The first two Wawa stores in the Jacksonville area open this week. The third opens next week. Then another six come next year. In all, the gas station/convenience store chain plans 30 to 40 stores in the area.

The first two open Wednesday at Wilson Boulevard and Lane Avenue in Jacksonville and 678 Blanding Blvd. in Orange Park. The third store opens Thursday, Dec. 21, at 4866 Gate Parkway at the Town Center.

At an invitation-only ceremony Tuesday at the Wilson Boulevard store, Brian Duke, regional director of real estate, said the company has a total of 16 sites under contract in the area. Another half-dozen have contracts pending. After next year, he said, he expects the company to open three to five each year in Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties. At some point, he said, they’ll move into Nassau County.

Growth in Northeast Florida is a little more aggressive than it was when the company first came to Florida in 2012.

“We were just in Tampa and Orlando then,” he said. “But now we’re in Southeast Florida, too. We have total brand recognition on the Mid-Atlantic states. We’re growing that in Florida.”

The company has about 770 stores in six states and has been averaging one new store a week recently, he said. There are now 132 in Florida with 11 more openings planned this month alone.

The chain is based in Pennsylvania, and Florida is the first state in which it has opened stores south of Virginia.

Duke said Wawa created a new prototype for Florida stores, which includes the new Jacksonville stores. The food service counter is right in the center of the store where the cashiers usually are. The cash registers are off to the side. That’s something other stores, including Gate, have also started to do.

Catherine Pulos, chief operations office for Wawa, wouldn’t say what percentage of sales its sandwiches, soups, etc., are compared to the more traditional convenience store items. She’d only say that it’s the fastest growing area of the business.

Wawa’s Florida stores also have outside seating.

“That’s something we’ve never had up north,” Duke said.

At Tuesday’s celebration, employees handed out samples of food and I ♥ Wawa buttons. There was music, dancing mascots and speeches.

City Councilman Garrett Dennis thanked the store for coming to his district, for hiring 40 people per store and developing what had been a blighted corner.

And then he made the first ceremonial hoagie.

The two Jacksonville stores open at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Ribbon-cutting will be at 9 a.m. at the Wilson Boulevard store and 1 p.m. at the Orange Park store.

Click here to read the Florida Times-Union article.