Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sixties, Slurpees and the Sev

The 1960’s saw two major developments in the history of 7-Eleven and its parent, the Southland Corporation. The first was a continuation of the company’s rapid geographical expansion, which would result in 7-Eleven becoming a virtual nationwide presence by the end of the decade. The second was the 1967 introduction of the company’s signature product, the Slurpee.

In March 1964, Southland made what would probably be its most important single acquisition, the 100-store Speedee Mart chain, with stores in all of the key markets in California. With this purchase, Southland not only picked up a solidly managed operation in the country’s most dynamic markets, it gained a crucial foothold in the field of franchising. Speedee Mart was a successful franchise-based operation. In the coming years, franchising would serve as rocket fuel for Southland’s expansion plans. For a couple of years after buying out Speedee Mart, Southland would maintain the Speedee Mart name, augmented with 7-Eleven’s logo.

7-Eleven entered the Chicago market in 1965, and within two years had 14 stores in the area. The following year, they acquired the 86-store handy-Pantry chain in Georgia and Tennessee, and in 1968 they bought out Gristede’s, an upscale chain of 115 small grocery stores in the metro New York area. Not long afterward, the company would add the New England, Detroit and Buffalo markets as well. Southland also bought out a number of prominent local dairies in the 60’s as well, both to supply dairy products to the 7-Eleven stores and in some cases, home delivery. These dairies included Wanzer’s in Chicago, Adohr Farms in California, Midwest Farms (multiple Midwest locations), Velda Farms in Florida and Embassy Dairies in DC.

Look carefully at the first photo, which dates from 1965, and you’ll see that the drinks the kids are enjoying are in fact not Slurpees but Icees, an independently owned frozen drink that’s been around since 1959 (and until very recently was sold in cups of the exact same design as those pictured). In 1965, Southland launched a test in three stores utilizing a new and fairly expensive piece of equipment, the Mitchell frozen drink machine. The test far surpassed the company’s expectations, and plans were quickly laid in place to install machines in 100 more stores, followed by the green light to implement them chain-wide in all of the chain’s stores. It was determined that a slightly different process (using the Taylor frozen machines) and an exclusive brand name was needed to firmly link the new frozen drinks with 7-Eleven in consumers’ minds, and thus the Slurpee was born (One might assume that from that point forward, Icees were forevermore banned from 7-Eleven premises, but in fact the Icee machines were used in a number of their stores for several more years).
A huge success, the Slurpee proved that if a company can effectively appeal to the kids’ market, then more often than not their parents are locked in as well. McDonald’s would realize this on an even larger scale with introduction of the “Happy Meal” twelve years later. Another benefit 7-Eleven gained from the Slurpee was a multitude of packaging and promotional possibilities (which were also areas McDonald’s would later excel in with the Happy Meal), mostly revolving around collectors’ cup designs, which my friends and I treated like gold - Baseball Tradin’ Cups, Superhero Tradin’ Cups, Star Wars and even Rock Group Tradin’ Cups (my brother had a J. Geils Band tradin’ cup, which looked pretty nasty after a year of dishwashing, trust me). For a couple of years we lived close to a 7-Eleven in Arlington Heights, IL where my brother and I stopped in on a near-daily basis.

In later years, 7-Eleven would tilt the scales back toward more adult tastes by heavily promoting a new line of gourmet coffee. A few years ago, my childhood 7-Eleven experience was repeated in a strange way. I was working with a customer in Long Island, New York, for which I had to fly in for meetings every few months over the course of a year. We would start the meetings about 8am. Invariably, about an hour into the meeting, regardless of the importance of the topic being discussed or who else was there, the main guy would stand up and say “This coffee’s crap, let’s go to the Sev”. Of course, we would all load up into his car and drive the few blocks to the friendly local 7-Eleven (I’ve called them “The Sev” ever since) where I admit the coffee wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t save the cups this time, however.

The second photo is an interior from 1964, the third an exterior from the following year.


  1. When I was a kid living in Cleveland, Ohio, my slightly older cousin used to live just around the corner from some convenience store (I don't think it was 7-11) located at about St Claire and 76th (?) street where he'd be guzzling down the icees or slurpee like substance and saving the cups. I know he saved a ton of those cups. He's 34 now and one of these days I will get around to asking him whatever happened to the cups. I never even wanted to try one of those. Not then and not now. Seeing him guzzling them down always made the drinks look disgusting. I am probably the only kid on the planet who never tried one of those growing up, hunh, Dave?

