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Food Dude

Casey’s takes on Subway

2/5/2014

Casey’s General Store’s 6-inch Italian sub.

Casey’s General Store’s 6-inch Italian sub.

If you pay for gas at the pump, you might be amazed by all that has been going on inside convenience stores this century. Some have become liquor stores, fried chicken shops and live bait dispensers. Some specialize in ethnic snack foods like samosas and tacos. None is as ambitious as Casey’s, though, for challenging the fast food giants. That 1,772-store chain, which began in Des Moines in 1959, is now among the nation’s largest retailers of both pizza and doughnuts. Some Iowans who grew up in one of Casey’s longtime target towns — those with fewer than 5,000 population — talk about how Casey’s pizza made their favorite family dinners of the week. Last year the chain opened its first pizza-only store, and it plans more.

Pizza and other prepared foods have protected Casey’s from the profit erosion of declining cigarette sales — the bane of the convenience store industry. In December, Casey’s reported a 24 percent increase in annual earnings. Its corporate goals for this year include increasing gas sales by 1.5 percent, grocery sales by 5 percent and prepared food sales by 9 percent. To that end, the chain has been building submarine sandwich stations in its newer stores.

While the company cut its teeth in small towns with little competition, the third-millennium Casey’s seems to thrive on challenges. A new Casey’s at First Street and Grand Avenue in West Des Moines sits across the street from a revered doughnut shop, two pizzerias and a Subway outlet. When a Cityview reader asked about its subs, it was the first time I’d learned they were even in that business. With its track record in pizza and doughnuts, its sandwiches seemed worth checking out.

I bought comparable Italian subs recently at Casey’s, Subway and Jimmy John’s. Prices varied: Subway’s 6-inch spicy Italian sub cost $3.75, Casey’s 6-inch Italian sub, $3.99, and Jimmy John’s 8-inch Vito is priced at $4.50. Subway was also offering a $5 special on its 12-inch sandwiches, which reduced the price per six inches to $2.50. Jimmy John’s was fastest at preparing sandwiches; Casey’s the slowest. Jimmy John’s offered the least choice of ingredients, Subway the most. Casey’s sandwich was the largest in circumference, measuring 23.9 centimeters compared to 22 for Subway’s and 20.7 for Jimmy John’s. Since Jimmy John’s was also 33 percent longer, it was actually the largest in measurable volume. Jimmy John’s sandwich weighed the most, both with and without bread. Casey’s bun measured the largest, but it did not weigh as much as the others.

I deconstructed each sandwich and asked four judges to compare them three ways: by bread, meats and cheeses, as well as salads of various toppings. Jimmy John’s meats and cheeses were everyone’s favorite. (Its sandwich used Genoa salami and capicola. Casey’s used ham, salami and pepperoni. Subway used salami and pepperoni.) Everyone pronounced Casey’s pepperoni superior to Subway’s blander version. All sandwiches included provolone (though Subway and Casey’s offered additional cheeses), and judges were divided about those.

There was no agreement about the breads either. Most thought that Casey’s bread was the lightest and easiest to chew. Some thought that it was too large for their mouths, though. Jimmy John’s delivered everyone’s favorite salad. Its lettuce was judged fresher and crisper than the others. Its house-brand peppers were preferred to those on both other sandwiches. Everyone thought that all three used surprisingly good olive oils and vinegars. (Subway’s website calls its oil an “olive oil blend.”) When asked if Jimmy John’s ingredients were good enough to justify its higher price, the panel was divided.

Side Dishes One Asian café is now open at 2250 Hubbell Ave.… The potato latke cook-off and silent auction, “Thrilla in the Skillet” (for the Des Moines Area Religious Council Food Pantry Network), is set for March 9 at Tacopacolypse. Learn more at http://thrillaintheskillet.com. CV                 

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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