Food Court Showdown: Costco vs. Sam's Club Cafe

Person Getting Food At the Ordering Kiosk in a Costco, Large Photos of Items Available with Prices on the Top of the Kiosk


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Person Getting Food At the Ordering Kiosk in a Costco, Large Photos of Items Available with Prices on the Top of the Kiosk

Cafe Face Off

If there's one food Costco is known for — besides $5 rotisserie chickens — it's its hot dog combo. The Costco cafe at the front of the store has been selling the combo for $1.50 since 1985; it will stay at that price "forever," according to Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti. But other food court items are fair game: Costco raised the price of two staples in July 2022, including the famous chicken bake. 

Costco's biggest competitor also has a food court. The Sam's Club cafe menu and prices almost mirrors Costco's. So which of the cafes has the better deal, and which one has better food? I went to both — and ate a lot — to find out which has the best menu items.

Prices and availability are subject to change. Food court menu and experience may vary by location. This story was updated in November 2023.

Related: Things You Should Never Buy at Costco, Sam's, or BJ's

Cafe Counter At a Sam's Club, Large Photos with Pricing on the Top
Costco Food Court Self-Serve Ordering Kiosk, Ordering Screen, Separate Card Payment Device, and Separate Receipt Printer

Costco: Ordering

Rating: 8 out of 10
The typical ordering counter has been replaced by self-serve ordering kiosks at many locations due to the pandemic. This cuts down on the number of employees that are needed and unnecessary contact between people, and because there are four stations there's never a line. Your receipt will have your number on it, which will then be called by the employee who gathered your items at the counter. It's efficient and simple, but if you have any kind of special request or question, it can become cumbersome.

Sam's Club Hot Dog, Plain, on Brown Paper

Sam's Club: Hot Dog Combo

Price: $1.38
Rating: 4 out of 10
At Sam's Club, the only way to buy a hot dog is to order the hot dog combo that comes with a fountain drink. If you don't want a drink, it's the same price. But for less than a buck and a half, no one's really complaining. The hot dog is all beef, and it's hefty. It had a sickly, off-putting color, but the meat was juicy once you took a bite. The dry bun inexplicably stuck like glue to the too-mushy dog. Will it fill you up? Yes. Will you want another one? No. At least it's cheaper than Costco's dog.

Costco Hot Dog, Plain, on a Brown Paper Bag on a White Table

Costco: Hot Dog Combo

Price: $1.50
Rating: 7 out of 10
The frank at Costco also comes with a fountain beverage whether you want one or not. It's a quarter-pound of beef, and the brick red wiener overhangs the bun a little on both sides. It's juicy and flavorful, and reminiscent of the best hot dog served at a baseball game. Steaming helps keep the bun from drying out and the slits cut into the bun before baking give the illusion that someone somewhere cares about this cheap hot dog, which Costco says will remain at $1.50 "forever."

Condiments Area for the Cafe At Sam's Club, Napkins, Drinks Top, Salt, Ketchup, and Sweet Relish, a Sign Explaining That Sam's Club Is Out of Condiments

Sam's Club: Condiments

Rating: 6 out of 10
The condiments at Sam's Club food court were makeshift. I assume it has something to do with availability or manpower, but I didn't ask why there were no commercial condiment dispensers. Instead, there was a nice, handwritten sign with a smiley face on it, plus a few bottles of Heinz ketchup, mustard, and relish. Whatever — it worked just fine. Bonus point for the red pepper flake packets for pizza.

Condiments Area for the Food Court At Costco, Four Pumps for Ketchup, Two Mustards Ones, and Relish, and Napkins

Costco: Condiments

Rating: 5 out of 10
You'd think that the commercial condiment dispensers at Costco would be better than the piecemeal situation at Sam's Club, but the little pool that's dripped under each condiment is pretty gross. There's also more mustard than ketchup, which feels silly given that Costco axed the more sophisticated Polish dog. Also missed dearly by many is the fresh chopped onion dispenser, though you can at least get a little cup of onions if you ask for it at the counter. Still, for topping hot dogs, the condiment situation here is fine.

Slice of a Pepperoni and Sausage Pizza on a White Paper Plate At the Sam's Club Cafe

Sam's Club: Pizza

Price: $2.50
Rating: 5 out of 10
There is one thing this slice doesn't lack and that's toppings. There's a lot of melty cheese and a ton of all the meats, which are predictably greasy but also full of flavor, especially the Italian sausage and bacon. What this slice does lack is structure. The crust feels deflated like a popped balloon, and it may as well be nonexistent for all the stability it provides. Despite being messy and difficult to eat, it hits all those dried herb pizza notes. Even bad pizza can only be so bad, yah know?

Slice of a Pepperoni Pizza on a White Paper Plate At the Costco Food Court

Costco: Pizza

Price: $1.99
Rating: 9 out of 10
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. 

Though it's just pepperoni — there's only cheese or pepperoni to choose from now, much to the dismay of combo slice fans — there's a lot of grease, which may be a turn off for some, but not me. This is the pizza Little Caesars dreams of being.

You can also order a whole pizza to go for $10, and that's the best deal at Costco.

