C-Store vs QSR

In one corner, c-stores, trying to reinvent themselves and steal customers from restaurants by beefing up the quality and quantity of their food. But can they shake the image of microwaves and roller dogs? And in the other corner, QSRs. They’re taking the brunt of the c-store infringements. Have they gotten flabby around the mid-section, or are they back to their fighting weight and ready for the competition? It’s time to find out.

Convenience stores aren’t what they used to be. In fact, they’re starting to look a lot more like you. And they’re not shy about it.

“Wawa has always been viewed as a c-store, but we now want to be viewed as a restaurant that sells gas. We want to be more like you when we grow up,” Howard Stoeckel, CEO of the Wawa c-store chain, told a packed audience at the Restaurant Leadership Conference in March.

Wawa, with 594 stores in the Mid-Atlantic and now Florida, is even claiming a new category for itself: “fast casual to go.”

Wawa may be the leading edge, but it is not alone, and customers are responding. In an October 2011 survey—whose subjects ordered food from c-stores and restaurants at nearly the same rate—Technomic reported that c-store food quality was rated “good” or “very good” by an average of 85 percent of respondents. Digging deeper, big majorities gave c-stores high marks on everything from taste and flavor, visual appeal, variety and craveability to store appearance and convenience.

Which is all to say, there’s a new competitor in town. And we wanted to see what all the fuss is about. We sent a team of tasters from around the country to find out if this threat is for real or if it’s just so much hype from folks whose most notable recipe is “Leave on roller for three consecutive turns.”

Kwik Trip Ham & Swiss on Sourdough Bun vs Starbucks Ham & Swiss Panini

by Dana Tanyeri

Presentation
Presented as a grab-and-go LTO in a heated case, Kwik Trip’s sandwich comes on a round, split-top sourdough roll dusted with cornmeal. Round, thin slices (3) of ham fill the bun, but the edges looked a bit shriveled and dried. Under the ham is a thin layer of processed-looking Swiss cheese. It comes wrapped in standard deli paper with a label touting the chain’s Kitchen Cravings house brand logo. Granted, it’s an LTO but no nutrition information is given and the ingredient list is limited to the fillings.

Starbucks’ version, displayed in a cold case and heated to order, comes on a  slab of focaccia with just a bit of ham peeking out. A small piece of thinly sliced Swiss sits under two thick, round ham slices. Without pulling the sandwich apart, you’d never notice the cheese; it’s skimpy, especially when compared to the photo on the label. It comes wrapped in clear plastic with the lower half nestled in an eco-friendly-looking cardboard sheaf where the label appears. Summary nutritional info and a brief description of fillings are shown, with full  listings on back.

Taste
Both had nice smoky ham flavor and creamy though very mild Swiss cheese flavor. Starbucks’ bread was nicely chewy and the cornmeal added  a nice touch to the Kwik Trip bun. The panini had a bit of a flavor kick once you got into it, thanks to the smidgen of Grey Poupon. Kwik Trip offers optional condiments.

Winner
Kwik Trip, by a hair. It gets the nod for including more cheese, for its cornmeal-crusted sourdough roll and better ratio of fillings to bread. The texture and presentation of Starbucks’ focaccia are nice, but flavor is pretty bland and the cheese and mustard skimpy, especially given the price difference.

Presentation
Kwik Trip’s presentation is pure old-school: white bread with a thinish layer of egg salad filling, cut into triangle halves. Nothing extra, nothing fancy. Kwik Trip’s standing black plastic triangle works well for its refrigerated display case and its clear face shows all of the necessary nutrition and ingredient information. Only the lower half of the sandwich is visible, but it’s enough to know what you’re getting.

Starbucks’ gets points for making the ho-hum egg salad sandwich look pretty darn good. It features a thick layer of creamy, homemade-looking egg salad set off with crisp green romaine leaves and perfect-shade-of-brown wheat bread. Starbucks’ clear cover over a cardboard tray works well, too, letting the entire sandwich inside merchandise itself. Its wrap-style label displays all necessary info without getting in the way of the sandwich.

Taste
Kwik Trip’s is straight out of the ‘50s, with super-soft, textureless, bland white bread and a simple egg-mayo salad. It’s fresh and not bad for what it is, but what it is isn’t exactly appealing. Starbucks’ egg salad tastes like what you’d make at home – not too much mayo, chunks of crispy celery, dill and a touch of mustard. The crispy romaine and soft but dense whole wheat bread are not only nice looking, they’re great flavor complements, too.

