Chain Reaction

Alan Richman, winner of a record 16 James Beard Awards but a man of “no coffee pretensions,” visits six chains with claims to coffee excellence and rates their brews.

Illustrations by Victor Juhasz

I started drinking commonplace coffee more than 20 years ago, right after the company that inspired my enthrallment with single-origin, ground-to-order beans was bought and shut down by Starbucks. Grieving, I abandoned elite coffee. The Coffee Connection was a Boston-based chain of staggering culinary vision and minimal commercial ambition. After its demise, my morning ritual was never the same.

These days I still drink coffee, but no quest is involved. I buy it ground, at my local grocery store, preferring whatever is on sale. Sometimes a bag of coffee appears in the mail, sent by a friend. My old Krups grinder is in the back of a kitchen cabinet, the blades frozen, like an old hand lawn mower abandoned in a barn for decades. I still use my old coffee mug. We all have one of those, a memento from a beloved spot we once visited and never want to forget. Mine is from Beauty’s, a luncheonette established in Montreal in 1942.

The fanciest coffee I regularly buy is Seattle’s Best Signature Blend No. 4; the most lowbrow is Chock Full o’ Nuts French Roast. As a food writer, my palate is often thought of as well-honed, but I have no coffee pretensions. I admit an affinity for McDonald’s “senior coffee,” which refers to the age of the person drinking it. I often claim that it is my favorite food on Earth, simply because it costs 69 cents at the McDonald’s near me.
When I was asked by the editors of New Jersey Monthly to explore the chain coffees of New Jersey, place of my birth, I complimented them on sourcing the perfect journalist. They sent me to six different establishments that sell staggering amounts of coffee. At 7-Eleven alone, the regular was touted as “our most popular coffee, with over a billion cups sold.” A warning: It’s not great. Except at Starbucks, all the coffee I sampled was poured from the most banal of containers: glass carafes set atop heating elements or pump thermoses, the kind found at self-service buffets offered by chain motels.

I happily hurried off to QuickChek, recently named in a consumer survey as having the best coffee of the 22 largest convenience-store chains. My assigned task was to sample the basic black coffee at each stop. QuickChek’s basic, the Reserve Blend, was dark, hot and substantial. What stunned me, however, was the dazzling variety of flavored coffees: pistachio, pecan sticky bun, vanilla crème, chocolate macadamia nut and many more. Consumers don’t drink coffee anymore. They prefer flavored caffeine.

Wawa, which I recall as a reliable source of Tastykakes back when they were difficult to find, has not changed in that regard. Still plenty of Kandy Kakes and Krimpets. Making an appearance was a new, darker Signature Blend to go with Wawa’s lighter Regular. They were similar in style, the Signature darker but certainly not better. I preferred the Regular, in part because light-roast coffee is not easily found these days. I thought I detected a flowery bouquet in the regular cup, but it was frustratingly elusive.

The coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts offered a vague roasted flavor—in a blind tasting, I might have identified it as vegetable soup. The brew was thin, light and neutral, poured from a glass carafe. Walk into a Dunkin’ Donuts and what you smell is sugar, not coffee. So many donuts, so many people buying them. Where I went, there was even an ATM on premises to help them out. It seemed that every customer walked out with a cup of coffee and a half-dozen of the frosted kind.

At 7-Eleven, the regular was fresh, more of a virtue than most establishments realize. The promotional copy attached to the urn promised “hints of vanilla.” I might have been hallucinating, because I thought I detected them.

Starbucks is the ultimate in no-introduction-needed. Although it offers a massive array of coffees, most packaged to go, the standard is the famous darker-than-most drip coffee, $1.75 for a 12-ounce cup at the store I visited. (Prices at some of the six chains may vary by location.) The Starbucks drip is a little more expensive than those at the other shops I tried, and it delivers a consistently strong, non-nuanced flavor.

I also tried the air-dried Ethiopian Kanga, one of the single-origin, small-batch coffees Starbucks offers in its elite Reserve program. The $4 price (for 12 ounces) is impressive, and so is the brewing process—one slow cup at a time in something called a Clover system. The counter person described it as a “reverse French press,” although I thought it looked like one of those Proton Packs carried by the Ghostbusters. The Ethiopian Kanga was a little lighter than the standard blend, with winey and fruity nuances, clearly a superior coffee, but not one to linger over, at least not in a Starbuck’s shop. The ambiance—noisy, crowded, bustling—is not about contemplation of a cup.

McDonald’s coffee is a good deal. It’s cheap, hot, fresh and served politely. Of the stores I went to, McDonald’s offered the most pleasant, well-lit seating area. (Half the shops I visited had nowhere to sit.) The coffee is bland, more about warming you up than delighting your palate. If you are going to drink less-than-great coffee, McDonald’s isn’t bad at all.

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  1. KRN26K

    I enjoy the coffee at Sonic and also at Wendy’s – both extremely good!