It’s hard to say quite when it started, or where, other than in an anonymous cluster of fast-food options along a Pennsylvania highway, but in recent years I have felt my loyalty wavering.
Since moving to the Philadelphia suburbs at age 11 and later landing in New Jersey, I have been, naturally, on team Wawa. I may not have a Wawa tattoo; I may not have wed there. But when it came to gas station/convenience store/made-to-order food chains, I never questioned which was the best one, because the answer was so clear.
A few years ago, though, a drive across Pennsylvania included a stop at Sheetz. The doubt grew stronger in the past year and half. Sheetz shone as a quick, cheap and tasty food option at the midway point of a five-hour drive, and I started to wonder: Had I been wrong all along? Was Sheetz not only equal to but maybe even…better than Wawa?
For people living outside of the mid-Atlantic region, and in particular New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, this might not mean much. In short, Wawa and Sheetz are both chain stores that started as Pennsylvania dairies and survived the 20th century by becoming convenience stores. They both sell customizable sandwiches and other quickly prepared food, which customers order on touch screens. Sheetz had the touch screens first and for many years was more likely to build stores that were also gas stations. These days, though, stores from either chain tend to offer both food and gas; they both have surcharge free ATMs, as well.
Sheetz and Wawa might pretty similar on paper, and in May, Chris Gheysens, Wawa’s CEO admitted as much to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Sheetz and Wawa, underneath the veneer of what the stores look like, are very similar—food service, lots of innovation around fresh food,” he said. “The Sheetzes run a good company. We’re friendly.”
But this is how great rivalries work—they build between two places, teams, companies or people who are similar enough that they must compete. It’s the details that matter most. Trust me when I say that, as a Wawa fan, even considering that Sheetz might be an acceptable place to buy food is a betrayal of the highest order. If I let on to my little sister, a true Wawa loyalist, that I had dared to consider the merits of Sheetz, she would probably disown me.
I couldn’t shake the feeling, though, that I was letting my heart get in the way of my head (and my stomach). I decided that, to end this dilemma, I would have to pit Wawa and Sheetz against each other and judge them as fairly and objectively as I could. I would consider speed, quality, variety, and price, along with cleanliness, aesthetics and other X-factors. At the end, I would know the truth.
Wawa: Circa 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night
The route my husband and I take from Brooklyn to Ithaca, New York, his hometown, goes across northern Jersey, into Pennsylvania and up past Scranton, until we cross back into New York just south of Binghamton. Along the way, there are many opportunities to stop at Wawa or at Sheetz, and after much consideration, we decide the fairest way to compare them is to arrive with an appetite—we would stop at Wawa on the way up and Sheetz on the way back down of one weekend trip.
Some of our criteria would be quantitative: We would time how long it takes to order and how long it takes to receive our food. We would weigh cost, calories and the number of food options available. In our qualitative judgments, we would try to test like against like. One of the sandwiches must be made-to-order and exactly the same at both meals; the other, a wild card—a tempting but unique sandwich from the menu of specialties. But we would also consider the decor, the representation of local culture, and the general vibe.
We arrive at Wawa around 9 p.m., and it’s bustling enough. There are maybe a dozen people in the store, and we’re not the only ones ordering food. The touch screen is bright with the swirling promotional colors of the summer Hoagiefest, which means any classic sub sandwich is just $4.99.
Our standardized sandwich is a turkey sub: wheat bread, turkey, provolone cheese, lettuce, cucumbers (not a hoagie standard, but that’s what made-to-order is meant for), mayo, and mustard. You can quibble about whether that’s a classic enough sandwich to judge on, but it has this going for it: it is very hard to mess up. The touch screen tempts us into adding a side, apple slices.
When we consider wild card options, it’s quickly clear that we must choose some variety of cheesesteak, not only because it’s a Philly classic but because there are so many inventive cheesesteak options. We land on the buffalo chicken cheesesteak, because it sounds amazing, and though I had planned to order a plain iced coffee, we are lured by the fancier coffee drinks and add an iced mocha latte.
The stats: Two minutes, forty-five seconds to order. Two sandwiches, one side, one fancy coffee. Total cost: $14. Total calories: 1,760.
