Mention 7-Eleven, and probably the first thing that comes to most people’s minds are the Slurpees that many of us guzzled as kids. Mention White Hen Pantry, a well-remembered Chicago and Boston-area convenience store chain, and the first things that come to my mind are the incredible iced brownies they used to sell. Over three-by-three inches square and darn near an inch tall, those Burny Bros. babies provided a guaranteed day long chocolate and sugar rush. And it’s a good thing we didn’t know about trans fats in those days.
The 1960’s were the breakout years for the convenience store industry. The first convenience stores – small roadside stores that specialized in sales of ice, milk , bread and few other staple items began to appear in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. Over time, these stores evolved into “small grocery stores”, adding a broader line of foods and various sundries to the mix. Ultimately, many convenience stores would add gasoline sales, either in partnership with a major oil company brand or through “private label” gas purchased through oil jobbers. By the late fifties and early sixties, convenience stores were fairly widespread nationally. The industry at the time was made up of a number of small regional convenience chains and one major player, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, better known by the name of their stores - 7-Eleven. Ubiquitous in many Texas and Florida markets, The 60’s would see 7-Eleven become a national brand with Southland’s aggressive expansion into the Northeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountain and Southern California markets. In January 1966, Southland announced plans to open its first stores in the Chicago area, with 25 stores scheduled to open within the year, nearly all (initially) in the Northwest suburbs. These stores would report to Southland’s new district headquarters in Rolling Meadows.
Jewel Tea Company, owner of Chicago’s market leading Jewel Food Stores and the recently acquired Star Markets, a popular Boston-area chain, was already well underway with its own convenience store concept at the time. Jewel’s first convenience stores were slated to open in the Chicago area in 1965 under the less-than memorable name of “Kwik Shoppe”.
Around that same time, Jewel made an investment with an Illinois agricultural firm, the White Hen Egg Farm, in order to ensure a steady supply of high-quality eggs to their retail stores. Wisely, they ditched the Kwik Shoppe name (not to be confused with Kwik-E-Mart, heh heh) and adopted the name “White Hen Pantry” for the new stores. Tapping into nostalgia for simpler times with a milk-glass hen dish as their trademark, the first three White Hen Pantries were opened as planned in 1965.
White Hen Pantry was unique within the Jewel organization in that it was a franchised operation, with each store independently owned and operated. For a franchise fee of $15,000 ($12,000 of which went for inventory), Jewel would set a new White Hen owner/operator up with a complete business – store, inventory, training, accounting and distribution services, a fairly sweet deal even for those pre-inflationary times. The new owner/operators were often fairly young (30-ish) married couples, who would run the stores as a true family business. A number of the early White Hen franchisees were previously Jewel Food Store managers who had proven their mettle with the company and were given priority when new White Hen stores were planned. Jewel took no percentage until a given store was profitable, and after that they received a 12% cut of store profits.
A couple of things made White Hen unique within the convenience store industry as well. First, they did not sell gasoline, preferring suburban strip centers for many of their earlier locations, later expanding into urban locations. Secondly, each store had an extensive delicatessen and bakery counter, a particular point of pride and a rarity in those days long before Subway popped up in seemingly every gas station/convenience store on earth.
The White Hen Pantries complemented Jewel’s full-line supermarkets nicely, offering customers extended shopping hours in an era when Jewel and Jewel-Osco stores closed at 9pm in most cases and the great majority of them were closed altogether on Sundays. By 1969, 44 White Hens were in operation in the Chicago area and the first Boston area stores were opened to leverage the Star Market territory there. Eventually, a number of White Hens would be opened in Jewel’s downstate Eisner area as well.
The following 15 years would see steady growth with no major changes to the White Hen operation until 1984, when Jewel was taken over by Salt Lake City-based American Stores Company. American’s chairman Sam Skaggs signaled his intentions to build a food and drug titan, and made it known that convenience stores didn’t fit into his plans. White Hen, with some 240 Chicago locations and 50 Boston locations at the time, would be put up for sale. The White Hen management team, some of whom had been there from the beginning in 1965, expressed their desire to put together an offer to buy the company. Skaggs opted instead to place White Hen on the open market, ripe for the taking to the highest bidder. And the bidders came – Southland/7-Eleven, Convenient Food Mart (a local competitor based in Rosemont, Illinois), Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), who operated a number of their “Am/Pm Mini-Markets” in the greater Chicago area, and the White Hen management group, who had secured enough funding to be competitive. Happily, the White Hen team won out, and the company “fell into loving hands”, as the Chicago Tribune put it at the time.
In 2001, White Hen Pantry agreed to be sold to Clark Retail Enterprises, who would immediately divest the Boston area stores to a new entity, called New England Pantry, Inc. Clark itself ran into trouble soon afterward, declaring bankruptcy in 2003. A group led by Brandon Barnhart, the former CEO of Clark purchased White Hen in November of that year, and the “pantry” portion of the name was dropped. The end of the White Hen era, at least in the Chicago area, was signaled in August 2006 when White Hen was bought out by arch rival 7-Eleven. The stores have undergone a slow but sure conversion to the 7-Eleven banner since that time.
Note: Larry of the great Diner Hotline, a Massachusetts resident, rightly points out that White Hen Pantries still exist in the Boston area.
The photos below are all circa 1973. The first two views are of a typical suburban store - an exterior (albeit with non-standard signage) and an interior view showing a portion of the vaunted bakery counter. The last view shows the White Hen Pantry that was located on the ground floor of McClurg Court, a high-rise apartment complex that was definitely one of the hotter Chicago addresses in the 1970’s.