Among the top sellers: pizza (both whole and sliced), chicken wings, mini tacos, sandwiches and the chain’s trademarked Big Bite hot dogs. Other grab-and-go foods like bakery items (mostly doughnuts and muffins) along with soft drinks and coffee are also bigger sellers in Washington compared with other urban areas.
What a city’s customers buy from 7-Eleven doesn’t necessarily say a lot about the people who live there. The top-selling market worldwide for the company’s most famous product, its icy, sugary Slurpee, is Winnipeg, Canada, while the top U.S. market for them is Detroit. The top U.S. market for coffee is Long Island.
Company officials said the hot food sales are an indicator of large number of singles, young people and people who are busy and don’t always have time to cook. The chain has 433 stores open or under construction in the area, including 45 in D.C. proper, and it added 16 in the area last year alone.
As people keep ordering those mini tacos and hot dogs, Margaret Chabris, 7-Eleven spokeswoman, said “we’ll continue to be on that pace of about 15 to 20 stores for the next three to five years.”
The majority of its stores are franchised, so they are usually owned by other companies. The chain’s strong growth here prompted staff at the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, which markets D.C. to retailers, to map out the newly opened and planned stores last year.
Many of the new stores are in areas where new apartment buildings are going up and thousands of new residents have moved in recent years. Naturally, they charted the locations with Slurpee logos.
This fits with the chain’s mode: It needs a lot of locations to stay on top. Nationally, 7-Eleven was only 35th in retail sales, according to a recent count by the National Retail Federation, but it had more locations (7,974) than most others on the list, putting it on par with Walgreens (7,998) and CVS Caremark (7,621), though well behind McDonald’s (14,267).
At local stores, signs outside promote Big Bite hot dogs or “melt” sandwiches, in varieties including Italian and chicken bacon ranch. A number of local stores also reserved their most valuable display space — on the counter right beside a register — for their hot foods display.
During an hour of morning rush at a location on Georgia Ave. NW, part of a gas station, customers bought dozens of wings and more than a dozen beef patties from the case. After working hours at a 7-Eleven on U Street one of the newest offerings, Doritos Loaded — deep-fried cheese-stuffed triangles with Doritos flavor — enjoyed a prominent location in the front of the case.
“They’re going after a select component of items that people need daily, convenience items. Mostly food,” said Henry Fonvielle, president of McLean-based real estate developer the Rappaport Cos.
Fonvielle said that while traditional grocery stores are now battling Wal-Mart, Target, CVS and other companies over grocery sales, 7-Eleven has doubled down on prepared foods, particularly in markets like Washington.
“There’s a lot more food in each 7-11 store,” he said, “and they’re doing a pretty good job with quick service.”
While 7-Eleven is pushing for new locations, that doesn’t mean every landlord or developer wants its own Slurpee on the map. David Dochter, a retail broker who focuses on D.C. neighborhoods, said the chain would likely be limited because branding your property as a “7-Eleven building” doesn’t always attract the customers interested in luxury apartments, which are often built upstairs from new stores.
“They want to open a lot of locations because they see the growth in residential and they see the urbanization,” he said. The challenge is a lot landlords may not be that interested.”
“It doesn’t necessarily fit from a merchandising standpoint,” he continued. “You’re attracting a customer who is coming in and coming out. They’re buying a Slurpee. They’re buying a pack of gum. If you’re opening a restaurant, you’re creating an environment. A 7-Eleven doesn’t create any real value.”
But in a fast-moving metro market, a corner store that serves as a restaurant with hot, cheap fare, seems to be just the ticket.
“You’ve got lots of young people, but also both residents and a worker population who appreciate convenience,” Chabris said.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz