Growing up in North Jersey, my initiation into the wonderful world of convenience stores came early. We had two Quick Cheks and a 7-11 within quick reach from my house. When I turned seventeen and first got my driver’s license, going to the 7-11 for a Slurpee was a fun, albeit not that meaningful, rite of passage. But it really wasn’t until I went away to college in South Jersey, about 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia, that I got a taste of what a real convenience store experience was all about, pledging my loyalty to the fraternity of Wa Wa (Pennsylvania Dutch life!).
South Jersey, like much of Pennsylvania, is Wawa territory. In fact, during my college days, directions could often be dispensed using Wawa as welcoming lodestars. “Do you know where the Wawa is? Ok, well the library is between the Wawa and the other Wawa.” We also had a Heritages (which I found it recently is pronounced Her-it-Ages with a long A) which kept me supplied with Lemon Wild Cherry/Apple Watermelon Nerds as well as 25-cent boxes of candy cigarettes (the chalky kind, not the gum). This was not a very healthy time in my life (for many reasons).
But from the moment I saw Wawa’s green and white (now brown) cup (and stopped laughing after I saw their president’s name was Dick Wood) and had my first taste of a Wawa shorti sub, I was hooked. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but something was different about this place. It wasn’t a sleazy dump like 7-11 (they didn’t even sell porno mags behind the counter…classy!). Their subs were as good, if not better than most actual sandwich shops. And look at all their original products (teas, pretzels, salads). Branding everywhere. I was in love!
Wawa would stay with me after my college days concluded. In fact, upon getting married and moving to Somerset County in Central Jersey we signed the contract on our first condo and headed to our very own in-town Wawa to celebrate. I was proud of the fact that our new town of Hillsborough, NJ had (to the best of my knowledge at the time) the northernmost Wawa in the country. We would stay in Wawa country when moving to Raritan Township, NJ, though our move to Warren County last year finally took us to the heart of Quick Chek proper (they’re not bad, but come on they can’t even spell “Check” right).
To say I have a love and a bias towards Wawa would be more than fair. I own a Wawa T Shirt and even purchased the book on Wawa’s history, released as part of their 50th anniversary celebration, The Wawa Way: How A Funny Name And 6 Core Values Revolutionized Convenience.
So, what then is my connection to Sheetz? This little experiment already seems pretty unfair. Clearly, I am in the tank for Wawa, right? I like Sheetz. I do. I just don’t have the same familiarity with their product. To me, Sheetz was always that place with the better-than-usual attached store that you stopped at for gas on a road trip . It never occurred to me that someone would actually live in a town with a Sheetz. These were just quick-stop overs on long caravans through the vast nothingness of Central PA.
TALE OF THE TAPE
|No. of Stores||720+||500+|
|Locations||DE, FL, MD, NJ PA, and VA||MD, PA, NC, OH, WV and VA.|
|Headquarters||Chester Heights, PA||Altoona, PA|
Well, although I don’t live in a town with either of these stores, I do now live close enough to a town that actually has both (and a scary Turkey Hill Minit Market too), Easton, PA. I figured it was time to take off my Wawa tinted glasses (they’d be brown I guess, so I could probably just wear any pair of sunglasses really) and give Wawa and Sheetz a fair shake at convenience store supremacy.
I’ve broken down the Wawa/Sheetz experience into five essential categories, and will delve into each in the coming weeks with as much impartiality as I can possibly muster. At the end of the experience, I will crown a winner, just in time for the holidays, whence (or is it Wentz in Philly?) I will celebrate at the victor’s location with a cup of holiday-themed coffee and perhaps a pretzel or donut.
Round 1 – Pretzels & Donuts
Round 4 – Customer Service, Intangibles, & Holiday Charm (12/18)
Possibly the most important factor in any Philly-area/PA eateries success lies in their ability to produce a quality pretzel. As America’s starting point for the pretzel revolution, the PA Dutch forefathers of our nation would likely be proud of the sustaining power of the top notch pretzels produced in this region. While Wawa is known for their single and double pretzels sold pre-bagged at the register, Sheetz requires the customer to custom-order their twists from their touch screen (at least from what I could tell on the day I visited).
Wawa changed the recipe for their pretzel a few years back, and while the new model didn’t win everyone over, I for one am a fan. I’m not going to compare a Wawa pretzel with say a fresh baked pretzel from an Amish market stand, but still, a Wawa pretzel is pretty decent for a mass produced convenience store item.
