Taste Test: QSR vs. C-Store
Who won the battle royale between c-store and QSR food?
Main Event Round 4
7-Eleven Cappuccino VS Dunkin’ Donuts “Dunkaccino”
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 “barista” prepares the cappuccino. Customers are asked if they want to add sugar or sweetener; other “Dunkaccino” choices included caramel and mocha swirl. Calorie counts, along with prices, are listed for each choice. Service was customized and very efficient. Nothing like the long lines and pretentious coffee lingo bantered about at Starbucks.
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 drink only 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.
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.
Main Event Round 5
Sheetz Chicken Wrap VS Wendy’s Chicken Wrap
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, and 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 8 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 5 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 6 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.
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.
Wendy’s, hands down.
Main Event Round 6
Stripes Chicken Fajita Soft Taco VS Taco Bell Chicken Soft Taco
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.
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.
Stripes, by a feather. The presentation is less than appetizing, but the basic product gives you more flavor and more food for your $2.
Main Event Round 7
Holiday Stationstores’ Southwest Chicken Wrap VS Au Bon Pain’s Southwest Tuna Wrap
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.
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 byproduct of not being made fresh. The roasted corn salsa and chipotle cheese spread were nice, but I wanted more.
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
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.
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.
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.