Wendy’s has always offered two homey items on the permanent menu that most chain restaurants don’t bother to: baked potatoes and hot cups of chili. In a fast food world where sandwiches reign supreme, there’s something oddly wholesome about this, and it’s nice to know we can pick up these two offerings as a a trusty hot meal when we don’t want a burger and fries. Now Wendy’s wants to offer that assurance when you’re at the grocery store, too: Wendy’s Chili with Beans has rolled out to supermarkets nationwide.
The canned product is made by Conagra, the massive corporate owner of other canned foods such as Wolf brand chili and Chef Boyardee, so you know manufacturing Wendy’s restaurant chili as a mass-marketed canned product is bound to be this company’s forte. Because the chili is such a unique and brand-defining item on the Wendy’s menu, it’s worth tasting both the restaurant product and the grocery store product side by side to see how they compare. Does the canned stuff resemble the real thing?
There’s a Wendy’s within a 60-second walk from my apartment, so I dropped by for lunch to pick up a cup of fresh chili. At my location, one small cup costs $3.19 and a large costs $4.19. It’s made from a tomato base, crumbled leftover hamburger patties, and beans, and it’s flavored with aromatics like celery, green peppers, and onion. This is basically your standard-issue Midwestern chili, a satisfying, no-frills option.
The restaurant chili is pretty heavy on the liquid and lighter on the chunky stuff, almost to the point where it’s more of a soup than a stew. While the tomatoes lend an appealing tang, the chili is not overly seasoned—there’s zero kick. It really does taste more homemade than most other fast food dishes, including the other stuff on the Wendy’s menu. This is about as inoffensive as chili can get (unless you’re a bean hater), which makes it a perfectly fine choice as a side or a light lunch. I dig it, especially when you add the optional fresh chopped onions, shredded cheese, and sour cream.
Interestingly enough, Wendy’s canned chili, which costs $4.99 for a 15-oz. can, is much more packed full of the substantial stuff. Each spoonful is overflowing with beans, visible chunks of green pepper, and an amount of ground beef that feels proportional to the rest of the ingredients. It’s less watery than the restaurant portion, and it’s much more like a stew than a soup.
The flavor, while fairly similar to the chili you order at the drive-thru, has a different type of tang to it, one that tastes a little more like preservatives. This makes sense, since Wendy’s restaurant chili is made on-site each day and the canned stuff has to stay good for months. I wouldn’t have ordinarily noticed those synthetic flavor notes if I were eating this chili by itself, but next to the fresh stuff, that characteristic stands out a fair bit more.
The beef tastes like regular ground hamburger that hasn’t been bulked up with soy protein, and it has the natural texture to match. Beef is the first ingredient listed on the can, which means there’s more meat in the chili than anything else. It’s pretty damn good, all things considered, and may be one of the better canned chilis I’ve ever had.
Are the two chilis exactly the same? No, but for understandable reasons. One’s made on the spot at a restaurant using restaurant-grade ingredients, and it shows—for better (flavor) and worse (inconsistency). The canned chili captures a fair amount of the Wendy’s essence while improving on the ratios of chunky stuff.
Between the two, I prefer the fresh version, even though it’s thinner, because the tomato flavor is brighter and a cup of it doesn’t weigh me down nearly as much as the can. But for a canned chili, Wendy’s has produced something great. If you’re going to buy a canned product to have around the house, make it this one.