Two Churros At the Sam's Club Cafe, Left One on Top of the White Bag It's Served In and the Right One Still in the White Bag

Sam's Club: Churro

Price: $1
Rating: 7 out of 10
Like everything else at these warehouse stores, the churros are big — practically the length of your forearm. They are baked instead of fried since there are no deep fryers at Sam's Club cafes, which isn't great for their texture, but is probably better for your diet. I got these churros fresh out of the oven, and while the cinnamon sugar application was spotty, they nailed the crunchy exterior and custard-like, doughy center that's the hallmark of a good churro perfectly.

A Churro At the Costco Food Court, on a Brown Serving Bag

Costco: Twisted Churro

Price: $1.49
Rating: 4 out of 10
The churro at Costco was a looker with its twisted cinnamon and vanilla dough, but it suffered from being stored in the holding warmer for too long. It was stale and dried out, though there was an abundance of cinnamon sugar. I missed the contrast between the soft inside and crisp outside. This is one of those things you have to eat fresh, though it's worth the gamble to order it.

Berry Sundae At Sam's Club Cafe on a White Table

Sam's Club: Berry Sundae

Price: $1.58
Rating: 10 out of 10
The berry sundae is the perfect sweet treat of the Sam's Club menu. It's made with vanilla frozen yogurt, though you can ask for chocolate or swirl, plus a berry sauce of raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. You could put those summery, syrupy berries on a shoe and it'd taste great. It's full of whole berries and there's plenty of it to flavor the yogurt, which is thick and creamy. The curved lid in order to fill the entire thing is a nice touch, especially given how cheap this treat is.

Berry Sundae At the Costco Food Court on a White Table

Costco: Berry Sundae

Price: $2.49
Rating: 7 out of 10
There's only one berry to be found in Costco's berry sundae and that's strawberry. Those other three berries in Sam's Club's sundae are missed when you compare them side-by-side. But the strawberry sauce has chunks of fruit and a bright flavor, making this one delicious — just not as delicious. The soft serve was too soft, the cup wasn't as full, and the price was higher, but it's still a solid dessert even if it's missing that wow factor.

Numerous Pepsi Products Available At the Soda Fountain At Sam's Club Cafe, Three Large Machines with Eight Selections and Ice Each

Sam's Club: Soda

Price: 89 cents for 30 ounces
Rating: 10 out of 10
Just look at all those fountain options — there's even a Sam's Club-only Mountain Dew flavor in regular and diet. There are at least 16 different soft drink choices and three different kinds of brewed iced tea for a veritable beverage buffet. People who avoid sugar or caffeine will love the selection. Plus, Icees are available at the same price, though those don't come with free refills.

Six Pepsi Products At the Soda Fountain At the Costco Food Court, One Machine with Eight Selections and Ice

Costco: Soda

Price: 69 cents for 20 ounces
Rating: 2 out of 10
Costco just raised the price of its refillable sodas by 10 cents, which isn't a welcome change considering the beverage selection at Costco is pathetic. There are five options: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Sierra Mist, Mountain Dew, and Tropicana Lemonade. That means only one diet option, and two without caffeine. 

Although there are more drink options listed on the sign on the fountain dispenser, I've never seen them available in a Costco. The store gets one extra point for offering smoothies and a cold brew mocha freeze, but they're $3.

A Pretzel At Sam's Club Cafe, on a Brown Pretzel Serving Bag

Sam's Club: Pretzel

Price: $1
Rating: 3 out of 10
The menus at both stores' cafes are pared down thanks to the pandemic, so they don't match like they used to. In order to compare the other main items, I decided on a wildcard round. At Sam's, the other hot item is soft pretzels. You have the option of butter and salt or butter and cinnamon sugar, and since I was also getting a churro, went the salt route. 

The sheen of oily butter looked lovely, but it was hard to make up for the fact that the pretzel was dried out and even crunchy on one edge. It also lacked that well-done pretzel flavor. If you must have a pretzel, I suggest trying the pizza pretzel where they put cheese and pepperoni on it and send it through the oven.

Chicken Bake At the Costco Food Court on a White Paper Plate on a White Table

Costco: Chicken Bake

Price: $3.99
Rating: 5 out of 10
The wild-card item at Costco is the much loved chicken bake. The company raised its price 33%, so you'll be paying $4 instead of $3. Think of it like a giant Hot Pocket filled with chicken, bacon, cheese, and Caesar dressing. Between the bacon and the dressing, I expected a punch of flavor, but the filling was pretty bland, though creamy and comforting. 

The real star was the outside with its copious amounts of shredded cheese baked into crunchy, caramelized goodness. If you're already a fan of the chicken bake, you probably won't mind paying the extra buck, but if it doesn't sound like your jam, just skip it for that price.

A Churro Wrapped in Brown Paper, a Slice of Pepperoni Pizza on a White Paper Plate, and a Hot Dog on a Brown Paper Bag, At the Costco Food Court, on a White Table

Overall Winner: Costco

Costco took home the win in all the main warehouse store food groups: hot dogs, pizza, and savory baked item. That's enough to secure an overall win against Sam's Club's cafe, despite recent price increases on the chicken bake and drinks, inferior desserts, and a dismal beverage situation. If you're looking for a quality, inexpensive lunch or snack, always choose Costco's food court over Sam's Club — unless what you really want is a berry sundae.

Related: I Joined Costco. Here's What I Wasn't Expecting