Costco Vs Sam's Club: Who Has The Better Food Court?

Anyone who's grabbed a bite to eat at Costco and Sam's Club knows how similar eating at these warehouse food courts can be. Both serve an array of snack bar-style selections tasty enough to tempt even the most disciplined shoppers as they pass by. The menus are nearly identical in options and pricing, making it difficult to determine where your dining dollars are better spent. But similar doesn't mean the same, and in the competition for consumer dollars, one of these retail titans is bound to be a better choice.

So which of the two membership restaurants can be crowned the chow-time champion, and which is an okay option when there's nothing else available? I dug into each aspect of both, comparing menu options, pricing, and availability to hungry customers. Truth be told, it was a tight race, especially considering the mirror-image presentations these crafty competitors have created. Each outlet brings its own vices and virtues to the counter, sometimes in measures almost too close to call. But in the end, there can only be one true victor in the battle for dining domination. Read on to discover who cooks up a winning combination and who can't handle the heat.

Better pizza: Costco

I seldom hear people say, "I can't wait to swing by Sam's Club and pick up a whole pizza for dinner tonight!" But I do hear people say quite often that ordering Costco pizza for either a weeknight meal or a special occasion is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to feed their hungry crew. The $9.95 price point is more than fair, the flavor is on par with a dedicated pizzeria, and since the warehouse discontinued its take-and-bake pizzas, the food court has become the go-to spot for picking up a pie for a dependably delicious dinner. Ordering several 18-inch pizzas for birthdays is a regular occurrence for my family, and the quality has never disappointed. Solo diners can enjoy oversized single slices and combo meals, too. Yes ... Costco knows how to pizza.

Sam's Club pizza is no slouch, offering cheese, pepperoni, 4-meat, and deluxe toppings on its similarly large slices. But a whole pie measures only 16 inches, shrinking the pie as well as the price, down to just about $8.98. Maybe it's the perception that makes Sam's Club feel like less of a deal. Perception counts, though, so the pizza point goes to Costco.

Better hot dogs: Costco

Costco became famous for offering dollar hot dogs in a cart outside its locations, the earliest beginnings of what grew into a full-fledged food court. All-beef franks with ballpark toppings are still a staple of the warehouse lunch counter menu, paired with a soda for $1.50. It's the bargain that never ends and a draw for hot dog fans who know the difference a real beef frankfurter makes. Sam's Club recognized the value of offering something similar and added hot dog combos to the lineup when choosing its own snack bar selections. To get an edge on its chief competitor, Sam's priced its combo at $1.38, saving guests a whopping 12 cents. Side by side, it seems like a win-win situation for customers; no matter where you choose to spend your dining dollars, you can get a beef frank in a bun and a cold beverage for a wildly favorable price.

So, what separates the two enough to give either Costco or Sam's Club an advantage? It certainly isn't the 12-cent discount. In this dog fight, Costco wins for setting a standard that copycat Sam's Club followed to the letter. Originality is always a winning quality.

Better sandwiches: Costco

It's not just my opinion that Costco has better sandwiches in its food court collection. It's a fact that Sam's Club does not even offer sandwiches, which makes it difficult for these two outlets to go head-to-head. While I've never experienced the colossus that is the Costco roast beef sandwich or tasted the turkey and provolone melt, just having them on the menu is a win. The notion of offering deli-style bites doesn't seem to have occurred to Sam's Club. I'll trust customers who rave about these creations online that Costco knows what it's doing in the field of sandwich making.

Costco also tosses the chicken bake into its selection of sandwich-style eats. This hot pocket-like mega-morsel features a small loaf of cheese-crusted bread with tender chicken, Caesar-style dressing, and more gooey cheese all rolled up inside. It's a calzone-like dish that triples Costco's sandwich quotient while Sam's Club's plate remains entirely empty. With so many possibilities, it's confusing that Sam's Club hasn't even offered a single sandwich to compete. There's no question that on a playing field so uneven, Costco scores in a major way. Maybe Sam's Club will catch on and catch up soon.

Better snacks: Sam's Club

Anyone in search of a smaller snack to nosh on will know that Costco does less to cover its customers' needs than Sam's Club does. With soft pretzels in both buttery salted and deluxe pizza styles on the menu, shoppers in search of a simple dish have hand-held options to eat while pushing their cart back to the car. The buttery, salted soft pretzel is comparable to Auntie Anne's and Wetzels Pretzels found in malls around the U.S. Served hot, it's enough to slake your hunger without making you feel overly full.

