We tried 6 fast food hot chocolates—here’s the winner

 

You could say that I’m pretty serious about my hot chocolate. I like a classic cup of cocoa, but I’m always open to new variations (hello, frozen hot chocolate!). And if I’m tight on time, I’ll even opt for a packet—I don’t mind! If you prefer homemade hot chocolate, try these delicious hacks to make it as scrumptious as can be.

But if I’m being truthful, the best hot chocolate is one that I don’t have to make at all. I’m talking about a steaming cup of cocoa from a cafe. There’s just something extra special about a fancy version topped with fresh whipped cream and maybe a nice chocolate drizzle.  That’s why I put six fast food restaurants to the test to find the best cocoa for when you’re on the run or when you just don’t feel like making a cup from scratch. I visited these chains:

  • Caribou Coffee
  • Corner Bakery Cafe
  • Dunkin’
  • McDonald’s
  • Panera
  • Starbucks

Ready to see how they stacked up? 

7 PHOTOS
The best fast food hot chocolate
See Gallery
The best fast food hot chocolate

6. McDonald's

When it comes to McDonald’s, I have to say I’m a sucker for a Coke (seriously, it’s better there!) and a hot order of French fries. However, the chain’s hot chocolate doesn’t live up to those high standards.

The McCafé hot chocolate wasn’t as satisfying as other brands. I found it to taste pretty artificial—something about it reminded me of candy coating. While I appreciated the nice swirl of whipped cream and chocolate sauce, I just didn’t find this hot chocolate to be very chocolatey.

5. Panera

When I ordered a hot chocolate at Panera, I got pretty excited. The clerk asked me if I wanted whipped cream, chocolate chip marshmallows, and a salted caramel drizzle. As a fan of everything sweet, I said yes to all three. When I opened up the lid on this drink, I was pretty stunned. The toppings looked gorgeous!

When I took my first sip, I was very happy—but that first sip was 100 percent whipped cream and salted caramel. Who doesn’t love salted caramel? Once I got past all the tasty toppings, I felt let down. Panera’s hot chocolate wasn’t very chocolatey at all. In fact, it tasted a lot more like warm milk than anything.

4. Dunkin'

Of all the hot chocolates I tested, I have to admit that Dunkin’s looked pretty plain Jane to me. It was the only drink to come without whipped cream or an extra drizzle of chocolate. I was pretty surprised since this chain has plenty of decked-out donuts and secret menu drinks.

Looks proved to be deceiving, though. Inside that simple paper cup was a pretty darn good hot chocolate. It had a nice milk chocolate flavor that really made it easy to sip. Sure, it was a bit sweet, but it was quite satisfying. I’d say it’s a worthy accompaniment to your donut or breakfast sandwich order. Would you like astrology with that? Find out what the best cozy winter drink is for your Zodiac sign

3. Corner Bakery Cafe

At Corner Bakery Cafe, I got a great surprise when I ordered their hot chocolate. The cup was topped with whipped cream and cocoa powder, so it looked beautiful to me. As for the flavor, I enjoyed it just as much! This hot cocoa had more of a sweet, milk chocolate flavor, which I really enjoyed. It wasn’t overly rich, so I could see myself finishing every last drop. It’s definitely worth trying!

2. Starbucks

There’s something special about a Starbucks seasonal drink (pumpkin spice latte, anyone?) I personally look forward to a good hot cocoa from Starbucks as soon as the weather gets chilly.

That’s because this hot chocolate always seems like a real treat. It’s incredibly rich, almost like a ganache. The chocolate used in this drink reminds me a lot of Dutch process cocoa—very dark, decadent, and not overly sweet. The slightly bitter flavor pairs really well with a generous swirl of whipped cream.

I will say, though, that if dark chocolate isn’t your favorite, you might want to skip this one, but if you love all things dark and decadent, you’ll want to make a run to your nearest Starbucks this winter. See how Starbucks stacked up in our taste test to determine the best coffee brand.

