- Wawa is a beloved regional convenience-store chain, which immediately won our love and appreciation after we visited the first time.
- While we once believed Wawa to be the best road trip pit stop imaginable, Texans told us that there was one chain that could one-up Wawa: Buc-ee’s.
- We visited Buc-ee’s and compared the two – and were forced to admit that the Texas chain beats out Wawa in every way.
In Pennsylvania, travellers worship at the altar of Wawa.
The chain of convenience stores has a near-mythical quality, with locals magnetically drawn to the promise of cheap gas, coffee, and an incredible array of delicious sandwiches.
We visited the chain in 2017, eager to see what all the fuss is about. We left as Wawa converts, spreading the good word on the chain’s superiority to its dreaded rival, Sheetz.
However, on a recent road trip, we heard murmurs that there may be another convenience-store chain that could measure up to the wonder of Wawa. Buc-ee’s, Texans said, was a highway pit stop unlike any other in the world – including Wawa.
“Better than Wawa?” we scoffed. “Impossible.”
Yet we couldn’t shake the vision of a Southern answer to Wawa’s glory. So, we stopped by the chain to see how Buc-ee’s measured up.
Here’s who comes out on top in a cutthroat battle of two of the most iconic regional pit stop chains in the US.
We visited a Wawa in South Philipsburg, New Jersey, off Route 22 in early 2017. The gas pumps are plentiful and bustling with activity, but we were more interested in what was 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 found the vibe to be clean and professional, yet unassuming. Muted yellows and browns were the key colours, leading to a relaxed but often bland visual landscape.
It took us a few minutes to even comprehend the array of food options available at Wawa. The well-stocked prepackaged section was ambitious and diverse in scope. Even packaged food appeared to be fresh — not as though it has been abandoned on the shelf for untold lengths.
The coffee station is equally bountiful, something crucial to a well-regarded highway pit stop. Espressos and lattes are offered in addition to the wide range of blends.
Wawa’s breakfast-pastry selection received points for variety, if not creativity. It was normal doughnut fare, but at six for $US3, the price was right.
The milkshake and Icee machines, a convenience store classic, served as another weft in the rich woven tapestry of Wawa’s culinary smorgasbord. Unfortunately, this location’s machines were broken — as were our hopes for a refreshing chilled beverage.
Our spirits were lifted upon approaching Wawa’s digital ordering kiosk, our gateway to the chain’s legendary made-to-order sandwiches and more. It implored us to “Select a Variety” — and oh! What variety.
The prices for everything were extremely reasonable, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The hoagies and other sandwiches were 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 left, arms laden with the spoils of our quest. Between us, 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 $US1.49 teas were surprisingly good. They were 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 did not disappoint. Served warm and well-toasted, with melty mozzarella and spongy yet hardy bread, the meatball hoagie was on the same level of quality as your favourite local deli. After a long day on the road, such warm comfort — at a modest $US4.59 — is welcome.
Wawa’s $US5.29 cheese panini, however, transcended comfort to reach a surprising level of sophistication. This particular iteration was 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 wasn’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 was a worthy and admirable one.
One misstep, however, was the avocado bacon club. The effort of the previous items was absent. Iceberg lettuce? Under-toasted bread? This wasn’t the quality cuisine we quickly had come to expect of Wawa. However, as readers have pointed out, one can fairly easily modify the order. So perhaps the blame here lies with us.
Fortunately, Wawa regained its footing with a childhood classic that our testers couldn’t resist: the “dirt cup” parfait. Each element was the platonic ideal of pudding: the mousse was airy, the Oreo crumbles retained their crunch, and the worm-to-dirt ratio was golden. While Wawa offers some more posh items, it was nice to see the chain dabble in the convenience-store staples.
We left Wawa understanding why loyal customers crave the chain above all else: the quality, the choices, and the right price. Surely, no other convenience store could measure up — not even Buc-ee’s.
We rolled into Buc-ee’s parking lot expecting something similar to Wawa: cheap gas, reasonable restrooms, and above average food. What we didn’t expect was how seriously Buc-ee’s would take the adage “everything is bigger in Texas.”
Walking into Buc-ee’s was like wandering into a mix of a Walmart, a barbecue-centric deli, and the Texas tourism bureau, plus a dash of the Cracker Barrel general store.
The snack aisles carry the classic road-trip rations, like trail mix, dried fruit, and candy — but on a scale unseen anywhere else in the country, Wawa included.
There’s even a fairly large wine selection, complete with tasting and pairing notes.
Even Zima has a place on Buc-ee’s sprawling shelves. This gas station has the range.
Buc-ee’s cult status in Texas is ripe for merch.
Buc-ee’s-branded food is just the start. The store also has T-shirts, stuffed animals, coolers, and even a Buc-ee’s grill.
And the home-decor selection — absent from Wawa — goes far beyond Buc-ee’s magnets. You want a Texas proverb wall hanging? A cowhide rug? A dozen scented candles? They’re all at Buc-ee’s.
While the food and merch are draws, Buc-ee’s realised what people who have been on the road for hours really want: a high-quality bathroom. And Buc-ee’s has earned its “world famous” moniker — the chain won an award for having the cleanest restrooms in 2012, and we can vouch that the judges weren’t lying. The bathrooms are private, immaculate, and remarkably spacious.
On top of all of this, Buc-ee’s has some of the best worker compensation in the industry. Every location proudly displays signs disclosing employees’ pay and benefits — something the chain uses to attract top talent.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing, however, is the prepared-food selection.
There is not only an entire jerky bar, but a deli, a fudge station, and a hot-food kiosk.
Instead of being limited to stale gummy bears, at Buc-ee’s you can have an employee cut you a fresh block of fudge, handmade on the premises.
The stunning breadth of fudge flavours is a sight for sore eyes. And the fudge is as tasty as it looks: moist, high-quality, sugary goodness.
Buc-ee’s sells hot sandwiches and tacos wrapped in foil that customers can grab to go.
It also features a full-service deli that has everything from sandwiches to burgers to fish.
The breakfast tacos were a perfectly packaged amalgamation of cheese, potato, eggs, bacon, and beans. The foil wrapping sealed in the heat, creating a well-melded breakfast begging to be devoured — not a delicacy, but a delight.
The sliced-brisket sandwich is a barbecue classic that you won’t find at many gas stations. The brisket is tender and smoky, creating the base for a simple yet strong sandwich.
On a more decadent note is the pastrami Reuben, a Buc-ee’s fan favourite. It’s not a natural fit for a road trip, as the overflowing sauerkraut and pastrami make it a two-hand kind of meal. However, it’s worth the extra attention.
The handmade chips aren’t your average kettle chip. Despite being unsalted, they draw you in and keep you crunching until the bag is suddenly … empty.
Our appetites satiated, we decided to partake in Buc-ee’s final major draw: cheap gas. The gas pumps were plentiful — we counted at least 40 — and the fuel was at least 10 cents cheaper than at the station down the street.
After visiting Buc-ee’s and Wawa, the winner is all too clear. Wawa has variety, but Buc-ee’s is a sprawling utopia packed with every road trip need imaginable. Wawa’s food is better than average, but Buc-ee’s is simply superb. And, while Wawa’s bathrooms are fine, they don’t deserve international acclaim.
Texas reigns supreme in the battle of the convenience stores. Sorry, Pennsylvanians — maybe it’s time for a Southern road trip.
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