Friday, September 22, 2006

A Trucker’s Guide to Drinking and Driving

By Alan Burkhart

As someone who constantly travels the USA and drinks a lot of coffee, I consider myself to be a coffee connoisseur. I can’t tell you who uses what specialty coffee beans and what South American nation produces the best coffee. But I can tell you where I find the best “on the road” coffee for my picky little taste buds. With so many Americans traveling these days, “to go” coffee has become a hot item (I know, bad pun). As an all-around nice guy, I will endeavor here to save you from the aggravation of getting a truly revolting cup of coffee while you’re traveling during the upcoming holiday season.

My comparison of “to go” coffees involves national and regional chains and is based upon how I personally like my coffee at home. I daresay that this is how everyone else judges their coffee while traveling, so it’s a valid method of comparison provided that you know how I like my coffee. At home I brew a fairly strong pot of Folgers Classic Roast. Smooth, but bold. Absolutely no bitter aftertaste whatsoever. Best coffee on the planet. I drink it with just a touch of Sugar Free Coffeemate (Hazelnut) and a teaspoon of Splenda. As I write this piece, my Camel Cigarettes coffee mug is sitting right next to the keyboard.

So, who has the best “to go” coffee?

In my opinion, the best is found at “QT” (“QuikTrip”) stores. Their coffee is good no matter how you drink it. I add Splenda or Equal to mine. They generally offer “gourmet” flavored creamers and your choice of either sugar or several artificial sweeteners. But you don’t have to add anything. It’s good black as well, and even the decaf is pleasant. The only drawback to QT is the fact of their having limited locations (only 9 states).

Running a very close second to QT is “Pilot Travel Centers.” Pilot also offers a wide selection of sweeteners and flavored creamers, and they offer a diverse selection of coffees. I prefer their “House” coffee. Not too strong, but bold and quite smooth. And, Pilot Travel Centers are scattered all over the country. Wherever you’re going, there’ll be a Pilot along the way.

My only real objection to Pilot is slow-moving lines at checkout combined with the fact that they often place a hot dog service right next to the coffee. The odor of greasy hot dog franks (on rollers), onions, slaw and mustard is markedly unpleasant at 5:00 AM. If you can deal with the stench, the coffee is worth it.

Third place belongs to Waffle House. If I were rating breakfasts, they’d be the grand prize winner, but we’re doing coffee, not steak -n- eggs. Waffle House doesn’t offer gourmet creamers or vast selections of imported coffees. But they do provide a smooth and tasty cup of coffee. It’s always fresh due to the sheer volume of coffee they sell. Service is fast and friendly, and they don’t charge an arm and a leg for their products. Good stuff!

For fourth place, the nod goes to IHOP for many of the same reasons that Waffle House earned third place. The coffee is about 95% as good as Waffle House, but usually costs just a tad more (maybe a nickel or dime). Unlike Waffle House, many IHOPs also offer flavored creamers as well.

The nod for fifth place goes to Flying J Travel Plazas. Unremarkable, but drinkable. I rarely have complaints about Flying J’s java except for the occasional coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. They offer flavored creamers and the volume of sales through the day keeps it fresh. My principal objection to Flying J is their slow service at the cash register. It’s like checking out at Wal-Mart on a Friday. Good coffee, but if you’re in a hurry you should look elsewhere.

Holding down last place for good coffee is Denny’s. Decent coffee, but I avoid their food. Get a cup to go or sit and enjoy it if you’re skipping breakfast. Why anyone would actually eat at Denny’s is beyond me.

Okay, so who has the worst coffee (rated worst to “least worst”)?

First off, if you visit a truck stop or convenience store, look at the coffee dispensers. If the establishment proudly proclaims that they sell “Community Coffee” then you should bolt for the door. The stuff tastes more like insecticide than coffee. Farmer’s Brothers commercial coffee isn’t much better. Both of these companies’ offerings are bitter and leave a despicable aftertaste. I’m told that their coffee sold for home use is better, but I’ve not tried it.

Okay, I realize that Starbucks is chiefly responsible for the “Designer Coffee” phenomenon. I tip my hat to them for causing c-store and truck stop coffee to be better now than it was some years ago. I wish them well, but I don’t like their coffee. I’ve tried it several times. The regular coffee was bitter (and expensive), and their specialty drinks (lattes, etc) were like drinking liquid candy. I’ve also tried their “Frappuccino” product sold in many convenience stores. The first one was enjoyable simply because it was different, but I grew tired of it after the second one. What’s the big deal about Starbucks?

TA (Travel Centers of America) has added flavored creamers in some locations, but in my opinion this is mainly to mask the taste of awful coffee. It’s quite bitter and you’ll taste it for a half-hour after you choke down the last sip. Their restaurant coffee is marginally better than the icky goo found in their c-stores.

Petro Stopping Centers has drinkable coffee if you get it from the restaurant or adjoining convenience store. If you’re a trucker, you already know how bad the coffee is out back at the diesel islands. As an industrial cleaner or degreaser, it’s top quality. But as coffee? C’mon guys. What’s that stuff really made of?

Next on the list of All-time Bad Coffee we find Love’s Country Stores. These are great stores and I fuel at Love’s quite often. My objection to their coffee is a lack of consistent quality. No two Love’s coffees will taste the same. Sometimes I get a good cup, other times it’s undrinkable. I have no idea why this happens, and I’m not one to speculate. FYI: When you pour a cup at Love’s, give it a sniff before you add anything. It’ll taste almost exactly like it smells. You be the judge.

McDonald’s, Wendy’s Carl’s Jr., Hardees, Burger King, etc… The fast food folks’ coffee is generally survivable, if unremarkable. Most Love’s and Pilots have fast food restaurants onsite. If I’m at a Pilot and grab a fast food breakfast, I get my coffee from Pilot. If I’m at Love’s, the fast food coffee is better. McDonald’s at one time had amazingly bad coffee, but they’ve improved it over time. As fast food coffee goes, The Clown probably has the best these days.

Okay, that covers the national and regional chains that I frequent. Many independents offer good coffee, but there are too many to rate them all. I will say that the Lehigh Truck Stop in Lexington, VA has great coffee. Favorable nods also go to Simmons’ Truck Stop in Bracey, VA, Sam’s Restaurant in Fairfield, TX, Mom’s Diner in Minden, LA (the restaurant, not the store), Jimmies Truck Stop in Madison, FL and the Davy Crockett Truck Stop near Greenville, TN. Additionally, all of the aforementioned independents have great food - especially Sam's and Lehigh.

Travel safely, enjoy the coffee, and I’ll see you on the road.
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