Being a food lover in the United States has its benefits. You're in one of the only places on the planet where the power to try and experience virtually any cuisine you want is at your disposal.
When traveling the country, due to cultural differences and the sheer size of the U.S., you have the opportunity to try entire chains that are inaccessible to you outside of other areas.
I've lived in the Mid-Atlantic, specifically the D.C. and Delaware areas, as well as New England. So, from my experience, here are four chains that have what it takes to go national.
Everyone knows the luxury of traveling to Pennsylvania or the Delaware beaches and being able to stop at Wawa. And everyone living there is spoiled by having Wawa in their back yard.
As a kid, once a summer I'd go with some friends to Hershey Park, and on every trip, resounding cheers would emanate from the car as we made our customary stop at the wonderland of Wawa. Do I want an Icee? Maybe a sandwich? Candy? The world was my oyster, except Wawa doesn't sell oysters. Still, it holds a special place in my heart.
The Delaware-Pennsylvania area has a strong reputation for chains of gas stations that are not only enjoyable to eat at but are also part of the cultural fabric of the area. Royal Farms, Sheetz, and of course Wawa. And that formula is working.
Wawa was founded in 1964, and currently operates 972 locations in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida. For context, McDonald's has 1,800 locations across those five states. In those five states, Wawa manages to accumulate an annual revenue of $11 billion. Ans that's no accident. The Midatlantic loves what Wawa's got, and there's no reason everyone else wouldn't love it too.
If there's one thing living in Delaware for two years gave me, it's a Philly area-level love for Wawa and all its incredible benefits. Imagine a Dunkin', a Subway, a 7/11, and a gas station all rolled into one. That's what Wawa brings. With wildly cheap prices, too. If a regular gas station is a Motel Six, a Wawa is a Ritz Carlton.
It isn't just the number of conveniences rolled into one. It's the quality of them. No shade to any gas stations out there, but I think we can all agree they aren't exactly premiere dining destinations. But at Wawa, I like the iced coffee, the sandwiches . . . and they're actually good quality. This kind of convenience, low price, and quality isn't something you can find anywhere else, and I want it everywhere.
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Quickway Japanese Hibachi
This D.C.-area native is a little more niche and hasn't been around all that long. But Quickway is truly some of the best fast-casual food I've ever had.
The chain offers high-quality Japanese hibachi food, except instead of sitting at a table with a grill on it and seeing someone make an onion tower, you'll build your own bento box Chipotle-style. Sushi, dumplings, and spring rolls are also on offer.
Quickway was founded in 2011 and operates over 30 locations in the D.C. area. In 2019, it clocked in at $22 million in annual sales. This restaurant is profitable, growing quickly, and, above all, delicious.
For $7.95, one can enjoy a massive helping of crispy, well-seasoned teriyaki chicken over a heap of white rice, fried rice, or noodles with vegetables, and a container of the magical yum yum sauce (a mix of mayo, rice vinegar, tomato paste, and spices). It's a high-quality, deeply enjoyable meal that not only doesn't break the bank, it hardly sniffs the bank.
To say Aroma Joe's got me through college would not be enough. Aroma Joe's got me through a pandemic. The coffee chain founded in 2000 is native to New Hampshire, and now operates over 70 locations across New England, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
It uses a special technique with its iced coffee which involves pouring hot coffee into the the cup along with some sugar, which dissolves and assimilates the sugar throughout the drink. That may seem like a minuscule detail, but imagine your iced coffee having the same, absolutely perfect amount of sugar in every sip. It's the kind of thing you don't think you need in your life until you have it.
The chain also has a line of energy drinks called energizers with well over 30 flavors to choose from. But the best part is the breakfast sandwiches. An elevation of the fast-food breakfast sandwich is beyond necessary, and this place delivers with quality ingredients.
Options like bacon and gouda, ham and Swiss on a croissant, and chorizo on a flatbread leap far beyond what the competitors can manage. The ham is not flimsy but thick and impactful. The croissants is flakey and crunchy with a soft interior. The chorizo offers a great amount of spice with a creamy cheesy compatriot to compliment it just right.
By definition, Raising Cane's is a national chain already. But I take issue with the lack of locations they operate. Not being in Maine I can understand, same with Delaware, but when I come home to DC, I am shocked that they haven't found a home here. The closest one is in Charlottesville, Virginia. Which is not close. I need my chicken fingers.
Before having Cane's for the first time, I didn't think there was a way to elevate the current form of chicken tenders. It's the thing your picky friend gets at a fancy restaurant and embarrasses you. It's tasty, but it certainly isn't anything special. And until Cane's, it sat there, in picky eater purgatory right alongside plain burgers with ketchup and cheese quesadillas.
But at Cane's, you'll experience a new level of chicken tender. The chicken is moist all the way through. The breading doesn't make you feel like you just ate a brick. It's light, crunchy, and all it needs to be. The bread is inexplicably amazing. The fries are, well, just crinkle-cut fries, but they complement the chicken well. I don't know what's in that sauce, but I see plenty of people trying to replicate it. My best guess is mayo ketchup and Worcestershire sauce along with some spices. But it's a savory, umami heaven.
With more than 600 locations, the chain is a national brand already, but fans like myself think it's time to take the next step. It has the potential to take the country by storm and assert itself alongside Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. In many ways the quality surpasses these competitors and Raising Cane's could truly take the reins as king of American fast-food chicken.