1. Caribou Coffee

Of all the fast food hot chocolates I tried, Caribou Coffee was the only one that gave me options: white, milk, or dark. I was pretty impressed with that! I thought that bit of customization was very smart because some folks prefer sweeter chocolate and others like bitter dark options.

But you’re dying to know what it tastes like, right? Well, I ordered the milk chocolate option and I found it to be a really excellent treat. It was a nice balance of chocolate, sweetness, and milk. Plus, it was topped with a dollop of whipped cream and some mini chocolate chips. It can be a difficult balance to strike, so I was happy to find that Caribou managed it.

The bottom line

When it comes to fast food and chain cafe hot chocolates, there’s a surprising amount of good options out there. This wasn’t necessarily the case when I tried a handful of fast food burgers!

In the end, I’d happily sip any one of the top picks in this taste test, but I have to give it up to Caribou in the end. Like I said, the hot cocoa there found the right balance between chocolate, cream, and sweetness. However, what I really liked—and what was totally unique to Caribou Coffee—was that you could choose the kind of chocolate you prefer so everyone from white chocolate to dark chocolate lovers could find something to love. Here’s another one for you, chocolate lovers: We found the best grocery-store chocolate ice cream.

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The post We Tried 6 Fast Food Hot Chocolates. Here’s the Winner. appeared first on Reader's Digest.

25 PHOTOS
The 25 best fast-food chains
See Gallery
The 25 best fast-food chains

25. Jet's Pizza

Headquarters: Sterling Heights, Michigan

US sales in 2016: $368 million

Number of US locations: 404

Customer satisfaction rank: 24

Value rank: 35

Brothers Eugene and John Letts opened the first Jet's Pizza restaurant in Michigan in 1978 and since then, it's spread to 18 different states across the US.

Jet's claims not to scrimp on ingredients. And its pizzas aren't dirt cheap. On average, customers can expect to spend $8.05 on a meal at the chain. Its signature style, the deep-dish square pizza, comes in many varieties or customers can choose to create their own from scratch

Photo credit: Facebook.com 

24. Jamba Juice

Headquarters: Frisco, Texas

US sales in 2016: $547 million

Number of US locations: 828

Customer satisfaction rank: 16

Value rank: 37

Founded in 1990 in a California beach town, Jamba Juice was years ahead of today's ubiquitous green smoothie and healthy living trends and remained a favorite for loyal customers over the years.

The chain's menu has expanded since then, now offering Greek yogurt or acai berry bowls with soy milk. There's also plenty of new fruit and vegetable smoothies.

Photo credit: Getty 

23. Potbelly Sandwich Shop

Headquarters: Chicago, Illinois

US sales in 2016: $446 million

Number of US locations: 454

Customer satisfaction rank: 25

Value rank: 16

When Potbelly opened in 1977, it was an antique shop. The young couple who ran it decided they wanted to serve lunch to their customers and the store evolved into a local lunch spot. In 1996, entrepreneur Bryant Keil bought Potbelly and turned it into a franchise; he stepped down as CEO in 2008 and is no longer involved.

Today, not only do all the Potbelly stores serve sandwiches and fresh cookies, but each location has its own potbelly stove

Photo credit: Getty 

22. Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches

Headquarters: Champaign, Illinois

US sales in 2016: $2.22 billion

Number of US locations: 2,620

Customer satisfaction rank: 30

Value rank: 15

At Jimmy John's, customers can't get enough of the chain's signature subs and "freaky fast" delivery service. Jimmy John Liautaud opened the first shop back in 1983 to avoid pressure from his father to perform a stint in the Army. Papa Liautaud lent him $25,000, and if the restaurant turned a profit the first year he wouldn't have to enlist. Sure enough, the gourmet sub business took off and he slowly expanded across the country — it now has the most amount of franchises in our top 25 list.

Jimmy John's franchises commit to sustainability by partnering with suppliers who reach high standards of sustainable and ethical food practices. The chain also employs local businesses to build and maintain each JJ's store.

