Being a food lover in the United States has its perks. You are in one of the only places on the planet where the power to try and experience virtually any cuisine you want is available to you.
When traveling in the country, due to cultural differences and the sheer size of the United States, you have the opportunity to try entire channels that are inaccessible to you outside of other regions.
I’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic, specifically the DC and Delaware areas, as well as New England. So, in my experience, here are four chains that have what it takes to go national.
Everyone knows the luxury of traveling to Pennsylvania or the beaches of Delaware and being able to stop in Wawa. And everyone who lives there is spoiled by having Wawa in their backyard.
When I was a kid, once a summer I would go with friends to Hershey Park, and on each trip, resounding cheers emanated from the car as we made our usual stop at Wawa Wonderland. Do I want an Icee? Maybe a sandwich? Candy? The world was my oyster, except Wawa doesn’t sell oysters. Yet he holds a special place in my heart.
The Delaware-Pennsylvania region has a solid reputation for chain gas stations that are not only great to eat but also part of the cultural fabric of the region. Royal Farms, Sheetz and of course Wawa. And this formula works.
Wawa was founded in 1964 and currently operates 972 pitches in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida. For context, McDonald’s has 1,800 locations in these five states. In these five states, Wawa manages to accumulate an annual income of $11 billion. And it is not a hazard. The Midatlantic likes what Wawa has, and there’s no reason everyone shouldn’t like it too.
If there’s one thing living in Delaware for two years has given me, it’s a Philadelphia-area love for Wawa and all of its incredible perks. Imagine a Dunkin’, Subway, 7/11 and 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’s not just the number of conveniences rolled into one. It is their quality. No shade at gas stations, but I think we can all agree that they’re not exactly top-notch dining destinations. But at Wawa, I like the iced coffee, the sandwiches. . . and they are actually of good quality. This kind of convenience, low price and quality is not something you can find anywhere else, and I want it everywhere.
This DC-area native is a bit more niche and hasn’t been around that long. But fast way is truly one of the best quick meals I have ever had.
The chain offers high-quality Japanese hibachi dishes, except instead of sitting at a table with a grill on it and watching someone make an onion tower, you’ll build your own Chipotle-style bento box. Sushi, dumplings and spring rolls are also offered.
Quickway was founded in 2011 and operates over 30 locations in the DC area. In 2019, it reached $22 million in annual sales. This restaurant is profitable, growing rapidly and, above all, delicious.
For $7.95, one can enjoy a massive serving of crispy, well-seasoned teriyaki chicken on a pile of white rice, fried rice, or vegetable noodles, and a container of Magic Yum Yum Sauce (a mixture of mayonnaise, rice vinegar, tomato paste and spices). It’s a high-quality, deeply enjoyable meal that not only doesn’t break the bank, but barely sniffs the bank.
Say Flavor Joe’s allowed me to go to university would not be enough. Aroma Joe got me through a pandemic. The coffee chain founded in 2000 hails from New Hampshire and now operates more than 70 pitches across New England, Pennsylvania and Florida.
He uses a special technique with his iced coffee that involves pouring hot coffee into the cup along with sugar, which dissolves and assimilates the sugar throughout the drink. It may seem like a small 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 offers a line of energy drinks called energizers with over 30 flavors to choose from. But the best part is the breakfast sandwiches. An elevation of the fast food breakfast sandwich is much needed, and this place delivers quality ingredients.
Options like bacon and gouda, ham and swiss on a croissant, and chorizo on a flatbread are way beyond what competitors can handle. The ham is not flimsy but thick and punchy. The croissants are flaky and crunchy with a soft interior. The chorizo offers a great amount of spice with a creamy, cheesy fellow to complement it perfectly.
But hash browns. Oh my god, the hash browns. They are larger than Dunkin’s version but smaller than McDonald’s and almost look like a latke. They aren’t as crispy but don’t need to be.
By definition, Raising Cane’s is already a national chain. But I take issue with the lack of locations they operate. Not being in Maine I can understand, same with Delaware but when I get back to DC I’m shocked they didn’t find a home here. The closest is in Charlottesville, Virginia. Which is not close. I need my chicken fingers.
Before I first got Cane’s, I didn’t think there was a way to elevate the current form of chicken tenderloins. It’s the thing your picky friend gets in a fancy restaurant and embarrasses you. It’s tasty, but certainly nothing special. And until Cane’s, it sat there in picky eaters’ purgatory, right next to regular burgers with ketchup and cheese quesadillas.
But at Cane’s, you’ll experience a new level of chicken tenderness. The chicken is moist through and through. The breading doesn’t make you feel like you’re eating a brick. It’s light, crunchy and all the right stuff. The bread is inexplicably amazing. The fries are, well, just crinkle fries, but they complement the chicken nicely. I don’t know what’s in this sauce, but I see a lot of people trying to replicate it. My best guess is ketchup mayo and Worcestershire sauce with some spices. But it is a tasty and umami paradise.
With over 600 locations, the channel is already a national brand, but fans like me think it’s time to take it to the next level. 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 could truly take the reins as America’s fast food chicken king.