Look out, Wawa. Sheetz, a top-class competitor, could soon be knocking on Delaware's door.

·5 min read

Over the past few decades, two Pennsylvania companies have redefined the convenience store industry. Their prepared foods reset expectations for gas-station grub and, in turn, birthed cultlike followings among customers.

Over much of that time, a separation of powers existed. Sheetz lorded over the western part of the state while Wawa dominated the Mid-Atlantic. But those battle lines appear to be falling.

Sheetz is moving deeper into Wawa territory. The chain is planning to open a store in Elkton, Maryland, this fall. It will be the company's first location in Cecil County and its closest to the Delaware border.

The news prompts the question: Will Delaware be next?

Sheetz is planning to open a store in Elkton, Maryland this fall about a mile from the Delaware border. The Altoona, Pennsylvania chain has yet to enter Delaware.
Sheetz is planning to open a store in Elkton, Maryland this fall about a mile from the Delaware border. The Altoona, Pennsylvania chain has yet to enter Delaware.

"It was kind of inevitable that they'd face each other face to face in certain markets," said Don Longo, editorial director emeritus of Convenience Store News.

Wawa and Sheetz have already crossed paths in Pennsylvania's Lancaster, Berks and Lehigh counties. Both companies mix with Royal Farms in parts of Maryland. But so far, the First State has remained off-limits for Sheetz.

Nick Ruffner, Sheetz's public relations manager, declined to comment on the company's expansion strategy. He confirmed Sheetz is coming to Route 40 and Commerce Center Drive in Elkton. Construction began last month, and the store is scheduled to open in the fall, he said.

Although no Delaware stores are in the official Sheetz pipeline, industry observers say chances are more are on the way.

"You typically don't have one store in a market when you're a larger chain," said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

A Sheetz in Baden, Pennsylvania in January 2023.
A Sheetz in Baden, Pennsylvania in January 2023.

Sheetz has 669 stores across six states. At the start of 2022, it was the 13th-largest convenience store chain in the country, according to CSP Daily News.

Convenience store chains look to expand in "clusters" to take advantage of efficiencies of scale for distribution and hiring, as well as brand awareness. The Elkton store will be almost 40 miles from the company's nearest existing location in Maryland. The site is about 1 mile from the Delaware line.

"You're seeing this [growth] because you really have to grow or die; you can't just stay where you are," Longo said.

An exterior of a Sheetz store. The convenience store chain has more than 650 stores and plans to expand.
An exterior of a Sheetz store. The convenience store chain has more than 650 stores and plans to expand.

What sets Sheetz apart

Bob Sheetz founded Sheetz in 1952 when he purchased one of his father's five dairy stores in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The company grew slowly over the next three decades, achieving a store count of 100 by 1983.

In 1995, Bob's son, Stan Sheetz became president of the company and supercharged its growth behind the introduction of touchscreen ordering. The concept popularized Sheetz prepared "made-to-go" products. Around this time, Sheetz's offerings took on a "z" ending (the store's offerings include Sheetz Bros. Coffeez and Shweetz bakery).

Sheetz employees do a cheer minutes before a store opening in September 2020.
Sheetz employees do a cheer minutes before a store opening in September 2020.

Today, Sheetz has a full menu of quality fast-food food, including burgers, hot dogs and fries.

"They are extremely well respected in the convenience industry and retail overall," Lenard said. "They sell convenience and the definition of convenience is whatever the customer wants and however the customer wants it.

"It’s not a specific product; it’s a state of mind."

The site at Route 40 and Commerce Center Drive is about a mile from the Delaware line.
The site at Route 40 and Commerce Center Drive is about a mile from the Delaware line.

Sheetz is growing across the country, having added more than 100 stores in the past four years and more than 30 in the past year. In April, it announced plans to open 20 stores in Dayton, Ohio, over the next five years. Three months later, it shared plans to add 30 stores in western Pennsylvania. It capped the expansion talk in 2022 with a November announcement to enter Michigan for the first time. The first Michigan store is projected to open in 2025.

Sheetz stores typically feature a large red canopy for a dozen gas pumps and a brick building with red detailing.

The Elkton store will be 6,100 square feet. It will have a drive-thru and indoor and outdoor seating, in addition to gas pumps.

A sign at Wawa headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania in Oct. 2019.
A sign at Wawa headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania in Oct. 2019.

Wawa also plans to expand

A common theme of conversations with industry observers is that Sheetz and Wawa are seen as the top class of the convenience store industry. They are always attempting to innovate and grow, experts say, trying to find the evolution that will put their current stores out of business before someone else does.

Wawa has around 1,000 stores in five states and Washington, D.C. today. It also announced ambitious growth plans last year and is experimenting with several new store formats.

In April, CEO Chris Gheysens told the Philadelphia Business Journal the company plans to nearly double its store count to 1,800 locations by 2030. Wawa is filling in the market between Virginia and Florida, the state it jumped to in 2012.

A new Wawa gas station and convenience store is under construction at Christiana Road next to University Plaza near Christiana on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.
A new Wawa gas station and convenience store is under construction at Christiana Road next to University Plaza near Christiana on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

The company is scouting locations in the Florida panhandle, looking to add up to 40 stores in Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee and Mobile, Alabama, starting in 2024. Wawa plans to open up to 40 stores in the Nashville market with the first slated for 2025. It will launch its first stores in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky after 2025.

Gheysens has discussed a "Wawa on steroids" travel center concept. The company has also dabbled with drive-thru formats. One of its next is planned for South College Avenue.

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In Delaware, Wawa has at least six stores in the works. It has announced plans to open stores in Christiana on Route 273 next to University Plaza in the spring and in Georgetown on Route 113 in the summer. A second store on South College Avenue down the street from the drive-thru-only location, a store on Elkton Road in Newark and a store on Naamans Road in Brandywine Hundred are also at various stages of the planning process.

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Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @holveck_brandon.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Sheetz is coming to Elkton, approaching Delaware and Wawa