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5 Major Differences Between Costco and Sam's Club Food Courts Right Now

The competition is heating up in these cafes.
FACT CHECKED BY Amanda McDonald

When you're weighing the costs and benefits of joining one of the two biggest warehouse retailers, you might want to consider each aspect of the company before committing. Do you care most about the differences in product selection, the perks and offers, the return policies, or the in-store experience? If you're finding yourself in a bind trying to balance the pros and cons of Costco versus Sam's Club, maybe we can offer you a tie-breaker: the food court.

Don't let the low prices fool you ($1.50 hot dog combo, anyone?) The food court is a certified moneymaker for the clubs, to both increase memberships and make some extra cash. For example, not only does Costco's food court entice new members to join, but according to MoneyWise, it also brought in annual sales to the tune of $1 billion in 2018. The company is always looking for ways to satisfy eaters after a long bulk grocery haul.

The Sam's Club Cafe has also been vying for the top spot. In 2018, for example, when Costco customers were heartbroken over the loss of the Polish dog, Sam's Club swooped in to pick up the pieces and offered their own take on the fan-favorite, in hopes of drawing people to the other side.

Maybe it's the tasty bites along the way that add up to a delectable shopping destination, so here are five differences between the food courts at Costco and Sam's Club to keep in mind when deciding which sign-up sheet to write your name on.

RELATED: 6 Things You'll See at Costco This Year

1

The Menu

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While both Costco and Sam's Club offer the same basics—hot dogs, pizza, and churros—they have key differences. Sam's Club has a longer list going for them: savory and dessert pretzels, Caesar salads, and yogurt parfaits, to name a few. Where Costco has only cheese and pepperoni pizza, Sam's Club throws in four-meat and deluxe options.

However, even though Costco's menu is a bit slimmer, they may have quality over Sam's Club. According to a review by the blog Cheapism, Costco's pizza, hot dogs, and savory baked items reigned supreme in a taste test against the equivalents at Sam's Club.

The blogger described the Kirkland slice of pepperoni: "After having Sam's Club's pizza, this slice feels like a revelation. The crust is puffy and chewy, and while it sags when you pick it up, it doesn't collapse. It's baked long enough to get some nice charring around the crust and on the cheese for some contrast in flavor and texture."

So if you're likely to get bored by the same old, same old, visit your nearest Sam's Club. But if you're looking for tried-and-true favorites, consider Costco your first stop.

2

Ordering in Line vs. Kiosk

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The safety measures implemented due to the pandemic led some stores to introduce new no-touch processes. For Costco, this meant rolling out self-service kiosks for the food court. They originally tested them in 2018, but when social distancing became the norm, they expanded this option to more stores in 2020, according to SheKnows.

Sam's Club's food court line is standard fare—waiting in a queue of customers to order at the counter. But just because it's low-tech doesn't make it the inferior option. In fact, some people perceive the kiosk wait as longer, according to a Reddit post from two years ago on why some Costco employees noticed an uptick in customers skipping the screen and ordering at the register.

Reddit user u/comittedindian observed, "The kiosks are a good idea for reducing the Food Court lines that would snake and create choke points for people trying to leave Costco. However, the behind-the-counter staff wasn't beefed up to handle the extra workload. Those poor guys are running around getting 3 new orders for each 1 they fill."

So depending on whether you're still remaining cautious or would rather have the in-person experience, you can pick between Costco and Sam's Club according to your needs.

3

Fountain Drink Options

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The soda selection may have even the most die-hard Costco lovers thinking about switching sides. While the Kirkland food court added touchless fountain drink dispensers, many customers wish there was more variety. For one thing, Costco seems to only carry Pepsi products, leaving Coke fans out in the cold. And for another, there are only five drink options, according to Cheapism.

Meanwhile, Sam's Club cafe goers can fill their cup from an array of 16 different sodas, with multiple sugar-free and non-caffeinated choices. They even have a Sam's exclusive–Berry Lime Mountain Dew—that won over Costco loyalists.

4

Condiment Offerings

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The condiments at Costco are the star of the Kirkland food court. Since the start of the pandemic, Costco fans have anticipated the return of popular toppings, such as relish and onions. The self-serve station garnered attention on Reddit earlier last year, after COVID policy required people to get condiments at the register, showing how highly sought these food court embellishments are to customers.

The Sam's Club condiment bar, according to Cheapism, is a little more bare bones, with the basics like bottled ketchup, bottled mustard, and individual packets of red pepper flakes.

5

Membership Requirements

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Unlike the Sam's Club Cafe, the Costco food court is members-only. The rule has always been in place at the Kirkland warehouse, but in March 2020, Food & Wine reported that Costco began enforcing this policy. Some Reddit users even saw that the self-serve kiosks in some locations, like California, asked shoppers to scan their membership card before ordering. However, others reported that they had not encountered the requirement at their stores. Reddit user u/Nardelan said, "Definitely not nationwide yet. I'm in the Midwest and my Costco has kiosks for ordering but has never required a card."

One reason for Costco's crackdown on cafe customers is likely due to the famed $1.50 hot dog and soda deal, which, according to Food & Wine, is priced at a loss to encourage more people to become a part of the club. But whether or not you have a membership, you could take your chances at Costco or walk confidently into Sam's Club for that beloved hot dog combo.

Will the food court change at all any time soon? Read up on 5 Major Updates Costco Is Making Right Now to find out.

Sarah Wong
Sarah studied at Northwestern University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and experimented with mixing tech and journalism. Read more