Of the many things that will perplex, entertain, and perhaps even delight the future beings whose jobs it will be to study the ancient culture that was once these United States, high on a long list of head-scratchers might very well be America’s obsession with its convenience stores.
Just ask your roommate from Philadelphia to explain Wawa, assuming they have not already brought it up, consult your closest Texan about Bu-cee’s, or get a friend from Cincinnati going about the chocolate malts at United Dairy Farmers, and you’ll want to make sure your schedule is clear, because they might end up going on for a while.
They’re everywhere, convenience stores, a fact of life, often not all that pleasant to deal with. Every now and then, however, a regional chain comes along, inspiring—typically through an array of prepared food offerings, because isn’t food always the way to people’s hearts—what appears to be almost unshakeable loyalty. Barbecue. Fried chicken. Italian hoagies stuffed with cured meats, deep-fried burritos, breakfast pizzas. You name it, we’re eating it at the gas station, and sometimes, what we are eating is seriously delicious.
American convenience stores have inspired wedding photo shoots, music videos, epic road trips, award-winning films, tattoos, countless late night arguments in college dorms, plays—even heated debates in New York City offices where otherwise demure professional people can typically be found working quietly together.
The future is bright for the convenience store-faithful, too. Think about how good we have it now, out along the American roadside—it’s about to get better, with competition heating up, as once hyper-regional favorites hop state lines, sometimes many state lines, with abandon. Top grocery chains like HyVee are experimenting with the model, even adding Starbucks stores into the mix. In cities across the country, entrepreneurial types are making a splash reinventing the model for a hip, 21st-century crowd—there’s Choice Market in Denver, and Seattle’s Cone & Steiner.
The older, more traditional chains are feeling the pressure—everywhere you go these days, it seems like the coffee is improving, stores are growing, layouts are modernizing, lighting is being upgraded, rewards programs are now the norm, sandwich stations are popping up, and the food is starting to look downright appealing. But who has the best, right now? And how did we decide? In the end, the size of the company had no bearing on ranking—we asked one simple question, walking through the doors: How happy would we be to come back here, either for a bite to eat, a cup of coffee, or an ice cream, or more? Here, the results. — David Landsel
By industry standards, this Texas company, known for building the largest gas stations in the world, is still barely a blip on the screen; to a growing army of fans, this rapidly expanding collection of roadside attractions—with some stores nearly as big as modestly-sized Walmarts—is now the first and last word on the genre. We’re inclined to agree, and it’s not only because each of its large-format locations features an actual Texas-style barbecue joint, given pride of place in the middle of the store. From house brand snack foods—those Beaver Nuggets, wow—to smoked sausages on sticks to Texas-sized drinks to home goods, and cookbooks, and you name it, the thoughtfully-run company is your friend on the open road in a good portion of the Lone Star State, and it’s a name to watch closely—they’ve just opened their first Alabama location, near Mobile, and are currently working on stores in Georgia and Florida. Bring it on. Read more about Bu-cees here.
You’ll either make a ton of new friends or earn yourself a punch in the schnoz, but the fastest way to meet a lot of Philadelphians is to walk into a crowded room, and start asking: So, what’s the big deal with Wawa? Part of the glue holding the region together for generations, Wawa isn’t just a place for the best made-to-order sandwiches (say: HOA-GIE) and coffee in the industry, or great iced teas, house beers, ice creams, soft pretzels, and somewhat crave-able breakfast sandwiches—Wawa is where life happens. It’s where you run into everyone. It’s the community center, even an extension of your own living room. After generations of keeping things close to home, there are now more than 800 stores, all the way from Northern New Jersey to South Florida. If we’re very lucky, they won’t stop there. Read more about the culture of Wawa here.