Oddly, Costco hasn't quite caught on to the snacks-at-the-snack-bar concept, sticking with selections that require a commitment to bigger eating. It's true both food courts offer churros, but that counts as more of a sweet dish, closer to a dessert rather than a snack. With so many other obvious overlaps, what would keep Costco from throwing a snack-style dish or two on its own menu? Maybe the company thinks it knows its customers well enough to omit smaller bites. Or perhaps the best bargains come in packages as large as shelved items in the warehouse shopping world. Either way, Sam's Club scores for snacks.

Better salads: Costco

Though neither food court shows restraint when it comes to tempting guests, customers looking for lighter fare can at least find versions of Caesar salads at both locations. How light a bite you're looking for may determine which café gets your attention. Defining "Caesar salad" by the most restrictive definition, Sam's Club provides a plastic clamshell filled with romaine, a few slices of parmesan, and a packet of croutons. It's essentially a DIY salad kit with nothing particularly dazzling included to shake up the basic formula. So yes, it's a salad. Also, it's just a salad.

Costco goes the extra mile to create a chicken Caesar salad that rivals restaurant-quality creations. It disappeared from the menu for a while but made a triumphant return that fans were all too happy to shout about on their socials. The size of the salad, plus the inclusion of rotisserie chicken, a Costco favorite, plus generous shreds of parmesan, make this the better salad by far. If Sam's Club wants to push beyond the garden-variety salad and aim for being the cream of the crop, it has a tough row to hoe. Costco wins for doing salad like a pro.

Better desserts: Sam's Club

Soft-serve desserts are a reliable purchase no matter where you go. Unless the machine is throwing out wild-flavored blends like dill pickle and peanut butter, you pretty much know what's coming when you pull the handle. Though Costco serves ice cream and Sam's Club offers frozen yogurt, it might as well be the same product. It's another overlap that makes hopping between the two food courts an easy leap. Both are creamy and served in cups and cones that are clearly made for treat lovers who favor quantity. If there's a notable distinction to be made in the basic swirl, it's lost on the tastebuds.

The advantage in this race comes with the add-ins offered by each outlet. Though sundaes topped with berries and familiar sauces are both Costco and Sam's Club possibilities, Sam's Club offers a brownie sundae that knocks the sprinkles off of Costco's much plainer creations. With churros and, if you stretch your imagination, yogurt and granola parfaits included on the list, Sam's Club makes a concerted effort to give every customer their just desserts. For its efforts to satisfy a range of tastes, Sam's Club's sugary indulgences earn a sweet victory.

Better drinks: Sam's Club

The soft drink arena is where the competition between Costco and Sam's Club could get very contentious. After all, both chains stock their soda fountains with Pepsi products. I would expect one would go with Coke products just to cater to a different clientele, knowing how specific Coke lovers and Pepsi fans are about their beverage preferences. For some reason unbeknownst to me and not revealed by the internet, you'll only find Pepsi and affiliated flavors no matter which café you choose. Whether an oversight by menu designers or a contractual agreement Pepsi holds with both retailers, the overlap is notable.

But Sam's Club loads its dispensers with 14 flavors, more than double Costco's fountain variety. Pepsi Wild Cherry, four MTN Dew flavors, Tropicana drinks, and Lipton tea round out the array for a thirst-quenching selection only Sam's Club can claim. On top of the extra flavors, Sam's Club offers a 30-ounce cup for .89, compared to Costco, which provides a 20-ounce cup for .69. The extra cup space is worth the two additional dimes. It may burst Costco's bubble, but Sam's Club keeps the points flowing by winning in the drink sphere.

Better frozen treats: Sam's Club

Customers on the search for something at the food court to cool them off may have a tough time deciding between Costco and Sam's Club. Aside from the soft serve-style items, both warehouses supply distinctly different selections from the freezer section. Costco's Cold Brew Mocha Freeze is a coffee lover's dream, replicating the supercharged frosty fun of hip coffee house drinks, while the fruit-filled mango smoothie is less of a fan favorite. Give Costco props for trying something different, even if the returned concoction has come up online as a food court fail.