Photo credit: Getty 

21. Firehouse Subs

Headquarters: Jacksonville, Florida

US sales in 2016: $683 million

Number of US restaurants: 1,037

Customer satisfaction rank: 8

Value rank: 6

This Florida-based franchise was founded in 1994 by a pair of brothers who were former firefighters and sought to bring the enthusiasm and appetite of the firehouse to their restaurants.

Serving bold-flavor sandwiches piled high with quality meats and cheeses, this popular chain is in growth mode, having opened in Canada and now expanding into Mexico

Photo credit: Getty 

20. Cold Stone Creamery

Headquarters: Scottsdale, Arizona

US sales in 2016: $362 million

Number of US restaurants: 905

Customer satisfaction rank: 4

Value rank: 30

It's not just ice cream parlor, Cold Stone Creamery serves up smoothies, cakes, and shakes also. The ice cream is freshly made every day in the stores and blended on a frozen granite stone, which keeps the temperature exactly the same.

Cold Stone also supports community projects, working closely with Best Buddies, a non-profit that helps people with disabilities to secure jobs and live independently.

Photo credit: Getty 

19. Tim Hortons

Headquarters: Oakville, Canada

US sales in 2016: $760 million

Number of US restaurants: 683

Customer satisfaction rank: 44

Value rank: 36

This Canadian chain, known for its coffee and donuts, has also become a favorite in the US. It was set up in 1964 by its namesake Tim Horton, a former National Hockey League legend in Canada.

Horton started off by selling coffee and donuts, which cost 10 cents each, but by the '80s he added muffins, cakes, soups, and chili into the mix. These are now staples on the menu.

The cafe also offers Cold Stone Creamery ice cream in certain locations.

Photo credit: Reuters 

18. Schlotzsky's

Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia

US sales in 2016: $338 million

Number of US locations: 362

Customer satisfaction rank: 15

Value rank: 18

The average customer order totals just over $10 at Schlotzsky's, according to Technomic. That's pricey for a sandwich shop, but the higher-quality offerings keep customers satisfied. Schlotzky's serves up a mix of classic and specialty sandwiches as well as offering four different types of mac n' cheese, flatbreads, soups, salads, and gourmet pizzas.

After more than 40 years of operation, Schlotzsky's now has locations in 35 states and three foreign countries.

Photo credit: Facebook.com

17. McAlister's Deli

Headquarters: Ridgeland, Mississippi

US sales in 2016: $593 million

Number of US restaurants: 387

Customer satisfaction rank: 22

Value rank: 14

The Mississippi-based deli specializes in local and regional American favorites, from The New Yorker with its corned beef, pastrami, and Swiss on marbled rye to the Spicy Southwest Chicken with guacamole, fire-roasted corn, and chipotle ranch sauce.

It's well-known for its Sweet Tea drink, which is brewed in store and comes with free refills.

Photo credit: Facebook.com

16. Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Headquarters: Lorton, Virginia

US sales in 2016: $1.4 billion

Number of US locations: 1,284

Customer satisfaction rank: 14

Value rank: 62

The cult favorite started in Washington, DC, in 1986 when former bond trader Jerry Murrell and his family opened a burger joint — named after Murrell and his four sons — with the goal of cooking hamburgers and fries using the best quality ingredients.

The chain is off-limits to those with peanut allergies, as all fries are cooked in peanut oil and there are barrels of old-fashioned peanuts lining each shop's dining area. 

Photo credit: Reuters 

15. Cinnabon

Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia

US sales in 2016: $163 million

Number of US locations: 836

Customer satisfaction rank: 12

Value rank: 33

Cinnabon is all about cinnamon. This popular chain was the brainchild of a father and son duo, who opened the first bakery in Seattle, Washington in 1985.

It's is known for its signature warm cinnamon roll, which comes with a rich cream cheese frosting and is sold in various different sizes, but there's also cinnamon flavored donuts, crispy pastry straws, and an expansive coffee menu.

Photo credit: Getty 

14. Ben & Jerry's

Headquarters: South Burlington, Vermont

US sales in 2016: $58 million

Number of US locations: 172

Customer satisfaction rank: 5

Value rank: 8

Best friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield originally had plans to create a bagel company but found that the bagel-making equipment was too expensive. Instead, they purchased an old gas station and turned it into a scoop shop.