3. Stewart’s Shops
You don’t work your way up to becoming one of the largest convenience store chains in the country by accident, but you also typically don’t do it without significant expansion; that’s the charm of this homey, extremely regional member of the top 25—you’ll mostly find them in a very specific part of New York State, in the relatively narrow area stretching from the northern NYC suburbs to the Canadian border. But Stewarts, closely held by the same family since the beginning, doesn’t have to broaden its horizons to keep thriving; they just need to keep giving their audience pretty much everything they need to stay happy, from pre-dawn buttered rolls and hot coffee, all the way up to after-dinner ice cream cones. Speaking of the latter, the amount of product the relatively small company produces under its own, unapologetically classic brand is impressive, as is their commitment to employees, who are said to own approximately 40 percent of the company stock. In a recent release, the company stated that the scheme has made nearly 70 of its employees into millionaires. Not a bad day at the office.
If you could get your hands on some, one of the more talked-about beer releases in Pennsylvania this year took place at one of the state’s favorite convenience stores. The refreshing blonde ale was brewed in partnership with Philadelphia’s Evil Genius, but with a twist—it was made with Sheetz’ popular blueberry muffins. (No, really, it was pretty good.) Quesaritos, totchos, fried macaroni and cheese bites—so much of the food, not to mention the drink, that you will find on the sprawling, 24/7 menu offered by this Altoona-based chain almost seems designed to baffle the uninitiated, but that doesn’t concern—not even in the slightest—the hordes of eager #SheetzFreaks who tend to find most other convenience stores boring at best, if not downright useless. Read more about the Sheetz beer program here.
From a downtown Savannah flagship featuring a full array of serious, available-24/7 Southern home cooking (wow, those biscuits) to more than fifty stores dotting the surrounding area, including the South Carolina Lowcountry, where you can always get your hands on an urn-sized cup of sweet tea, and some of the best chicken tenders around—fresh, never frozen, Parker’s is the extremely Southern convenience store of your dreams.
6. Casey’s General Store
Coming in not far behind giants like Circle K and 7-Eleven, size-wise, this Midwest staple shows you can grow immensely and still retain your personality; in tiny population centers throughout the middle of the country, Casey’s and its pizzas (which you can order through the app) are a lifesaver. It’s been said that if you really want to know what’s going on around town, ask at Casey’s. Sounds about right. Read all about the Casey’s experience here.
Maverik is the closest we’ll likely ever get to an REI-themed convenience store, and, of course, it’s headquartered in Utah. Everything about this place says get outdoors; their rewards program is even called the Adventure Club. But you don’t have to be on your way to crush it at Moab to belong, you just have to be hungry for breakfast tacos, pretty darned good ones at that, skillet meals, and some rather excellent raspberry fritters.
8. United Dairy Farmers
Plenty of convenience stores offer ice cream, sometimes very good ice cream, but few are quite so single-minded as this Cincinnati-area staple, which sometimes feels like an old-fashioned soda fountain in gas station/mini-mart clothing. You can come here for a lot of things, but you’ll begin with the chocolate malt, one of the finest in the land. Read about more Cincinnati musts here.
In the pantheon of American convenience store snacks, few are more obsessed-over than the deep-fried bean and cheese burrito at this New Mexico staple, equally loved by its West Texas neighbors. Do you want sauce? Heck yeah, you want sauce. Something else we feel you should know—they also deep-fry their pizza. It is delicious.
In heavily competitive Pennsylvania, this York-based favorite often gets left out of the regional convenience store debates, not that they’re particularly concerned—with roots going back to a 1700s dairy farm in the area, Rutter’s isn’t going anywhere, not any time soon. Offering one of the most extensive menus of any entry on this list, we’ve seen everything from ribs to chicken wings to cannoli and cheesecake on offer; nobody ever goes away hungry. (They’ve even started working on plant-based burgers, too.) Fun fact: Thanks to a change in Pennsylvania gaming laws, some locations now feature slot machines.
11. Royal Farms
Sometimes it feels like this Maryland institution is trying really hard to play catchup in the increasingly competitive Mid-Atlantic, where so many chains are crossing old boundaries and shaking things up. As long as they can keep their famous fried chicken coming, and lots of it, please, a stack of potato wedges on the side, we’ll have no quarrel here—when you already do something that well, we don’t need you reinventing everything else. Read Food & Wine’s previous review of the chicken at Royal Farms.
