Taste Test: QSR vs. C-Store
Who won the battle royale between c-store and QSR food?
Convenience stores aren’t what they used to be. In fact, they’re starting to look a lot more like restaurants. 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 Wawa Inc., Wawa, Pa., told a packed audience at CSP’s 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% 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.
So CSP’s sister publication Restaurant Business sent a team of tasters from around the country to find out if this threat to restaurants’ livelihoods is for real. Read on for the findings, and email group editor Mitch Morrison at mmorrison@ cspnet.com with your thoughts on the results.
Main Event Road 1
Kwik Trip Ham & Swiss on Sourdough Bun VS Starbucks Ham & Swiss Panini
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.
Both had a 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 a smidgen of Grey Poupon. Kwik Trip offers optional condiments.
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.
Kwik Trip Egg Sandwich VS Starbucks Egg Salad Sandwich
Kwik Trip’s presentation is pure old-school: white bread with a thin-ish 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.
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.
Starbucks, easily. Well worth the extra cash.
Main Event Road 2
RaceTrac roller dog VS Sonic All-American dog
Walking into the RaceTrac on Gause Avenue in Slidell, La., it’s impossible to miss the immense roller-grill station. Among a sea of taquitos and “rollerbites,” a variety of hot dogs from plain to jalapeño roll along the grill. Markers on the grill 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. We 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 the trepidatious tester as to how this 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. Because we needed to run the test blind, though, we opted for the less interesting drive-thru. Again, we went with the white bun, mustard, ketchup and fresh chopped onions. (We 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.
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.
Main Event Round 3
Wawa Italian VS Subway Spicy Italian
It’s tough to beat the Wawa ordering experience. You walk up to a touch screen, 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.
Aficionados will tell you that the bread makes the hoagie. In that 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 (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-to-40 lettuce-to-meat ratio).
Moving to Wawa’s hoagie, more meat (three 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.