.

Wawa, Thorntons, and Race Trac operate locations within the Tampa market.  While visiting one of each on our tour, I noticed these locations had distinct new features mostly focusing on foodservice operations. The fourth, a new Victory Lane independent in Riverview, FL, was the most traditional of the group and lacked any distinctive features.

The new Thornton’s location is approximately 2,200 square feet on a large parcel of property with twenty gasoline pumps offering private label fuel.  Upon entering, a center store section of private label prepared sandwiches, salads, and other ‘grab-and-go’ lunch items is visible. Food can be purchased hot, while other items can be heated up in a nearby microwave oven station or purchased cold. These items went far beyond the traditional hot dog roller one might be accustomed to seeing inside a usual gas station. Here, grilled chicken sandwiches, burgers, summer salads, and cheese platters can be found. The Race Trac location is on a large piece of property that also had twenty gasoline pumps offering private label fuel. While not a new store, it features a remodeled interior with a large area for prepared foods, beverages, and snacks. As with Thornton’s, most prepared food goods are private label and there is a clear push to promote the enhanced food offerings.

Wawa is making an aggressive push in this area, and our visit to the Tampa location was my first. The time was around 12:45 on a Thursday afternoon, and the store was bustling with people getting lunch. Wawa has a unique model unlike any convenience store I’ve seen. The store offers all the amenities of a traditional gas station – sixteen gas pumps, walk-in beer cave, drinks/snacks – while also housing an in-store takeout restaurant. All ordering is done on a touchpad screen by the consumer while a Wawa associate is available to assist.  Hot and cold sandwiches, daily specials, quesadillas, and soups are available fresh to order. Once the order is placed, a ticket is printed to the customer to pay at one of three register sections separated throughout the store. Then, the order is pushed to the kitchen and called over a loud-speaker when ready. Seating at this location was limited to only three tables outside; however other locations have additional inside seating available. In my opinion, Wawa offered the most unique retail experience and holds clear advantages against its competitors.

The biggest winners are the consumers in the area; these retailers are fighting for gas dollars and in-store purchases. Competition brings out the best in us, whether personal, professional, or between businesses. When this happens, the consumer always wins.