First, there was just the one store in Tulsa, Oklahoma—now, you’ll find the familiar QT logo everywhere from the Carolinas to the Arizona desert; this highly regarded company, which famously donates a modest percentage of its net profits to charity, has made great strides recently on the food front—stores equipped with QT Kitchens serve up worth-a-stop finds such as 12 hour-smoked brisket sandwiches, chorizo breakfast tacos, and soft-serve ice cream.
With full sandwich bars, an impressive array of coffees, and comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, empanadas, and even French fries, this New Jersey staple has managed to win over a good portion of the New York City suburbs on both sides of the state line. More than most, they’ve demonstrated a commitment to quality, from using antibiotic-free turkey to ensuring that coffee comes out fresh every twenty minutes.
14. Kum & Go
The striking, brand new, Renzo Piano-designed headquarters of this Des Moines-based company offer something of a view to the ambitions of this growing Midwest favorite, known not only for their breakfast pizzas, which feature sausage, bacon, and Canadian bacon, but also for the two-for-one deal on Fridays, on the breakfast pizza or any other pizza. Any time is a good time for a generous portion of freshly-baked cheesy breadsticks. Read more about Des Moines here.
15. Turkey Hill
This Lancaster County, Pennsylvania staple has gone through some changes of late, but being owned by a British conglomerate hasn’t dimmed the locals' appreciation for what always made the chain great—its array of bottled drinks (their iced teas are the ultimate summer day accompaniment) and very good ice creams, sold in supermarkets throughout the Northeast. Fun fact: You can sign up to create your own ice cream flavor (and eat it, too) at the Turkey Hill Experience, located at the company dairy—100% powered by renewable energy—near Lancaster. Read more about another delicious Lancaster tradition here.
16. Cumberland Farms
Behind every Dunkin’ loving New Englander, there’s another local that takes their morning coffee at Cumby’s, which happens to pair exceptionally well, btw, with the house line of whoopie pies. After years of plodding along, the family-owned company appears eager to compete in a larger market—there are sparkling new stores in Florida, older northern stores are being renovated, and the coffee’s been significantly upgraded.
Backed by its own dairy and bakery and around for the better part of a century, this rather sizable chain is widely known in East Tennessee, and only East Tennessee—all of its stores are located within 100 miles of home base. The house egg nog is a holiday must—the donuts and pizza are worth a look in, year-round.
18. Byrne Dairy
Central New York’s go-to for made-to-order sandwiches, killer milkshakes (from the house ice creams and milk) and cheeseburgers, all at fantastically retro prices ought to be a go-to for anyone traveling through this part of the state; around since the 1930s, they’re also known for their classic ice cream sandwiches—a scoop of vanilla between two chocolate chip cookies.
Pittsburgh’s #1 grocery store—that’s Giant Eagle, for those who don’t know—has been growing its convenience store spinoff rather swiftly; we’ve spotted sparkling new GetGo shops as far away as Indianapolis. Sandwiches are always a thing here, but at this time of year, it’s all about The Pilgrim, essentially Thanksgiving dinner (with the welcome addition of melted white cheddar) on a stuffing-flavored sub roll.
This Northern Florida find will get you in the door with their made-to-order pimento cheese sandwiches; you’ll stick around for the freshly brewed, all-day long iced teas (sweet or unsweet), and the surprisingly well-curated wine selection. Not bad for an all-night gas station.
If you haven’t been in a Thorntons lately, you might be surprised—their newer stores, with a strong emphasis on the Chicago and Louisville areas, are almost built around their Real Kitchen concept, which rolled out in 2016. There’s food all day, but breakfast is where they tend to shine, with a broad range of doughnuts, along with a very popular sausage egg and cheese burrito, stuffed with potato tot rounds. Look for the self-service soft serve machines; cones were recently starting at just 99 cents.
When you’re the world’s largest, and most profitable convenience store brand, you don't really need to do a whole lot, but Slurpees, practically a global pop culture icon at the point, aren’t the only thing on the menu—taquitos are a top pick, alongside an affordable, very simple pizza that makes a great quick meal for hungry people with nearly empty pockets. Read about 7-Eleven’s ambitious new food program, now in test mode.