Winner
Starbucks, easily. Well worth the extra cash.

RaceTrac rollerdog vs Sonic All-American dog

by Amanda M. Westbrooks

Presentation
Walking into the RaceTrac on Gause Ave. in Slidell, Louisiana, it’s impossible to miss the immense rollergrill station. Among a sea of taquitos and “rollerbites,” a variety of hot dogs from plain to jalapeño roll along the grill. Markers tell you which dogs are ready to eat, and which need to keep rolling for a while. Underneath, steamer drawers are filled with plastic containers of buns, kept perfectly warm and ready to go. I chose a less-wrinkled dog, close to the marker, and wandered over to the condiments section to grab packets of ketchup, mustard and onions. Yes, pre-packaged onions. Everything was exceptionally clean and neat, none of the food looked like it had been there too long and there were no unpleasant odors. It instilled a feeling of confidence in this trepidatious tester as to how the hot dog was going to taste. The buns are separated into clear plastic clamshells, which you pop open and fill with the dog and toppings of your choice. Everything but the condiment packets are generic, without any branding or logos.

Anybody who’s ever visited a Sonic Drive-in knows that the best option is to drive up and park, roll down the windows and enjoy the fresh air and upbeat music. Before long, a waitress will bring a tray with your food to your car. It’s the most fun the first weekend of the month, or whenever the classic car clubs are in town. Since I needed to run the test blind, though, I opted for the less interesting drive-through. Again, I went with the white bun, mustard, ketchup and fresh chopped onions. (I excluded the relish to keep things even… and because this editor isn’t all that fond of relish.) The hot dogs are placed in a paper tray, wrapped in stamped foil and presented in a white paper bag with the Sonic logo.

Taste
The Sonic dog had a strong meat flavor, fresh chopped onions and supple texture. The RaceTrac dog had a tougher skin, making it a bit too chewy. It was also a little greasier when you bit into it. The flavor wasn’t strong enough to match the condiments, making it nearly disappear under the mustard and ketchup. The pre-packaged onions were a new experience, and also failed to stand up to their condiment compatriots. All they seemed to add was a bit of unusual mouthfeel, and no real onion-y goodness.
The buns for both were exactly the same—warm and soft, tearing apart easily with no rubbery flex or dry crumb explosions. Perfect.

But, having said all that, the RaceTrac hot dog was not a disappointment. Larger and less expensive than its QSR competitor, if you’re on a long road trip and find yourself in need of gas and a quick bite, dropping into a RaceTrac for one is not a bad idea.

Winner
Sonic

Wawa Italian vs Subway Spicy Italian

by Tom Starner

Presentation
It’s tough to beat the Wawa ordering experience. You walk up to a touchscreen, input your hoagie details and pay the tab. They call your number and you are out the door. It’s efficient and frustration free. Subway was empty so no long line and the hoagie maker was nice enough, but I had to repeat what I wanted on my hoagie two or three times before she got it.

Once home, the packaging was a draw (there is really no other way to pack a hoagie other than wrap it in paper), but in terms of out-of-wrapper looks, the Wawa hoagie easily won the beauty contest. It just looked more appetizing.

Taste
Aficionados will tell you that the bread makes the hoagie. In which case, Wawa’s soft, chewy fresh roll crushed the competition. Subway’s roll, for example, had traces of impending staleness: edges were a bit hard and the bread crumbled. Not good.

To be fair, Subway’s Italian hoagie comes with a “spicy” label, but I didn’t want pepperoni (aka, the spice) on my Italian hoagie. So I requested extra salami instead. If the woman making my hoagie gave me extra, the original portion must be woefully thin. Also, Subway’s tomatoes were those awful yellow/white-centered specimens; they looked like they were plucked a month too early. The Subway hoagie also was too heavy on the shredded iceberg lettuce (a 60-40 lettuce-to-meat ratio).

Moving to Wawa’s hoagie, more meat (3 kinds of Italian ham along with salami) and their tomatoes passed the color/flavor test. The lettuce-to-meat ratio was 40-to-60—much better. It just tasted like a hoagie should taste—all the flavors were there, not buried in bread and lettuce.