The brand celebrated 39 years in business this March and is now known for inventive ice-cream flavors like Red Velvet Cake, Phish Food, and Cherry Garcia. Each employee that works for the company is given three tubs of Ben & Jerry's a day.

Photo credit: Getty 

13. The Habit Burger Grill

Headquarters: Irvine, California

US sales in 2016: $298 million

Number of US restaurants: 172

Customer satisfaction rank: 10

Value rank: 21

West Coast chain Habit Burger Grill first set up shop in 1969 in Santa Barbara, serving burgers with freshly-baked buns. Since then, the chain has swelled to 175 restaurants in 10 states across the US. It's also added chicken and tuna burgers, salads and shakes to its menu, and was named the best-tasting burger in America in 2014, according to a survey by Consumer Reports, beating competitors like Shake Shack, In-N-Out, and Five Guys.

Photo credit: Getty 

12. Marco's Pizza

Headquarters: Toledo, Ohio

US sales in 2016: $489 million

Number of US locations: 770

Customer satisfaction rank: 21

Value rank: 13

This cheap pizza joint first opened in Toledo in 1978. Today, it has 800 restaurants across the US, the Bahamas, India, and Puerto Rico.

The menu has grown too, and Marco's now offers sandwiches, hot chicken wings, and salads, along with multiple sauces to go with each dish.

Photo credit: Facebook.com

11. Zaxby's

Headquarters: Athens, Georgia

US sales in 2016: $1.7 billion

Number of US locations: 825

Customer satisfaction rank: 32

Value rank: 46

Started by two childhood friends aiming to alleviate the lack of great wing joints in their Georgia hometown, Zaxby's is known for its craveable wing sauces and crinkle-cut fries.

Photo credit: Facebook.com

10. Jersey Mike's Subs

Headquarters: Manasquan, New Jersey

US sales in 2016: $825 million

Number of US restaurants: 1,187

Customer satisfaction rank: 11

Value rank: 41

CEO Peter Cancro bought his first Jersey Mike's at the age of 17 after spending his summers working at the sandwich shop in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. A high school senior at the time, Cancro was able to buy the shop after he took a loan from his school football coach at the time.

Jersey Mike's is now known for its handcrafted subs loaded with high-quality ingredients. In 2016, Nation's Restaurant News announced that it was the fastest growing restaurant chain in the US.

Photo credit: Facebook.com

9. Culver's

Headquarters: Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin

US sales in 2016: $1.3 billion

Number of US restaurants: 605

Customer satisfaction rank: 23

Value rank: 29

At Culver's, diners can expect to spend a little more than they would at a run-of-the-mill burger joint, with average orders totaling around $10, according to Technomic. But it might just be worth it for the chain's frozen custard and ButterBurgers, the signature burger that gets its name from the glaze of butter that coats the bun.

This year, Culver's was ranked in second place on Restaurant Business' annual list of America's favorite chains.

Photo credit: Facebook.com 

8. Jason's Deli

Headquarters: Beaumont, Texas

US sales in 2016: $702 million

Number of US restaurants: 260

Customer satisfaction rank: 9

Value rank: 12

Nutrition is a priority at Jason's Deli, which serves sandwiches, salads, pastas, soups, and desserts. It has eliminated artificial trans fat, most artificial MSG, and all artificial colors, dyes, and flavors from its food over the past 10 years. It even claims that its soft-serve is made with 100% natural ingredients.

Photo credit: Facebook.com 

7. Papa Murphy's Pizza

Headquarters: Vancouver, Washington

US sales in 2016: $885 million

Number of US locations: 1,537

Customer satisfaction rank: 7

Value rank: 2

This pizza franchise started in 1995 after the merger of two pizzerias, Papa Aldo's and Murphy's Pizza. Its pies are "take and bake," meaning they are made to order and cooked in the customer's oven at home.

Customers can pick from the signature pies like Pepperoni and Hawaiian, or they can create their own and choose the type of dough, sauce, and toppings. Papa Murphy's scores top marks for customer satisfaction on value, coming in at second place in the total list of 25 restaurants.

Photo credit: Facebook.com

6. Pollo Campero

Headquarters: Dallas, Texas

US sales in 2016: $111 million

Number of US restaurants: 68

Customer satisfaction rank: 13

Value rank: 4

With only 68 stores, Pollo Campero is by far the smallest chain on the list. But diners adore the casual chicken spot, touting it as a solid value.

Pollo Campero, initially founded in Guatemala in 1971, stands out from other "better chicken" chains, such as Wingstop and Raising Cane's, for its authentic Latin flavors and impeccable service — meals are served on real plates with real silverware.

Photo credit: Getty 

5. Krispy Kreme

Headquarters: Winston-Salem, North Carolina

US sales in 2016: $758 million

Number of US restaurants: 307

Customer satisfaction rank: 6

Value rank: 17

In 1937, Krispy Kreme founder Vernon Rudolph used a recipe given to him by a New Orleans chef so that he could make and sell doughnuts to local grocery stores. As the fresh-baked donut smell wafted into the streets, customers began requesting to purchase the delicacies directly, so Rudolph cut a hole in the wall to open his first retail location.

In October 2015, the chain opened a new store in North Carolina which resembled a coffee shop, Business Insider reported. Six months later, it was bought by JAB, the parent company of coffee brands including Caribou Coffee, Peet's Coffee and Tea, and Keurig Green Mountain, for around $1.35 million.

Photo credit: Getty 

4. Whataburger

Headquarters: San Antonio, Texas

US sales in 2016: $2.2 billion

Number of US locations: 806

Customer satisfaction rank: 17

Value rank: 11

Whataburger founder Harmon Dobson's goal was to create a burger so big that customers would have to use both hands to hold it. It would be so good that at first bite they would declare, "What a burger!" Thus, in 1950, Whataburger was born.

What started off as a burger stand, almost 70 years ago, now has 700 restaurants in the US. Although it lost out to In-N-Out Burger in Business Insider's taste comparison, it's still a favorite of many in the south.

Photo credit: Getty 

3. Chick-fil-A

Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia

US sales in 2016: $6.7 billion

Number of US restaurants: 2,062

Customer satisfaction rank: 2

Value rank: 3

This Southern favorite is the largest food chain on our list and comes in first place for total sales in 2016.

The fried-chicken chain diversified its menu last year, adding a kale and broccolini salad, a premium coffee line, new sauces, and a barbecue-bacon sandwich in an effort to take on competitors. If you want to know what's best to order, check out Business Insider's guide.

Photo credit: Getty 

2. Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers

Headquarters: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

US sales in 2016: $741 million

Number of US restaurants: 306

Customer satisfaction rank: 3

Value rank: 5

Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers focuses on only one menu item: first-rate chicken strips. But what truly keeps fans addicted is Cane's signature tangy sauce, a secret blend that customers can't get enough of.

Raising Cane's has a high customer satisfaction rating and it's benefiting the chain; sales grew by 31% in 2016.

Photo credit: Facebook.com

1. In-N-Out Burger

Headquarters: Irvine, California

US sales in 2016: $807 million

Number of US restaurants: 325

Customer satisfaction rank: 1

Value rank: 1

In-N-Out Burger scores highest on customer satisfaction and value, making it the winner overall.

California's first drive-thru hamburger stand, In-N-Out Burger first opened in 1948. Nearly seven decades later, the menu remains simple, offering only five items. But loyal customers know that if they want to expand their options, they can order off the not-so-secret menu — it features items such as a protein style burger and grilled cheese.

In-N-Out can only be found on the West Coast, but there's a good reason for that. Since the chain prides itself on serving top-notch ingredients free of additives or preservatives, all stores must be within 300 miles of the distribution facilities. Sorry, East Coasters.

Photo credit: Getty 

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Read Full Story

Sign up for the Best Bites by AOL newsletter to get the most delicious recipes and hottest food trends delivered straight to your inbox every day.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.