Carrying a freshly baked pizza for his mother on his way out of the Wawa on Independence Mall, Philly resident Mketu Mwela had an ultimatum for her beloved convenience chain.
“She’s a pizza lover,” Mwela said, with a serious nod. “So, you know, if you mess up cheese and dough, we won’t come back.”
His mom, a lifelong Wawa fan in her mid-80s, had her interest sparked by a TV ad. It was part of an ongoing “Wawa has pizza” marketing campaign the Delco-based company has splattered across airwaves, billboards, its social media, and the signage within and outside of its stores.
The increased awareness of the option, which debuted this summer and is available daily starting at 4 p.m., has brought on a wave of criticism.
NJ.com called it “trash,” Philly Mag christened it the “most hated thing about Wawa right now,” and Eater Philly told its readers to “eat super local instead.” The Washington Post even weighed in, labeling Wawa’s pizza a “generic doormat with cheese.”
Billy Penn decided to investigate just how bad this particular convenience store cuisine really is — or isn’t. We embarked on a sidewalk survey in Old City and Market East.
And people… actually liked it?
Julie Plotnikov, a 38-year-old New Jersey resident who grew up in Philly, was one of several to say she was pleasantly surprised.
“Well, you’re offering it to me on the street, so I would say honestly low,” Plotnikov said about her expectations for the slice of pepperoni. “But it’s really good. You asked me if it met the expectations — I would say superseded. Very good.”
Hoping for the best ‘because I love Wawa’
To take the pulse of the public, we ordered a pie at Wawa’s Old City flagship at 6th and Chestnut and offered it to passersby in exchange for their honest thoughts.
Touchscreens in the store warn you of a relatively long wait — it took us about 20 to 30 minutes to actually secure our pizza — but pre-ordering the app before you get to the store could cut down on the time.
While we waited, we watched the worker staffing the pizza station spread tomato sauce across frozen disks of dough, pile generous heaps of cheese on top, and add toppings like pepperoni and sausage.
(We tried to order our pizza half pepperoni and half plain cheese, but the computer translated it into a full pepperoni pie.)
Waiting at the same time was Carolyn Rivera, a Philly resident who was heading home from work.
She’s originally from New Jersey, “where there is good pizza,” so it was mainly curiosity that brought her to the store. Any expectations, we asked? “None, zero,” said Rivera, 33, a former pizza delivery worker herself. “I hope for the best because I love Wawa — Go Wawa! — but we’ll see what happens.”
Our pizza was up next after Rivera’s, so we gathered our food and our building anticipation, and headed out for the real world test.
Especially late night, it’ll ‘do the trick’
Early in our newsgathering efforts, we encountered a critic.
Andrew Childers, a 41-year-old New Jersey resident and self-proclaimed Wawa lover who works nearby, had been sitting on a bench across the street from Independence Hall eating a Gobbler bowl right before he sampled a slice.
“I’m kind of a pizza expert,” Childers offered, between bites. “I ate pizza at that really fancy place at Northern Liberties, and then that place in South Philly that came from Brooklyn, too.”
The cheese was “nice” and “gooey,” and the pepperoni was “fine,” but the crust was the downer. “Tastes like cardboard,” he said. “It’s not bad, like it will keep you alive until you can find a proper meal,” Childers added. “But I wouldn’t seek this out.”
Everyone else who tried it actually had positive things to say. Many agreed the cheese was indeed the star of the show. There was a thick layer of it, and when the pizza was still hot, it produced a pretty dramatic cheese pull.
“It’s warm and tasty,” said Amy, a Merion resident in her 50s. “I think it’s excellent.”
High school students Jay Banks of North Philly and Mey of West Philly both told Billy Penn they “loved” it. “It’s not like other pizza,” Mey said. “It’s very, very good. I like — I love this, actually.”
Most samplers acknowledged Wawa’s position in the pizza ecosystem. Cari, a Philly resident in her mid-50s, called it a good “basic pizza,” or maybe “middle of the night pizza,” even if it’s not the best she’s ever had. It would “do the trick,” Amy chimed in.
Isis’le Bermudez, another high schooler, had never thought to go to Wawa for pizza before — just hoagies — but said she’d definitely eat the pizza for lunch if she had the opportunity. We had to break it to her that it’s only available starting at 4 p.m.
“Oh dang,” Bermudez responded. “All good. Late night, you know, wanting a snack, definitely pull up to Wawa.”
Updated Oct. 20