A ubiquitous staple of our physical landscape, 7-Eleven is now the touchstone for convenience stores and their place in America’s cultural heart. Found on urban corners, nearly omnipresent in our suburban neighborhoods, and placed conveniently on the off-ramps of American interstates, 7-Eleven is the go-to place to grab a quick bite, refuel an empty gas tank, and grab the latest movie release from a Redbox. Even though we now take 7-Eleven’s convenience for granted with over 60,000 locations found throughout North America and Asia, it has a storied history that was shaped by the rapid growth of America during the 20th Century.
In the Beginning
Back in 1927, two years before the Great Depression, Southland Ice Company in Dallas, TX began to operate numerous icehouses in the area. These icehouses sold giant blocks of ice to consumers which was the primary way to preserve food before refrigeration. During this time, one of the icehouses began selling food items, such as eggs, milk, and bread, as people came to pick up their household ice. Soon after, all of the locations began selling food to customers and renamed them Tote’m Stores, creating a pun on the totem poles displayed in front of their stores while costumers “toted” their newly-purchased goods away with them.
Unfortunately, like many businesses during that time, Southland Ice had to file for bankruptcy due to the Great Depression; however, with the repeal of the Prohibition, Tote’m Stores took a new approach to their retail operations and began selling beer and liquor, in addition to the food they were already selling. This breathed new life into the operation and allowed this institution to continue on into the into the next decade.
The name “7-Eleven” launched in 1946 to highlight their hours of operation, from 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM, seven days a week. During the 1950s, 7-Eleven expanded outside of Texas and began opening stores throughout the East Coast. By 1961, under the guidance of the new company president, began launching stores throughout the rest of the United States. Soon after its national expansion, 7-Eleven began franchising stores. With America’s new love for automobiles and 7-Eleven’s passion for convenience, 7-Eleven became an Americana staple.
Although we now take for granted that 7-Elevens are open 24 hours a day, it wasn’t until the 1960s when the first 7-Eleven pulled an all-nighter. After an exuberant night of football in Austin, TX, one store became inundated with fans and was so busy, it couldn’t close its doors for the evening. Because it had been so successful, more 24 hour 7-Elevens began popping up with the first one being in one of the biggest nocturnal destinations: Las Vegas.
In 1965, 7-Eleven began selling what it became most well-known (and loved) for: the Slurpee. Slurpees were an accidental discovery: in the late 1950s, Omar Knedlik of Kansas City placed some soda bottles in the freezer after his soda machine went down. When he gave them to customers, they loved the frozen, slushy top mixed with the remaining soda. He then built his own machine and called it an “ICEE.” Shortly thereafter, 7-Eleven licensed his machine and sold their own version for their stores, calling them Slurpees because of the sound made while sipping the drink through a straw.
As the Baby Boomer generation fueled a growing youth market, Slurpees became a huge success with the hippie counterculture of the late ‘60s. Cups began to look like tie-dyed shirts and flavors took on risqué names like “Fulla Bulla” and “Kiss Me, You Fool.” This cemented 7-Eleven as a cultural institution and part of the American identity.
Into the New Millennium
Now, 7-Eleven is one of the world’s largest franchises and operates more than 55,000 locations. In 2007, they beat McDonald’s in volume of open stores and have grown by about 20,000 additional stores since then. Even though we associate 7-Eleven as an American brand, its largest market is now in Japan where 17,569 stores are currently located. America has the second largest number of locations with 8,124 stores, followed by Thailand and South Korea. 7-Eleven is growing so rapidly that there is one store opening every two hours every day of the week!
7-Eleven caters to the local population so depending on where you are around the world, the look and feel of 7-Eleven may be different than your local spot. Although we think of 7-Eleven as a convenience store, in Indonesia 7-Elevens act more like community coffee houses, offering free Wi-Fi, indoor and outdoor seating, and live performances. Young people gather to eat local food, socialize, and work online. In Taiwan, people not only buy food and Slurpees at their local 7-Eleven, they can also pay utility bills, buy small electronics, and book travel arrangements. The Taiwanese government will even run health screenings there since 7-Eleven is so ubiquitous.
Since 7-Eleven has earned a place in our hearts, and with Free Slurpee Day is just around the corner, make a quick stop and pick up your favorite iced beverage and delicious snack. 7-Eleven is home to many tasty treats, but nothing beats a fresh-baked Ne-Mo’s dessert to wash down with one of the many Slurpee flavors available. So, make sure that on July 11th, you stop by this venerable institution and enjoy a Slurpee and your favorite Ne-Mo’s treat!