A trip to 7-Eleven, the country’s most recognizable convenience store, is not an experience that most would describe as aspirational. Influencers don’t flock there in search of the perfect selfie moment; no chic, strikingly lit Instagrams of perfectly arranged spreads of hot dogs and Slurpees populate social media. 7-Eleven exists largely to feed people who need to eat cheaply and quickly if they want to eat at all.
Countless words have been written about how to make convenience store meals, snuck in between double work shifts or on lengthy road trips, more nutritionally virtuous. Skip the sugar-laden candy aisle and grab one of those sad oranges from the cooler, they implore. Avoid chips and crunch on water-logged celery slices instead. But in these moments of pure, desperate hunger, nothing is more deeply satisfying than greasy, gas station goodness chased down with a giant, radioactive green Slurpee.
But 7-Eleven plans to shed its identity as a junk food staple. As America’s obsession with wellness and “clean eating” shows no signs of slowing down, the chain wants to figure out how to change customers’ perceptions that convenience food doesn’t always have to be deep-fried or nutritionally sketchy. In early March, the chain debuted its first “lab store,” a real-time testing ground for new, bougie conveniences, next to a busy Dallas highway, just a stone’s throw away from a tony Italian market and one of the city’s most popular ramen joints. Outside, the store looks largely like any other 7-Eleven, with the familiar signage and gas pumps — until you notice the giant selfie-friendly mural painted by a local artist. Inside, it looks a lot like a Whole Foods or any other sleek modern grocer, with natural wood accents and towers of trail mix ingredients sold in bulk.
Unlike most other 7-Eleven stores, this outpost offers a range of hot and prepared food items that goes far beyond the typical roller-grill hot dogs that have been the chain’s bread and butter for decades. Right next to the roller grill sit warmers full of soups like vegetarian tomato basil and gluten-free chili. Across the aisle awaits what press releases call the “better for you” refrigerator case, filled with grab-and-go lunch items: sandwiches, salads, and plastic bowls filled with a “seasonal blend” of mushy kiwi, grapes, cantaloupe, strawberries, and a single pineapple spear. Thanks to the current dominance of the keto trend, hard boiled eggs; portion-controlled packets of cured meats; cheeses; and cured meats wrapped around cheeses are abundant.
There is also a small restaurant, complete with a sit-down cafe and small patio off to the side of the store, arguably the best place to find food in the place. It’s the first Dallas outpost of Laredo Taco Company, a South Texas mainstay that has been selling serviceable breakfast tacos on freshly made tortillas to working people for years. Laredo Taco was part of the Stripes convenience store chain, which 7-Eleven acquired in 2018. With that came Laredo Taco Company, which has scored praise from Anthony Bourdain.
In the aisles, this 7-Eleven is stocked with enough gluten-free, paleo, vegan, organic, and naturally sweetened options to feed an entire army of wellness-obsessed snackers, with just enough “normal” food to resemble a small grocery store. A $15 jar of Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter sits on a shelf next to organic stevia ($9), jars of Bonne Maman preserves ($6), organic safflower oil ($12), and single-serve pouches of brown basmati rice are placed alongside staples like Velveeta processed cheese ($4), microwaveable Rice-A-Roni cups, and Wolf brand chili. Elsewhere, gluten-, dairy-, and egg-free cake balls ($14) share shelf real estate with Hostess chocolate cupcakes ($2).
And then, of course, there is the Slurpee, both an American icon and an engineering marvel. The fluffy, frozen beverage is a sweet-tooth staple; the lab store’s innovation is the organic Slurpee, made with “farm to fountain” flavors like coconut, blood orange, and cucumber from Idaho’s Tractor Beverage Company, which boasts that its syrups are USDA certified organic, GMO-free, and “entirely” natural. In the organic Slurpees, buzzy superfoods like celery and turmeric are ingredients in the cucumber flavor; allegedly stomach-soothing licorice root adds an extra veneer of health to the cherry cream flavor; the blood orange flavor also features turmeric, along with black carrot. Unlike most of the original flavors, the organic options are not carbonated, which means they lack the fluffy, smooth texture of a typical cherry Slurpee. Instead, they’re packed with crunchy ice crystals that always seem to find their way to the most sensitive parts of your teeth.
