The Capulets versus the Montagues.
Harvard versus Yale.
Britney versus Christina.
Among history’s fabled rivalries, perhaps none is more fiercely contested than Wawa versus Sheetz.
In Pennsylvania and the surrounding states where these premium gas stations dominate highway pit stops, everyone has an opinion as to which is the convenience chain of choice.
To definitively settle this schism, we took it upon ourselves to journey to the heartland of the two rivals — the borderlands of Pennsylvania and New Jersey — and see which chain reigns supreme.
Our quest begins in the parking lot of a Wawa in south Phillipsburg, New Jersey, off Route 22. The gas pumps are plentiful and bustling with activity, but we're more interested in what's inside.
Wawa, with more than 720 locations in six states on the East Coast, is renowned for its high-quality yet inexpensive food. Walking inside, we find the vibe to be clean and professional, yet unassuming. Muted yellows and browns are the key colours, leading to a relaxed but often bland visual landscape.
It takes a few minutes to even comprehend the array of food options available at Wawa. The well-stocked prepackaged section is ambitious and diverse in scope. Even packaged food appears fresh -- not as though it has been abandoned on the shelf for untold lengths.
Wawa's breakfast-pastry selection receives points for variety, if not creativity. It's normal doughnut fare, but at six for $3, the price is right.
The milkshake and Icee machines, a convenience store classic, are another weft in the rich woven tapestry of Wawa's culinary smorgasbord. Unfortunately, this location's machines are broken -- as are our hopes for a refreshing chilled beverage.
Our spirits are lifted as we approach Wawa's digital ordering kiosk, our gateway to the chain's legendary made-to-order sandwiches and more. It implores us to 'Select a Variety' -- and oh! What variety.
Its hoagies and other sandwiches are made fresh in front of our eyes. Of course, there are sacrifices to be had for freshly prepared fare, as the wait is a good five to seven minutes.
We leave, arms laden with the spoils of the first leg of our quest. Between our intrepid trio, we shared the following: a small meatball hoagie, a tomato-and-cheese panini, a small tomato-and-basil bisque, a bacon avocado club sandwich, a 'dirt' parfait, and two Wawa-branded teas.
The $1.49 teas are surprisingly good. They are quite sweet and sugary, including the diet green tea. But as far as gas-station-branded beverages go, it doesn't get much better than this.
The humble hoagie is one of the main attractions at Wawa, and it does not disappoint. Served warm and well-toasted, with melty mozzarella and spongy yet hardy bread, the meatball hoagie is on the same level of quality as your favourite local deli. After a long day on the road, such warm comfort -- at a modest $4.59 -- is welcome.
Wawa's $5.29 cheese panini, however, transcends comfort to reach a surprising level of sophistication. This particular iteration is expertly grilled, and bedecked with tomato, baby spinach greens, and a creamy sun-dried tomato pesto sauce. It's the kind of sandwich that wouldn't be out of place at an upscale bistro or Panera Bread -- but with a price that speaks to its gas-station roots.
Continuing on the upscale bistro theme is the tomato basil bisque, another unlikely find at a gas-station convenience store. The quality isn't at quite the same level as the panini -- the broth is a tad watery for a bisque, and the flavour is tasty but lacking complexity -- but the effort is a worthy and admirable one.
One misstep, however, is the avocado bacon club. The effort of the previous items is absent. Iceberg lettuce? Undertoasted bread? This isn't the quality cuisine we quickly have come to expect of Wawa.
Fortunately, Wawa regains its footing with a childhood classic that our testers can't resist: the 'dirt cup' parfait. Kate Taylor, our resident dirt correspondent, is immediately enamoured. Each element is the platonic ideal of pudding: the mousse is airy, the Oreo crumbles retain their crunch, and the worm-to-dirt ratio is golden. While Wawa offers some more posh items, it's nice to see the chain dabble in the convenience-store staples.
With our palates pleasantly surprised by Wawa's food, we arrive at the nearest Sheetz in Easton, Pennsylvania, sceptical that any convenience-store rival could top Wawa.
Walking inside immediately shakes our confidence in Wawa. Sheetz is bright, colourful, organised, and supersize. Gone are the tawdry taupes, replaced by brash blues and and gregarious green.
Suddenly we're seeing why this chain with more than 500 locations in six states is seen as a worthy adversary of Wawa. The store is expansive and has an indoor dining area, something Wawa didn't have.
But much like its convenience contender, the basics are there. There are slushie and milkshake machines galore, including a rare sighting of a Crystal Pepsi slushie flavour.
This somewhat inexplicable, yet altogether impressive, chilled chamber of carbonation is packed with enough soda to fuel an army of middle schoolers fresh out of soccer practice. Coke and Pepsi products come together as comrades in the grand Soda Cave -- it's enough to persuade any soda lover to wipe Wawa away.
We snap out of our soda stupor to order at another automated food kiosk and sample Sheetz's wares. We're struck by the many order modifications available, including myriad sauce choices -- among them the mysterious and alluring 'Boom Boom Sauce.'
We choose: a custom burger, a popcorn-chicken sandwich topped with 'fryz' (another odd yet tempting customisation), Mac 'n' Cheetos, and yet another dirt parfait cup -- for comparison, of course.
When we saw the infamous Mac 'n' Cheetos on the menu for $3.49, we knew we had to order them. These are unsurprisingly identical to Burger King's buzzy limited-time offering; however, their mere presence positions Sheetz's menu among the fast-food chains in a way that Wawa avoids.
Sadly, the burger falls short of even the lowliest chain's iteration. It is flavourless, grey, and ultimately a melancholy betrayal of the tradition of hamburgers. Even adding tangy red onions and dipping it in Boom Boom Sauce could not save this sandwich. Every bite, we question: Is it nobler in the mind to suffer this burger, or to take arms and toss it?
The fries, part of the $5 burger combo, are forgettable. The Boom Boom Sauce, however, elevated all it touched -- save the blighted burger.
There is no reason for Sheetz to encourage, via the ordering kiosk, the addition of fries as a sandwich topping -- and yet, they persevere. What is essentially a popcorn-chicken hoagie has no structure or reason to it. Seeing no purpose to housing the perfectly good chicken in a bun, we eat the chicken in a more orthodox manner: with our hands.
Before us lies the final test: We must get the dirt on the dirt. And this $2.99 treat has dug itself a hole it can't escape. Our dirt-cup correspondent, Kate Taylor, is despondent over the damp and crunchless crumble, and the entire treat is overly sweet. Sugar for sugar's sake does not a dirt cup make -- especially when the worm population is severely depleted.
Upon entering Sheetz, we were stunned by the flash and the panache. But this stylish sound and fashionable fury signifies nothing. It's the food that counts. While Sheetz may have plentiful soda reserves, its made-to-order food can't measure up to the image it presents.
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