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Published: Friday, 12/28/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

7-Eleven offering customers healthy, fresh food choices; chain betting on yogurt, salads for calorie conscious

NEW YORK TIMES
7-Eleven is restocking its shelves with an eye toward healthy, fresh food choices and trimming down its more indulgent fare. 7-Eleven is restocking its shelves with an eye toward healthy, fresh food choices and trimming down its more indulgent fare.
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The chain that is home of the Slurpee, Big Gulp, and self-serve nachos with chili and cheese is betting that consumers will stop in for yogurt parfaits, crudite, and lean turkey on whole wheat bread.

7-Eleven, the convenience store chain, is restocking its shelves with an eye toward health. Over the last year, the retailer has introduced a line of fresh foods for the calorie-conscious and trimmed down its more indulgent fare by creating portion-size items.

By 2015, the retailer aims to have 20 percent of sales come from fresh foods in its U.S. and Canadian stores, up from about 10 percent currently, according to a company spokesman.

“We're aspiring to be more of a food and beverage company, and that aligns with what the consumer now wants, which is more tasty, healthy, fresh food choices,” said Joseph M. DePinto, the chief executive of 7-Eleven, a subsidiary of the Japanese company Seven & i Holdings.

Convenience stores typically have been among the most nimble of retailers. In the 1980s, they added Pac-Man arcade games as a way to keep customers in stores longer and to buy more merchandise. They installed ATMs a decade later, taking a slice of the transaction fees. More recently, they built refrigerated dairy cases, with milk, eggs, cheese, and other staples.

But just as they have taken business from traditional supermarkets, convenience stores have faced increased competition from the likes of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, which offer a basic menu of fresh foods for consumers on the go. At the same time, a major profit driver for convenience stores — cigarettes — has been in steady decline over the last decade.

Fresh foods can help offset some of those losses. The markup on such merchandise can be significant, bolstering a store’s overall profits. It's also a fast-growing category.

“If you can figure out how to deliver consistent quality and the products consumers want, fresh food is attractive because margins are higher, and it addresses some of the competitive issues you're facing,” said Richard Meyer, a longtime consultant for the convenience store industry. “But it’s not easy to do.”

7-Eleven has been selling fresh food since the late 1990s. But much of its innovation has been limited to the variety of hot dogs spinning on the roller grill or the breakfast sandwiches languishing beneath a heat lamp.

As 7-Eleven refocuses its lineup, the retail chain has assembled a team of culinary and food science experts to study industry trends and develop products.

One new menu item just hitting stores is a Bistro Snack Protein Pack, which includes mini pita rounds, cheddar cheese cubes, grapes, celery, baby carrots, and hummus. The meal in a box, similar to one carried by Starbucks, is part of a broader menu with healthier items under 400 calories.

The company is also taking products and retooling them for single portions. For example, customers can now buy jelly doughnuts and tacos in minisizes.

Norman Jemal, a franchisee, said sales of the new products are growing steadily in the three 7-Eleven stores he owns in Manhattan. “At first, people are surprised when they come in here and see a bag of carrots and celery,” Mr. Jemal said. “They say, ‘I came in here for a bag of chips — I can’t believe you have fruit cups or yogurt cups.’ ”

He said the Yoplait Parfait, a cup of vanilla yogurt topped with fresh strawberries or blueberries and granola, is his best-selling fresh-food item, while the 7 Smart turkey sandwich is his top sandwich.

The fresh food is supplied from 29 commissaries and bakeries that fulfill orders from 7-Eleven. They tailor menu items for specific markets.

In the Miami area, they produce a hot Cuban sandwich with ham, cheese, pickles and mustard.

The Turkey Gobbler with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce sells in northeastern stores around the holidays.

Each store has a data system that allows it to see exactly what is selling, which helps manage waste. Stores can track consumers’ purchase habits over a month, and adjust their orders based on those behaviors.

“We used to be a place for people to buy beer, wine, cigarettes, candy, and chips, and people would occasionally ask where they could go to get something to eat,” Mr. Ferguson said.

“We're no longer getting that question because now you can get something to eat right here.”



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