Enjoy your cheesesteak Shore-style! This Associate Recipe includes jalapeno peppers, ranch dressing, Old Bay® &more! pic.twitter.com/PmJNaUp668— Wawa (@Wawa) August 6, 2016
While we wait for our order, I poke around the rest of the store. There are plenty of pre-made food options, including wraps, hummus and veggies, fruit and cheese, and a quinoa salad. Wawa still has its own brand of milk, as well as tea and apple juice. You can still buy eggs and bacon here, as well, and there are mini bottles of Martinelli’s apple juice.
But I don’t have much time to look around. The food comes in two minutes and fifty seconds—almost exactly as long as it took us to order it.
We eat outside on the back hood of the car, with Wawa’s goose logo flying above us. The store’s exterior might be called tasteful, but right now, it just seems drab.
The turkey sandwich does its job right. Good turkey. Good lettuce. The bread may be a little chewy, but the mayo level is spot on. The buffalo chicken cheesesteak, which had the potential to be gross, is not gross. There are perhaps too many jalapenos. For a person who didn’t like jalapenos, there would definitely be too many jalapenos.
But the chicken is tasty, and the cheese sauce gooey. Bonus: I do not feel like I have consumed anything that is going to sit like a rock in my stomach for the hours of driving to come. The mocha latte tastes like pure sugar syrup, but overall, we are satisfied.
In the very clean restroom—there’s even a clean restroom promise on the door—I overhear another woman talking on her phone about the merits of Wawa and how she only has to spent five dollars here, compared to nine at 7-11. My heart is warmed, and I start to think that Wawa might win after all.
Sheetz, around 4 p.m.
It’s much more exciting to arrive at Sheetz. The gas station pavilion is soaring and bright red, and inside the store, the high ceilings make the place feel larger than it is. Sheetz also has a clear advantage over Wawa in variety. Here they have a deep fryer and a grill: you can order burgers, wings, onion rings, fried pickles, and jalapeno poppers. If Wawa is either a better version of Subway or an almost-as-good version of a local hoagie shop, Sheetz is that, plus a short-order lunch counter—a Subway and McDonald’s combined.
“My money’s on Sheetz,” my husband says, as we walk from the car, and I have to agree. As much as our Wawa meal had made me think Wawa might hold up, now that we were here, I felt the siren call of Sheetz again.
The first temptation comes quickly. As we order the turkey sandwich, Sheetz offers us the option of the “ultimate topper”—fries. This is not sandwich sacrilege so much as a regional innovation. Every sandwich at Pittsburgh’s famous Primanti Bros. comes with fries on it (and in fact there is a rare Primanti’s branch less than a five minute drive from this Sheetz). We want the fries. We decline only for the sake of the experiment.
When the menu of sides appears—where Wawa tried to lure us apple slices or a cookie—we have a second shot at deep-fried greatness. We given the choice of fries, fried cheese curds, or mozzarella sticks. We go with the mozzarella sticks, even though the wildcard sandwich I order is called the Big Mozz. It is basically a chicken parm sandwich, with a phalanx of mozzarella sticks smushed between chicken and bun. It takes the idea of putting fries on your sandwich and translates it into the Italian idiom. It will either be delicious or a stomach-bomb of greasy grossness.
Three minutes, forty-five seconds to order. Two sandwiches, one side, one fancy coffee. Total cost: $20. Total calories: 2,440.
The temptations at Sheetz do not end at the touch screen, though. As I wander the store, I find fruit, cheese, hummus, vegetables and wraps, same as at Wawa. But there are fewer pre-made options and fewer healthy ones. Instead, there are Shweets. (Sheetz had a thing where it gives things cute, Sheetz-y names: subs are Subz, wings are Shwingz, and so on.) There are Sheetz-branded donuts of all sorts, including piña colada-flavored donut holes, which I am weirdly curious about. There are cookies and parfait, and “muddy bites,” the delicious cereal/chocolate/powdered sugar concoction otherwise know as puppy chow. There’s even fancy Talenti ice cream in the fridge.
When the coffee, a frozen Kona mocha arrives, it lives up to this promised expertise in sweet. It is everything a sugary coffee drink should be. Sweet, but not too sweet. Icy, cold, with a sprinkle of tiny chocolate chips. It takes a whole four and a half minutes to arrive, though, and the rest of the food even longer, closer to five minutes. We settled outside—Sheetz has tables to sit at!—and start to eat.