On this day, the pretzel I sampled wasn’t hot (a slight drawback with some Wawa products is timing…how long have they been sitting out?) but it was fresh nonetheless. The Wawa pretzel has a somewhat unique crunchy exterior, while maintaining its soft, sweet (almost cake-like) bread-y interior. The pretzel also features what I call the “sweet spot”, that slightly under-cooked area where crunchy meets soft and all the problems in the world seem to fade away into a Bavarian bliss.
Positives: Evenly salted, good texture, sweet bread-y flavor
Maybe Sheetz is suffering in the beverage sales department. Why else would they load up their pretzels with enough salt to keep the Ben Franklin Bridge from freezing over? Despite being made fresh (I presume, probably just warmed up) the Sheetz pretzel was a big disappointment. After I scraped off about an inch of salt (and obnoxious tasting salt at that), I was left with a pretzel that despite its soft consistency was also overloaded with butter. While I’m no prude when it comes to butter (I’d totally go all the way with butter!) the amount (and slightly “off” taste) liberally painted on the Sheetz pretzel so dominates the flavor that you struggle to taste anything else.
If I picked up this pretzel in a gas station in say Kansas, I probably would not have been disappointed. But, I’m sorry. This is Pennsylvania. You need to bring your A game. Frankly, I felt a little embarrassed for Sheetz after this debacle.
Negatives: Overriding butter flavor, way too salty
While not as germane (perhaps it’s as Tito or Marlon) to the region as the pretzel, another important pastry in the world of convenience stores is the dount. While the image may come to mind of the lonely stale donut sitting on the shelf for hours waiting for a home or a one-way trip to the dumpster, in fact, well ummm actually that’s kind of a pretty accurate picture. If you’re gonna be a go-to destination for travelers and locals alike, you can’t have scuzzy donuts though. For this comparison I went with a common staple in this field (and Homer Simpson favorite) the circular iced donut.
Sadly, when I hit the Wawa in Easton, they were down to a sad lone iced donut. In keeping with their seasonal colors, the sprinkles atop the white icing were a festive green, orange, brown, and yellow, ready to compliment the hungry traveler’s Hot Turkey Gobbler sandwich. This sad little puppy was in need of a good home, but really it should have been put to sleep. In addition to being stale, the donut just seemed smaller than your typical donut. The icing formed only a thin barrier between my taste buds and the slightly tough, uninspired ring below. While I have partaken of better Wawa donuts than this, fresh off the truck in fact (is that really fresh?), for the sake of this experiment I am only going to judge this particular disappointment. The only thing it had going for it was its festive, tasty fall-apart sprinkles.
Negatives: Size, freshness, icing amount
Having never ingested (that’s a gross choice of words, sorry) a Sheetz iced donut before, I didn’t know what to expect. If the pretzel was any indication, I’d be scraping off sprinkles and gagging on icing. Like Wawa’s offering, the Sheetz donut was also somewhat festive, bypassing the Thanksgiving season, and going right for the Christmas jugular (this was November 10th mind you) with the red and green sprinkles. However, on first bite it was clear Sheetz came to play with their iced donut. The donut was larger, fluffier, and just more flavorful than it’s PA counterpart. The icing was thick and a fine glaze encapsulated the entirety of the pastry. This was a real treat!
The refined palate of my three-year-old daughter (who accompanied me) even recognized the superiority of Sheetz’ product, later asking me for a bite of the “Christmas Donut” and eschewing my attempts to pawn off the “Thanksgiving Donut” on her. While not quite at the level of a hot-off-the-belt Krispy Kreme donut, this easily matched and probably surpassed a similar offering at Dunkin Donuts. Well done, Sheetz!
Positives: Freshness, Icing, Glaze
Negatives: None really
So, after one round, we have a stalemate. I suppose I should have compared three items, not two and then we’d have a clear winner. But much like the NFL, I don’t want to risk either store’s safety by forcing them to go to overtime to settle this tie (that analogy makes no sense whatsoever – you’re welcome). Stay tuned for Round 2, when we look at the Coffee, Potatoes, and Bacon/Egg/Cheese Sandwiches that comprise the convenience store breakfast. Hey there’s three items there, so we shouldn’t end up in another tie at least!