Sam's Club's icy line-up brings actual Icees as well as the Pepsi Freeze to shoppers for a convenience store variety that satisfies cold cravings in a more recognizable way. These familiar favorites are more likely to draw customers who know what they like in a slushy slurp, and it isn't brightly-colored fresh fruit. Sticking to known brands is a savvy step for Sam's Club. It's tempting to side with Costco for creativity, but it's hard to argue with Sam's Club's wisdom of including beloved products on the menu. In the category of frozen treats, Sam's Club leaves Costco out in the cold.

Better prices: Both

It's undeniable that both Costco and Sam's Club food courts provide nicely priced menus for customers to indulge in. Even making the distinctions between which location carries superior items can't cloud the fact that you'll spend far less dining at a warehouse store than at just about any fast-food outlet or casual restaurant anywhere. Choose a single item, pour yourself a drink, or order a multi-course dinner for a family of four; no matter how you utilize these easy-to-reach restaurants, you'll be doing yourself and your bank account a favor.

To get deeper into the nitty-gritty of how the menus line up price-wise, will you find differences between prices for the two? Of course. Both companies vary their price points in every category, even if only slightly. There are expected overlaps in certain spots (the hot dog and drink combo is a notable one). But if the question is, "Where can I find something hot and ready to eat without spending my whole paycheck?" the answer is the food court at either Costco or Sam's Club. Though every other category has a stand-out champ, the real winner in the realm of prices between the two companies is the customer.

Convenience: Sam's Club

Convenience at the Costco Food Court comes in the form of having a last stop before exiting the store that can ably provide a hunger conquering meal at a price that's more than fair. Sam's Club's café is similarly positioned at the exit of each location, though I've seen customers wandering through the store enjoying their beverages and bites while they shop. Both outlets also let customers make large pizza orders to make tailgating and general merry-making a tastier prospect, and both provide café-style indoor seating for guests to settle into as they eat.

But there's more to convenience than just bulk orders and seating. It's also using technology like the Sam's Club Scan and Go phone app for remote ordering in and out of its locations. This high-tech twist helps Sam's Club meet modern shoppers where they are, whether cruising warehouse aisles or running around town from errand to errand and invites them to dash and dine without missing a beat. Call it keeping up with the 21st Century, or call it smart marketing. With no equivalent app or even an online ordering option for Costco's food court, Sam's Club is the clear convenience champion.

Membership: Sam's Club

Only hungry shoppers with a Costco membership (or a friend with a card) can pass through the rolling gates to enjoy the spoils of the warehouse food court. This is a major limitation for those who don't need mayonnaise by the gallon or a new set of tires but would still like to enjoy lunch on the cheap. Opinions differ online about how true this restriction is. Still, the facts from a Costco representative speaking to Country Living confirm that diners need a membership to enter the Costco food court. So, no membership, no food court — a simple, disappointing equation for non-members.

By stunning contrast, Sam's Club welcomes one and all to enjoy its food court, even without a membership. Even though the retailer requires a membership card for making retail purchases, anyone with an appetite and a debit card are welcome to mosey up to the snack bar counter and eat their fill. This sort of inclusivity is such an outsized benefit it tips the scales in favor of Sam's Club food court by an order of magnitude. Because customers can enjoy affordable dining regardless of their member status, Sam's Club handily wins this heat.

Verdict: Sam's Club

Initially, Costco felt like the frontrunner, if only by a hair. The early adopter of the eat-where-you-shop bulk warehouse concept seemed to have a lock on selection and dependability. But the deeper the examination went, the clearer it became that Sam's Club has taken an idea Costco started and tweaked it into something sleeker and infinitely more modern: a food court that provides a contemporary dining experience. It wouldn't be wrong for Costco to step out of its bubble of exclusivity and offer an updated version of its own invention to a clientele that could be hungry for more. Maybe someday, the company will come to the future of food court living, but not today.

Customers may disagree regarding the best and worst items at Sam's Club food court, but the variety of items, the quality of the food, and the undeniably attractive prices are close enough to Costco to make choosing a real pickle. Add in the open-door policy and the ability to order food from your phone like almost every other restaurant in the world allows these days, and Sam's Club becomes the more enticing locale for enjoying a frolic at the food court.