Wawa goes after the dinner crowd with burgers and chicken sandwiches

Convenience stores are usually a pit stop for a bag of chips or a soda. Now, they’re offering dinner.

Wawa, the popular Pennsylvania-based convenience store chain known for its hoagies, said this week that it is introducing hamburgers, breaded chicken sandwiches and waffle fries at a half-dozen stores in the evenings as “part of a larger dinner platform.”

The Philadelphia Business Journal first reported on Wawa’s test. The news immediately spread on social media among Wawa diehards and pits the chain against McDonald’s, Popeye’s, and other fast food chains and restaurants. Chicken sandwiches, in particular, are seeing explosive growth right now.

Wawa is not the only convenience store making such a move. Kwik Trip, based in Wisconsin, has been expanding its selection of take-home dinners and fried chicken. And Pennsylvania-based Sheetz has been focusing on burgers over the past several years.

Convenience stores have struggled to attract customers with dinner in the past, said Frank Beard, who covers the segment at GasBuddy, a navigation app. “While Americans view convenience stores as destinations for breakfast, lunch, and of course snacks, dinner has been a challenging day part. Customers typically look for more fulfilling options at dinnertime.”

Americans typically fill up their gas tanks during the evenings, so convenience store owners see an opportunity to lure them inside during their visit. Some 40% of consumers say they most frequently fill up after 3 pm, and 34% say they head to the pump between 3 pm and 7 pm, according to Jeff Lenard, spokesperson for the National Association of Convenience Stores, an industry advocacy group.

Convenience stores’ push into dinner is the latest step in their attempts to improve their food. Chains like Sheetz, Wawa and Kwik Trip now offer meal kits, salads, keto snacks, Kombucha and espressos. Even 7-Eleven has launched private-label meal kits and tested keto and paleo snacks in its stores.

For years, convenience chains relied on soft drinks, tobacco and fuel to draw in customers, a business model often known as “Cokes, smokes and gas.” But they have been forced to reinvent their themselves as Americans change the way they eat.

Today, consumers smoke less and are cutting out soda. Snacks are becoming their meal of choice, and Americans cook fewer dinners at home as they increasingly eat out or order in.

“People simply don’t have the time to sit down and cook a whole meal at night like they used to,” Carl Rick, leadership development specialist at Kwik Trip, said in an interview last month with CNN Business. “We’re looking to capitalize on that.”

It remains to be seen how tasty some of the dinners actually are at convenience stores. The Philadelphia Inquirer reviewed Wawa’s new foods and was unimpressed.

The $5.99 burger was “mushy and gray all the way through, and as perfectly formed as a lab specimen,” it said in its review, while the breading on the $5.49 chicken sandwich was “gummy, moist, flavorless, and devoid of crunch.”

Still, Beard from GasBuddy expects convenience stores to start to gain ground in dinner.

“The restaurant industry should pay close attention to convenience retailers. Not only are they already competing—and often winning—on breakfast and lunch, but they’re coming for dinner.”