Overall, the Wawa hoagie’s flavor was clearly superior to the Subway offering, for the obvious reasons noted above.

Winner
Wawa.

7-Eleven Cappuccino vs Dunkin’ Donuts “Dunkaccino”

by Patricia Cobe

Presentation
At 7-Eleven, coffee is dispensed from a self-service machine. Push a button for your choice of regular coffee, cappuccino, hot chocolate and a couple of permutations on each selection, including flavored coffees like hazelnut and vanilla. A separate “condiment” area provides toppings such as ground cinnamon, cocoa powder, vanilla sugar and mini marshmallows. Customers pay for the drink at the checkout counter.

A server/cashier takes coffee orders and payment at Dunkin’ Donuts. A separate “barrista” prepares the cappuccino. Customers are asked if they want to add sugar or sweetener; other “Dunkaccino” choices included caramel and mocha swirl. Calorie counts are listed for each choice along with prices. Service was customized and very efficient. Nothing like the long lines and pretentious coffee lingo bantered about at Starbucks.

Temperature /Appearance/Taste
The 7-Eleven cappuccino came out piping hot and was filled nearly to the brim of the cup. It looked like a traditional cappuccino, with a nice layer of foamy milk on top. However the beverage offered very little coffee flavor. It was also cloyingly sweet, although I didn’t order it with sweetener. I could only drink half a cup.

The Dunkin’ coffee was nice and hot with a cap of classic cappuccino milk foam. A true coffee flavor came through with each sip—not as strong as the dark roast espresso used in other cappuccinos, but strong enough. Although it had nice bitter notes, it was definitely more middle-of-the-road than a classic Italian cappuccino.

Winner
Dunkin’ delivered more coffee kick and better flavor. Although I am not partial to Dunkin’ Donuts regular coffee—it’s too mild for my taste buds—I would go back for a cappuccino. It was reasonably priced and the service was pleasant. The 7-Eleven cappuccino was much too sweet. I may return there for a morning coffee fix—it’s quick, clean and has enough choice. But I wouldn’t press the button for a cappuccino again.

Sheetz Chicken Wrap vs Wendy’s Chicken Wrap

by Miriam Rubin

Presentation
Sheetz was lively; customers purchased doughnuts after filling up their tanks. The made-to-order section was like a ’50s diner sporting panels of stainless steel and bright-colored Formica. The touch-screen ordering process was simple. There were multiple choices for toppings, dressings (called spreadables) and cheeses (a 79-cent premium). The wrap came with lettuce. I added Pepper Jack cheese, chipotle ranch dressing, pickles and banana peppers. Final toppings offered were salt, pepper, Parmesan and oregano; I chose oregano. The machine spits out a ticket, you pay the cashier. Pleasantly easy, although there was a computer meltdown after I paid, leaving just one register operating. By the time I left, the line neared the door. I watched my wrap being assembled. The covering itself, lavash (more like a thick tortilla) was huge. Cheese slices were arranged on it; one fell into a counter gutter and was discarded. Chicken was heated in a microwave (no grill?) and dumped out of a bag onto the wrap. The wrap was rolled in paper; the order slip taped to it and put in a bag. It took roughly eight minutes.

Wendy’s Crisp Chicken Caesar Wrap was the closest match to the Sheetz wrap, so that’s what I ordered. I asked for tomato, an extra. The ordering process was as easy as you’re used to. Wendy’s felt more like a restaurant. I could not observe the preparation, but the wrap seemed freshly made, and took under five minutes. The breaded chicken was hot with large shreds of cheddar, crisp bits of lettuce and a generous schmear of Caesar-style creamy dressing. The tomato slice was thick, cut in half and free. The wrap itself was about six-inches round. It gaped open due to the tomato addition, or because it was too small, but seemed to contain as much chicken as the Sheetz wrap. The paper wrapping was skimpy, making it tricky to eat.

Taste
The Sheetz wrap should have been cut in half for easier eating and avoidance of doughy ends. It was salty—due somewhat to my topping choices, but those were the only things with presence. Overall: bland, salty and white. The tender but flavorless chicken didn’t seem grilled. Shredded carrot, spinach or red cabbage would have been fresh and tasty.