The first warning sign is the Dr. Pepper-branded BBQ sauce. As a Dr. P fan, I’d always been intrigued by it, and in preparation, I had asked for an extra thing of BBQ sauce at Wawa to compare. The Wawa BBQ sauce had been surprisingly subtle—not too sweet, interestingly spicy. The Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce, though, was everything BBQ sauce should not be. I recoiled at the first taste, of sickly sweet cherry syrup, with a backdrop of jalapeno spice. It was a fruity chili sauce, of the kind you buy from William & Sonoma but which is never actually good. Also, it had cost an extra 40 cents.
We had expected the turkey sandwiches to be basically identical—how much variation could there be between two simple turkey subs?—but from the first moment, it was clear that there would be differences. The turkey was cut into thick slices that were not entirely appealing; there was too much lettuce heaped on. The cucumber were visibly less crisp. When my husband took a bite, his judgment was immediate. The Wawa sandwich had been better. There was something off with this one—the lettuce was less crisp, the turkey less flavorful. In the end, half the sandwich went uneaten.
The Big Mozz, though, tasted just like a chicken parm sandwich, but better. It wasn’t gross or greasy; it had an extra oomph and crunch to it.
But it had a lot to make up for, after the BBQ sauce and the turkey sandwich. The mediocre sandwich, in particular, violated the promise the stores in the Sheetz/Wawa game make. The main attraction of these places is that you can get decent food for fast and cheap, and you can control what exactly goes into it. If you don’t like tomatoes, it’s not a special request to keep them off your sandwich. If you don’t like mayo, no big deal. But if your food doesn’t taste good, the illusion that you’re doing something smart by choosing this over McDonald’s or Subway is shattered. You’re just eating cheap, crappy food.
There’s no accounting for taste
Still, even after the Great Turkey Sandwich Disappointment of Scranton, I wasn’t sure Wawa was the winner. I started tallying up the categories in which each meal had won.
On quantitative factors, Wawa was the clear winner. We had gotten our order in more quickly, received our food more quickly, and paid less. We also ordered fewer calories—and while the mozzarella stick were responsible for a big chunk of those, even counting those out, the Sheetz order was still less healthy.
On the food and drinks, Sheetz had more variety, better coffee, and the better wild card sandwich. But it had done badly on the standardized test and that BBQ sauce was a nasty surprise. Wawa had done the simple thing, the turkey sandwich, right.
There were other positives in Wawa’s column. While Sheetz had more overall variety, Wawa had more options for vegetarians and more obviously healthy options. It also upsold less aggressively. At every tap of the touch screen, Sheetz was trying to sell us more topping or sides for 40 cents here, a dollar there. One suggestion I got for comparing the two was “ease of ordering while stoned” (a very real scenario), and I believe that anyone ordering stoned at Sheetz would end up padding the price of their order with some guac here, some fries, hey, why not some extra cheese curds and four different dipping sauces. It would add up. Wawa’s upsell was more gentle; a stoned person might end up with an extra cookie or two, at most. Sheetz was more fun, though, more razzle-dazzle. And it had a place to sit.
The Wawa CEO, Gheysens, had told the Inquirer that the difference between his company and Sheetz was “just the veneer of the brand.” In a head-to-head match up, he said, “We come off a little bit more conservative and they would come off a little bit more flashy.” When they did compete directly, he said, “neither of us have a lot of fun.” It’s fun to go up against a big company like McDonald’s by doing something a little different. It’s hard to go up against your rival, when the distance between you is smaller.
For me, Wawa wins. Maybe, even after all the careful examination, that’s just blind loyalty talking, or the fear of losing even a smidge of my little sister’s love. But I was a vegetarian for many years, and I like that Wawa takes care of people who don’t eat meat. I want to know that my basic turkey sub is going to taste good—those reliable, simple sandwiches are why I love Wawa to begin with. If I had to eat at one of these places every day—and some people do!—I would choose Wawa.
That doesn’t mean I will shun Sheetz, though. That Big Mozz sandwich was good.