Founded more than 50 years ago when the first Wawa food market opened in Folsom, Pa., the unique convenience-store chain has developed a cult-like following in Philadelphia and the surrounding Mid-Atlantic region. 

With a devoted fan base that swears by its made-to-order sandwiches, it's not a surprise that its loyal customers would be interested in a piece of Wawa stock.

Unfortunately, Wawa is a privately owned company, so you can't buy shares of the stock on public markets. However, the company offers a generous stock ownership plan for employees, and at least 9,000 employees own shares in the company as they are given access through a retirement plan. 

Considering Wawa's long history -- the company originally began as an iron foundry in New Jersey in 1803 -- it's unlikely that it will go public anytime soon, especially as the headwinds against such retail and convenience-related businesses have picked up in recent years, making the investing climate unfriendly to retail businesses. 

Still, Wawa is bigger than its regional profile might lead you to believe as the company brought in $9.1 billion in revenue last year, and ranked No. 34 on the Forbes list of the biggest private companies. After recently expanding to Florida, it now has more than 750 stores in the country.  

Investors hoping to get a piece of Wawa stock may also be disappointed to learn that Sheetz, the chain with which it's most often compared, is also privately held, as is the global convenience-store giant 7-Eleven.

A Wawa store with gas pumps in the foreground

Image source: Wawa.

When you can't have a Wawa

Wawa fans may be unwilling to accept a substitute for their favorite convenience-store chain, but there are some publicly traded concepts that are similar.

Casey's General Stores (NASDAQ:CASY) may be the best stand-in for Wawa stock. Casey's operates convenience stores across 15 Midwestern states, selling freshly prepared foods, as well as beverages, tobacco, and gasoline. 

The company has about 2,000 stores and has put up steady comparable sales growth in recent years. However, earnings per share fell in fiscal 2017 due to a weaker agricultural economy and less volatility in wholesale food costs, which ate into margins. In its most recent quarter (Q1 2018), earnings continued to fall. 

As the chart below shows, Casey's was a strong performer since the recession, but the stock has been mostly flat over the last couple of years.

CASY Chart

CASY data by YCharts.

Murphy's USA (NYSE:MUSA), a convenience-store chain based in Arkansas, has also tracked similarly to Casey's since it became public in 2013. Unlike Casey's, Murphy's is highly reliant on tobacco sales and has seen merchandise comparable sales fall 1.5% through the first three quarters of the year due to a decline in tobacco sales. Factoring out the sale last year of the CAM pipeline system, EPS has essentially been flat at $3.29 through that period.  

Another option in the convenience-store space is TravelCenters of America (NASDAQ:TA), a chain of 255 truck stops across the country that feature gas stations, fast-food restaurants, auto shops, convenience stores, and services directed at truckers like laundry and showers. However, shares of the travel-plaza chain have tumbled recently years on a weak freight-trucking environment and increasing fuel efficiency. The stock is down 31% over the last year, though it did recover modestly in October when Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway said it would take a stake in rival Pilot Flying J.

Investors may also want to look further afield to fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and Wendy's, which have been more successful than rivals recently, bucking the trends in the "restaurant recession."

While Wawa fans may never be able to invest directly in the famed maker of hoagies and cream cheese-stuffed pretzels, there are similar options. Consider taking a look at Casey's General Stores, which continues to grow through to expansion and store remodels, and with its prepared foods, has a similar profile to Wawa. 

Jeremy Bowman has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Casey's General Stores. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.