Wendy’s Crisp Chicken Caesar Wrap covering was small, but was preferable to the extra-large, tasteless lavash in the Sheetz wrap. Tastier insides too—crispy chicken, flavorful cheese, a moist, pepper-flecked dressing.

Winner
The Wendy’s wrap won, hands down.

Stripes Chicken Fajita Soft Taco vs Taco Bell Chicken Soft Taco

Presentation

Stripes markets its taco menu under the brand name Laredo Taco Company. It has superior recipes, geared toward Texas tastes, but its execution is uneven from store to store. Had to visit two stores to find one in which the taco case was actually stocked, and not all employees knew how to assemble them.

All in all, on presentation it was a draw. Taco Bell wins on freshness. Its chicken is hot, while Stripes’ is just warm. The cooked ingredients have been sitting in bins in a display case for hours. Not all Stripes employees know how to assemble the tacos. But the Stripes taco stays warm longer, because it’s wrapped in foil. Taco Bell’s paper wrapper loses heat quickly.

Taste
The Stripes offering is in line with what you’d buy from a taco truck in any Texas town. It has larger pieces of chicken, with chunks of grilled peppers, onions and tomatoes. The spices are visible on the meat, enough to tickle your tongue without making you grab for a bottle of water. If you want higher heat, there’s a condiment bar to the side that offers two salsas and pico de gallo. The Stripes taco is larger by half – large enough to make a meal – and wrapped in a flour tortilla that’s thick enough to absorb the juices without getting soggy.

Taco Bell’s tastes like a Kentucky idea of a chicken taco. It offers unseasoned bits of meat with shredded cheese and lettuce. There’s a choice of four salsas in small foil packages, which add some flavor. The flour tortilla is small and thin, but apart from the salsa, there’s no liquid for it to soak up.

Winner
Stripes, by a feather. The presentation is less than appetizing, but the basic product gives you more flavor and more food for your two bucks.

Holiday Stationstores’ Southwest Chicken Wrap vs Au Bon Pain’s Southwest Tuna Wrap

by Abbie Westra

Presentation
Holiday Stationstores’ move to put wraps in a clamshell was a wise one; it kept it intact and appealing to the eye.

Au Bon Pain’s wrap was in the expected cellophane wrap and was a little loose by the time I picked it up.

Taste
Au Bon Pain had a leg up on Holiday Stationstores here with the addition of fresh, crunchy lettuce and tomatoes. But the bizarre decision to add dill to a Southwest wrap threw the flavor for an unpleasant loop. Holiday Stationstores’ tortilla had a gumminess, a by-product of not being made fresh. The roasted corn salsa and chipotle cheese spread were nice, but I wanted more.

Winner
Au Bon Pain for the lettuce alone.

Holiday Stationstores’ Oven Roasted Turkey & Swiss on Roasted Garlic Pepper French Bread vs Au Bon Pain’s Turkey Club on Country White

Presentation
Au Bon Pain had a cellophane wrapper that served its purpose, though it could have listed more ingredients to make the sandwich more appealing before purchase.

Holiday Stationstores’ sandwich used a shrink-wrap that also worked just fine. The branding could use an update.

Taste
Holiday Stationstores had an uphill battle here. The bread had a nice black pepper bite and garlicky savoriness, but that’s about the only flavor apparent in the sandwich. Lack of any condiments might have been alleviated by a noteworthy cheese, but the Swiss was quite flavorless. The turkey was pleasant, and a squirt of mustard from the condiment bar helped ramp the flavor up.

Au Bon Pain’s sandwich had it in the bag with its tarragon spread alone, but all the other components—lettuce, tomato, cheddar and a thicker cut of turkey—were also good.

Winner
Au Bon Pain, with some caveats. By 1:30 on a weekday, Au Bon Pain’s grab-and-go section was nearly wiped out. Meanwhile, Holiday Stationstores’ was well stocked and nicely presented. The service was disparate as well: Au Bon Pain’s clerk did the minimum required, while Holiday Stationstores’ associate provided some friendly banter. But when it came down to the sandwiches, Au Bon Pain wins on the addition of produce and flavorful condiments. There’s promise in that roasted corn salsa and black pepper bread at Holiday Stationstores, but logistics prevail here and Au Bon Pain’s ability to make sandwiches daily on-site provides it the shelf-life allowance to go bigger on flavor.

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