Alan Richman, winner of a record 16 James Beard Awards but a man of “no co;ee
pretensions,” visits six chains with claims to co;ee excellence and rates their brews.
me, however, was the dazzling
variety of flavored co;ees:
pistachio, pecan sticky bun,
vanilla crème, chocolate
macadamia nut and many
more. Consumers don’t
drink co;ee anymore. They
prefer flavored ca;eine.
Wawa, which I recall as a reliable source of Tastykakes
back when they were di;cult 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 co;ee is not easily found these days. I
thought I detected a flowery bouquet in the regular cup, but it
was frustratingly elusive.
The co;ee at Dunkin’ Donuts o;ered 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 co;ee. 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 co;ee 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 halluci-
nating, because I thought I detected them.
Starbucks is the ultimate in no-introduction-needed. Although it o;ers a massive array of co;ees, most packaged to
go, the standard is the famous darker-than-most drip co;ee,
$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 co;ees Starbucks o;ers 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 co;ee, 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 co;ee is a good deal. It’s
cheap, hot, fresh and served politely.
Of the stores I went to, McDonald’s
o;ered the most pleasant, well-lit
seating area. (Half the shops I visited
had nowhere to sit.) The co;ee is
bland, more about warming you up
than delighting your palate. If you are
going to drink less-than-great co;ee,
McDonald’s isn’t bad at all. ;
I started drinking commonplace co;ee 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 co;ee.
The Co;ee 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 co;ee, but no quest is involved. I
buy it ground, at my local grocery store, preferring whatever
is on sale. Sometimes a bag of co;ee 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
co;ee 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 lun-
lished in Montreal in
The fanciest cof-
fee 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 co;ee pretensions. I
admit an a;nity for McDonald’s “senior co;ee,” 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 co;ees of New Jersey, place of my birth, I
complimented them on sourcing the perfect journalist. They
sent me to six di;erent establishments that sell staggering
amounts of co;ee. At 7-Eleven alone, the regular was touted
as “our most popular co;ee, with over a billion cups sold.” A
warning: It’s not great. Except at Starbucks, all the co;ee 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 bu;ets o;ered by chain motels.
I happily hurried o; to QuickChek, recently named in a
consumer survey as having the best co;ee of the 22 largest
convenience-store chains. My assigned task was to sample
the basic black co;ee at each stop. QuickChek’s basic, the
Reserve Blend, was dark, hot and substantial. What stunned
ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTOR JUHASZ