The $1.50 hot dog and soda combo at the Costco food court, which somehow hasn’t changed its price since the 1980s, is something of a legend, like Prometheus stealing fire, or George Santos’ resume. The loss leader has brought customers in droves to Costco’s warehouses over the years, a fact not lost on co-founder James Sinegal, who is reported to have once replied, “I will kill you,” in response to CEO Craig Jelinek’s proposal to raise the $1.50 price.
So Costco’s combo is still the best deal in encased meats you can get, right? Look out: Sam’s Club, Walmart’s membership-based warehouse brand, has entered the chat.
Sam’s Club has its own $1.50 hot dog combo. And late last year, it announced it was dropping the price to $1.38 — a whopping 12 cents cheaper! The move, while perhaps not budging anyone’s pocketbook (or Walmart’s bottom line) in any meaningful way, was certainly a symbolic gauntlet thrown in Costco’s general direction.
It also piqued my curiosity, as I grew up in a Costco family and had never tried the combo from Sam’s Club: Which combo is actually better? I headed out to Torrance one day with Food audience engagement editor Amy Wong to find out.
Our focus was primarily the hot dog combos, but we also sampled a few other hot food items that both Costco and Sam’s Club produce: pizza, churros and sundaes. (Check out our L.A. Times Food Instagram account for that bonus content!)
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Costco’s hot dog combo is advertised as a “¼-pound PLUS” (capitalization theirs) all-beef hot dog. Costco used to do an excellent Polish dog, which I would typically get over the regular dog, but it was unfortunately discontinued in order to “simplify our menu and make room for healthier options.” (My eyes are rolling a bit here: You don’t eat at the Costco food court for health reasons.)
The dog, in a soft sesame seed bun, is very good. It’s juicy, salty and has a pleasant snap — it tastes like beef, not bologna, which can be a hallmark of some inferior hot dogs (Dodger dogs, I’m looking at you). The topping selection is limited to mustard, ketchup and relish. Raw onion and sauerkraut were once available but, as with the Polish dog, have sadly fallen by the wayside. The drink selection at this location was limited to Pepsi and Diet Pepsi, Brisk iced tea, Sierra Mist and Tropicana lemonade. Pretty weak, in other words.
The Sam’s Club combo is similarly advertised — as a ¼-pound all-beef frank — but comes with a 30 oz. soda, compared to a 20 oz. soda at Costco. The dog, in a slightly too-dry bun and which looked just a bit smaller than Costco’s, tasted virtually identical. In the toppings category, however, Sam’s Club made its move. In addition to ketchup, mustard and relish, Sam’s Club also had — hallelujah! — raw onion and sauerkraut. It also outshined Costco in the drinks department: While Sam’s Club also had Pepsi and Diet Pepsi, this location also offered Dr Pepper and unsweetened and sweetened Lipton tea.
I don’t really want to focus too much on the 12-cent price difference. Yes, it’s symbolic, but the hot dog race should not be a race to the bottom pricewise, and I doubt many people would mind spending more for their hot dog and drink. In some ways, I would actually feel better paying a little more — $2? $2.50? — as I could then stop worrying about how on Earth these companies justify selling so much food for so little.
Some other important details: The vibe at Costco is better. At the ones I’ve visited, there are more tables and dedicated areas to eat. At the Sam’s Club in Torrance, we struggled to find a place to sit before finally locating a single, lone picnic table a ways off from the cafe.
One other essential point: You must be a member ($60 per year) to order food at Costco. The cafe at Sam’s Club has no such requirement.
But ultimately, the toppings, essential in any emulsified meats game, were superior at Sam’s Club. Slightly dry bun notwithstanding, that and the much better drinks selection helps put Sam’s Club on top.
As a longtime Costco member, it almost hurts me to say it, but I’ve seen enough: The hot dog combo at Sam’s Club is a better deal, overall. Costco, if you bring back the Polish dog and sauerkraut, maybe I’ll reevaluate. And while you’re at it, bring back the combo pizza slice too.
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