It’s a reliable road-trip stop, but it’s also a destination all its own.

Zoe Denenberg

When I first heard about the plans for a Sheetz to open on University Avenue in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was utterly disappointed.

“It’s a gas station,” I’d scoff to friends, or anybody who’d listen, as we traded opinions regarding the impending opening. “And they’re not even going to have gas pumps. I simply don’t understand.”

While some defended the September, 2017 introduction of the convenience store to the Corner—a stretch of shops and restaurants running down University Avenue, adjacent to the University of Virginia—popular opinion surrounding the gas-less Sheetz opening seemed to center around a common confusion: why? With a CVS down the street and three other local convenience stores, the choice to open yet another convenience store bewildered and confused students who had harbored high hopes for the empty storefront. Many had spent the summer speculating the prospects of a new restaurant (perhaps an ice cream shop? Or a Cookout?) surfacing on the Corner landscape, providing another fast-casual, late-night dining option. So the reveal of the Sheetz was, in the eyes of many, a let-down. Little did we know that Sheetz would be exactly what we needed.

On its website, under the charmingly-titled category “What’s a Sheetz?”, the company defines itself as “a mecca for people on the go.” It continues, “If you need to refuel your car or refresh your body, we have what you need to keep you moving on to whatever comes next.” The popular gas station peppers highways across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina, amounting to a whopping 600 locations. Although offering “quality gasoline at low prices” is a core tenant of Sheetz’s mission, it also touts its “award-winning made-to-order foods” and “espresso bar with made-to-order specialty coffeez” as key elements of its business. The company emphasizes that Sheetz is for anyone and everyone—“Road warriors. Construction workers. Soccer moms. They all have a special place at Sheetz.” But its newest audience? Students.

In recent years, Sheetz has broken out of the gas-station mold by opening select fuel-free storefronts (many of which are located in college towns) that focus wholly on food and beverage service. Sheetz opened its first café-style, fuel-free location in 2015 at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. In line with Sheetz’s commitment to community and philanthropy, the chain reportedly celebrated the opening by donating $2,500 to Special Olympics Pennsylvania and “offering a $10,000 scholarship to one full- or part-time West Virginia University student.”

Sheetz’s commitment to engaging with the community resonated from its first days in Charlottesville. The employees set up tables outside the storefront and handed out free Sheetz t-shirts to locals and students passing by. Students were hired to work the registers and the fryers—and, soon enough, it began to draw them in as customers, as well. Although I had formerly questioned the opening, my friends convinced me to give Sheetz a chance. After just one visit I was hooked.

In addition to a commitment to fostering community, Sheetz’s fuel-free locations show the company’s true heart and soul: serving fresh and fast made-to-order food, 24/7, 365 days of the year. In terms of convenience, Sheetz fulfills all your on-the-go needs; each store is stocked with a grab-and-go selection of pre-prepared yogurts, sandwiches, and snacks, as well as fresh “Shweetz” bakery items. But the real star of the show? The made-to-order food.

Most Sheetz locations are fashioned with convenient oversized tablets, where you can build your dream meal from categories like “Burgerz,” “Saladz,” and “Subz and Sandwiches,” all appended with the brand’s signature “z.” While you can’t go wrong with a classic sub or hot dog, don’t shy away from the more adventurous categories; tucked under the label of “Mexamerican,” you’ll find crispy, golden-crusted quesadillas that one friend enthusiastically endorses. But it is in the Apps & Sides category where Sheetz really shines.

Amid the temptations of loaded fryz platters, chicken sliders, and made-to-order mac n’ cheese creations, you will find the glory that is the Sheetz App Sampler. One of the perks of the Sheetz menu is its endless customizability—each dish or order can be modified to your liking through the intuitive tablet interface. But the Sheetz App Sampler stands out as a triumph for the indecisive.

I could spend hours raving about the beauty that is the Sheetz App Sampler. For just $5, you can have your pick of three different fried appetizers, all made-to-order and presented together in a shiny red box. If you’re like me and just can’t bring yourself to choose between jalapeño poppers and popcorn chicken, the App Sampler will be your new best friend. Have your choice from eight different all-star offerings; my standard App Sampler is composed of mac n’ cheese bites, Wisconsin cheese bites, and totz in a cheesy symphony. But I often venture to substitute one of my standard selections for jalapeño poppers; or, if I want something a bit more substantial, boneless chicken bites. No matter the fried combination, I faithfully select ranch as my dipping sauce, but each Sheetz patron has a go-to dipper (one friend swears by the boom boom sauce, while another opts for both BBQ and honey mustard). Luckily, you can add an extra dipper for just 40 cents.

Southerners may be choosy about their fried food, but Sheetz consistently delivers freshly fried excellence quickly, conveniently, and without any fuss. If you’re in a hurry, you can even order ahead online. And all for only $5? It’s a no-brainer.

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If the App Sampler wins the gold, I would be remiss not to offer an honorable mention to the sparse but highly effective made-to-order “Shweetz” category. If you’re craving something sweet, the Cinnapopperz—miniature cinnamon buns, twisted to a swirl and fried to a delightful shade of gold, rolled in cinnamon-sugar and served with your choice of dipping sauce (you may be tempted by dark chocolate or caramel sauce, but you won’t regret choosing the classic cream cheese icing)—will never disappoint.

Sheetz may be a gas station, but it’s much more than that. Providing good-quality food with convenience and consistency remains at the core of the company’s mission, and today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a student in Charlottesville who dares to question Sheetz’s place on University Avenue. Now on every road trip I proudly brandish my Sheetz travel coffee mug. The next time you’re road-tripping on the Blue Ridge Parkway, pull over at a roadside Sheetz and give its fried food a taste for yourself.

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