By KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS
The economic downturn brought new diners into 7-Eleven stores looking to fill their bellies without emptying their wallets.
With the economy on the mend, the Dallas-based convenience store chain is launching “signature” food items that it hopes will keep consumers hungry for more.
“During the economic downturn, we’ve found that by offering programs like two-for-$2 slices of pizza … and offering consumers price value on some really good food, it was an opportunity to attract some [new] customers,” said Paul Pierce, 7-Eleven’s vice president of quick service and fresh food.
Pierce was among the roughly 2,000 7-Eleven franchisees, suppliers and executives at the company’s annual University of 7-Eleven at the Sheraton-Dallas on Monday.
7-Eleven Inc. hopes to grow food sales by 10 percent this year — more than double the typical 3 percent to 4 percent.
“We are looking at every food item that we sell today … from a muffin to our breakfast sandwiches to chicken wings to the burrito on the roller grill, every single item,” Pierce said.
“That food needs to be better than what you expect in a convenience store. We want our food to be better than restaurant quality.”
Cigarettes still count as the top-selling item at 7-Eleven and convenience stores nationwide.
They account for nearly 36 percent of in-store sales nationwide, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
That compares with 17.3 percent for food service, which includes everything from beverages and Slurpees to sandwiches and pizza.
But as more consumers try to kick the habit, convenience stores have worked to replace tobacco dollars with food that goes beyond the ubiquitous hot dog rotating on the roller grill.
The 10 percent target is the most aggressive goal for 7-Eleven this year, Pierce said.
“I would think most consumers still think of 7-Eleven not in terms of food,” said Joe Hermes, senior director of fresh food at 7-Eleven, which last year sold its 100 millionth chicken wing. “But we’re slowly changing that perception.
“What we’re trying to do now is bring out new and innovative items … that the customer can’t get anywhere else.”
At the three-day 7-Eleven event, which began Monday, franchisees sampled the six new sauce flavors for chicken wings, which are 50 percent larger; a pretzel/croissant breakfast sandwich with egg and ham; and Angus beef hot dogs. The items are either being tested or are slated to roll out later this year.
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the convenience store association, acknowledged that some consumers still think of convenience store food as more desperation than the destination.
He, too, thinks that’s changing.
“We’ve seen that in the , where people tried convenience store food for the first time” rather than burn more gas to get to a restaurant, Lenard said.
“7-Eleven and the other stores will put everything they have into this,” he added. “There’s a huge movement to push this through.”