It’s not surprising that even the Slurpee, much maligned for its hefty sugar content and the presence of preservatives like sodium benzoate, is getting the organic treatment. 7-Eleven is a corporation interested in making profits, and the organic food market is currently worth upwards of $45 billion. But there is something deeply unsettling about seeing the Slurpee stripped of its vibrant colors and cloyingly sweet flavors. It’s depressing to think that, someday, the Slurpee won’t represent a decadently sweet treat, but just another way to get in your daily dose of superfoods. It’s like if all the milkshakes in the future were Soylent, and every Red Bull was replaced with 7-Eleven’s locally-sourced “Yerbucha,” a mix of kombucha and yerba mate.
As chief operating officer Christopher Tanco said at a media preview, this lab store is “light years” away from 7-Eleven’s beginnings in Dallas more than 90 years ago. It’s a mere two miles away from the Southland Ice House in Oak Cliff, where 7-Eleven began as a purveyor of ice, bread, milk, and other household essentials in the 1920s. Originally called Tote’m and decorated with appropriative totem poles shipped in from Alaska, the chain took on the 7-Eleven moniker in the 1940s, and in the years following, its Big Gulps and Slurpees and Big Bite hot dogs became staples of the American diet.
It is this bizarre juxtaposition of the organic and the chemical-laden, the sacred and the profane, that makes 7-Eleven’s “lab store” such a fascinating — and disorienting — concept. In attempting to please literally everyone — gentrifiers, working-class families, young professionals, and kids looking for after-school snacks — it’s possible that they’re going to alienate everyone. No one on a tight budget wants to accidentally pay $2 more for organic tomatoes when they meant to grab the cheap ones, and no one wants to be tempted by the allure of a quick Velveeta and Rotel queso served with fried tortilla chips when they’re trying to eat “virtuously” and choose the gluten-free granola instead. Being guilt-tripped into buying fruit and hard-boiled eggs is particularly dehumanizing when you can only afford nachos.
Between its fancy coffee machines that grind beans to order, a dessert bar serving soft-serve gelato and non-fat frozen yogurt, and counters serving kombucha, nitrogen-infused hibiscus tea, and cold brew made with fair-trade, organic coffee beans, this store is also a panic attack in four walls. While browsing for more than an hour, I actually longed for a regular 7-Eleven, one where the cashiers would definitely look at me like a lunatic for asking where to find the cold brew coffee on tap, a place where it’s perfectly normal to buy three different types of gummy candy. If 7-Eleven truly wanted to improve upon its model in a meaningful way, it would look to its own stores in Japan: The food there — sandwiches stuffed with fluffy egg salad, soba noodles, and onigiri — has earned a cult following because it is cheap, varied, and most importantly, of high quality.
In the coming months, 7-Eleven has plans to open at least five of these “lab stores” in various locales across the country, including Washington, D.C. and San Diego, tailoring each to their geographic preferences. Perhaps the 7-Elevens in Detroit will eventually sell paczki alongside the Vernors Boston Cooler Slurpees specifically created for the region, and those in Philadelphia will develop cheesesteaks to serve alongside their regional Canada Dry Cranberry Ginger Ale-flavored frozen drinks. According to Tanco, the successes from these lab stores will be implemented in new, “regular” 7-Elevens, and those that have already been built will be retrofitted to accommodate the frozen yogurt bars and cold brew taps if they prove popular.
But when this 7-Eleven of the future arrives, most of us will realize that 7-Eleven was already perfect as it was. By the end of my time there, all I wanted was the comfort of a fizzy Cherry Coke and a bag of pepperoni pizza Combos, not kombucha.
And yes, I could’ve purchased all those convenience store classics at this “lab store,” but not without the weird guilt of knowing that I should be eating something more virtuous. If there’s one thing that the pervasive diet culture on this planet has taught me in my life, it’s that there are few shames greater than being the fat girl buying a hot dog and some corn chips behind a Lululemon-clad pilates instructor. I want a 7-Eleven that doesn’t judge me or think I should eat better, especially when I’m tequila-drunk at 2 a.m. and in desperate need of a chicken bacon ranch taquito.
After leaving the lab store, I found just the perfect 7-Eleven location — a “normal” 7-Eleven with no kombucha in sight — a few miles down the street, and bought a hot dog and a half-cherry, half-Coke Slurpee. I ate them in the car, just as God intended.
Amy McCarthy is the editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston.
Updated by %custom_fields[Foodbase]%