    When I started college in the late 90s, 7-11 used to have some great coffee especially the irish creme but now as I am about to go back and get a Master's at the same school with the same 7-11 close by, the coffee has changed. There isn't as much of a variety anymore and it not nearly as good. I always liked White Hen (for a time anyway) coffee. The problem with White Hen is that I discovered them too late, just before 7-11 bought them out and started conmverting.

  2. Haha, I see why you never tried 'em, and I'm sure you weren't the only one!

    Ever since college, I'd take a good cup of coffee over a Slurpee any day...

  3. That second photo must be in Phoenix or Tucson...this 7-11 is selling Shamrock and Arden milk along with Rainbo bread. I remember our (Phx)neighborhood 7-11 used a different logo than the big red "7". It was a rectangle with "7/11" and a rooster (for the 7)and owl(for the 11)-the regular big 7 logo was on the doors and store trim.

  4. I think you have the order a little backwards... McDonalds began courting the kids 'n family market pretty much from the day Ray Kroc took over. That was one of the big drivers behind the walkup concept - it got rid of carhops (usually females) which got rid of folks (usually male teens) hanging around to chat up the car hops.

  5. Kaktuskid - Thanks for your sharp-eyed observation. I'm not familiar with Shamrock and didn't even notice that the oval logo said "Arden". I know Arden was based in California (around this same time they bought out the Mayfair Markets grocery chain in SoCal), and its interesting to learn that they serviced Arizona cities as well.

    I've seen pictures of the rooster and owl logos - great stuff.

    Thanks again!

  6. Derekl -

    Thanks for pointing this out-

    I looked back at my post after reading your comment and it does seem to imply that McDonald's followed 7-Eleven's example. That's not what I meant to say(I should have used "demonstrate on a larger scale" instead of "realize on a larger scale" in describing Happy Meals as compared to Slurpees).

    I tried to draw a parallel between the Slurpee and the Happy Meal as branded products aimed specifically at the kids' market that presented great opportunites for packaging and promotional tie-ins - i.e. Slurpee and Major League Baseball/DC Superheroes/Star Wars/(more recently)the Simpsons as compared to Happy Meals and the endless parade of Disney/Mattel/everything else imaginable.

    I definitely agree that Ray Kroc keyed into this many years before 7-Eleven, and went after the family buck even well before his own company developed Ronald McDonald (around '63 if I remember right) and the long-forgotten Archy McDonald that preceded him.

    I've always found Ray Kroc to be a fascinating and inspiring figure, especially because he was 50 years old before he even hit on the idea of buying out McD and his great innovations in standardizing fast food across an entire chain. Two of my favorite books are his autobiography "Grinding It Out" and "McDonald's:Behind the Arches" by John Love.

    Not suprisingly, I dig the old buildings as well. A great site for old McD pics is the tribute site to the late June Martino, who was the number 3 exec (and Kroc's right hand)at McD during the go-go years. She was one of the great unsung early female top executives. Here's a link:

  7. When I was a kid, our neighborhood store in Capistrano Beach was a Speedee Mart. I remember when Southland took over for two reasons:

    1. My very Republican Dad bitched and moaned because Lady Bird Johnson was affiliated with Southland.

    2. Our little Speedee got a Slurpee machine, and I fell in love with those sweet, icy treats. I couldn't get enough. My favorite flavor was "Fulla Bulla".

  8. Captain - "Fulla Bulla" - definitely one of the early greats! Wonder when they stopped selling that flavor.

    That's a riot about your Dad and Lady Bird Johnson. My stepmom (who was from Pennsylvania, not Texas)used to do a hilarious impression of Lady Bird's "Keep America Beautiful" speech.

  9. There were plenty of Speedee Marts in the Pacific Beach neighborhood where I grew up. Some were paired with laundromats (Speedee Wash) that still exist today. My very first Slurpee was a cola flavored one they called "The Bomb", probably about 1968 or so.

    Speedee Mart was the brainchild of the late Henry Boney, who went on to found Windmill Farms, and later Henry's grocery stores. He was also a San Diego County Supervisor many years ago.