Thursday, November 29, 2007

7-Eleven - How Conveeenient

Today, pulling up to a gas station that does not have a convenience store attached is a very rare thing indeed. At virtually any gas station, be it a mom-and-pop operation, a small regional or citywide chain or a major chain that may or may not be oil company owned, the convenience store is an expected part of the deal. The “service stations” with their auto service bays and tow trucks parked out front are just about consigned to history, their operators long ago having realized that selling soft drinks and food were much more profitable than towing and servicing cars.

More than any other company, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, better known by the name of its stores, 7-Eleven, pioneered the convenience store concept. Originally, Southland’s drawing card was not gasoline but ice, which was a sought-after commodity in the early part of the 20th century when many homes did not own electric refrigerators. Gasoline would come later. The Southland Ice Company was formed in 1927 through the combination of four local Dallas-area ice companies by entrepreneur Claude S. Dawley. Through the 20’s into the 1930’s, Southland gradually added milk, ice cream and other food items for the convenience of its customers. The company really took off under the leadership of Joe C. “Jodie” Thompson, who joined one of Southland’s predecessor ice companies in 1922 and would become Southland president in 1931, a position he held for thirty years until his death. In the late 20’s, Southland adopted the name Tote’m for its stores, with a genuine Alaskan totem pole as a store logo (they were later painted on the buildings). In the 30’s and 40’s, Southland bought out a number of other small chains in north Texas, maintaining their original names.

In 1945 the company decided it was time for a common identity and a new image for all of their stores, which by that time had evolved into mini-supermarkets, minus the meat and produce sections. With an ad agency’s help, they decided on “7-Eleven”, a catchy name that played off the stores’ operating hours. The first of a succession of green and red logos was adopted, and all existing stores were converted to the new image in 1946. Interestingly, 7-Eleven offered curb service for decades. The stores utilized an “open front” design with roll-up garage-style doors across nearly the full face of the store, which were kept open when weather permitted (which in Texas, of course, is most of the time). The open front design was maintained well into the 1960’s, although by then the door design was changed to a glass sliding type.

By 1950, with 80 stores under its belt, Southland opened its first stores outside of the north Texas area with a move into Austin that year and Houston in 1952. The first stores outside of Texas were opened in the Jacksonville and Miami, FL areas in 1954. From here, Southland moved into other markets at a breathless clip, adding Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, and several others by 1963 for a total of more than 1000 stores. Mr. Thompson passed away in June 1961, and the company leadership passed to his eldest son John. Southland didn’t miss a beat, and through the rest of the sixties and well into the seventies the company would experience phenomenal growth.

The sign and the two exterior photos (showing the sliding-door storefront) date from 1964. Note the promotional banners above the doors, a tradition that continues with 7-Eleven stores today. The photo of the impeccable counter man and his well-dressed customer (whose car appears to be still running outside – those were the days) is from 1966. “Oak Farms” was located in Dallas and was one of several regional dairy (and I guess, bakery) firms that were owned by Southland.


  1. The sliding glass door thing could not have possibly gone over well during the ice cold winters. I love these 7-11 photos though. So much great retroness about them. 7-11 did a heck of a job back in the late 60s here when they bought out the Open Pantry chain which also had a distinct look. I have some photos of surviving Open Pantry buildings, not many are still 7-11 though. One of these days I will collect all the materials I have and post them on my site.

    Unfortunately 7-11 has also become the bland monopoly. They bought local chain White Hen Pantry last year and are slowly converting all the stores into 7-11s which I hate. Most if not all these conveniant stores have such high prices on regular stuff that it is not even worth it unless you have no choice. But at least White Hen had awesome coffee and good sanwhiches but now with 7-11 taking over that great stuff is slowly going downhill.

    I also think that 7-11 was hardly the first folks in this business there were so many other of these chains as well that didn't do as well and weren't as aggressive as 7-11 in being all over the map. These include the aforementioned Open Pantry and White Hen Pantry. There was also Lawson's out of a Ohio, Conventient Food Mart, JJ Pepper (which is slowly disappearing) and probably a lot of others that were gobbled up over the years.

  2. Texas seems to have been the birthplace of the c-store..7-11 started in N Texas, U-Tote-M started in Houston(?)and Circle K started in El Paso (as Kay's Food Stores, they later moved to Phoenix and became Circle K)

  3. Didi-

    I really like the retro look of these as well. From the 70's on they became pretty bland. I agree that there were many chains that came and went, but 7-Eleven was one of the oldest (with predecessors starting the 20's), definitely the biggest and in my opinion one of the most innovative. They were also early to get into their own branding with Slurpees and Big Gulp (nothing beats 70 teaspoons of sugar in one cup, right?).

    I remember the Open Pantry and Convenient chains. The Open Pantries I remember had a slight colonial look to them. Several 60s 7-Elevens in Chicago and up the East Coast also had a colonial look, which was somewhat better executed than Open Pantry's look.

    I'll miss the White Hens, which were a franchise operation (owned by Jewel) for most of their existence. After Jewel sold White Hen off, it seemed to always struggle. I was in Chicago on business a couple of weeks ago and saw one still operating, so the conversion must not be complete yet.

    Kaktuskid -

    Thanks for pointing out the common Texas origin of these three major convenience chains. People must be in a hurry in Texas,eh?

  4. I don't know because Lawson's out of Ohio started way back in the 30s (I think) to try to innovate the c-store concept. I guess 7-11 did do a lot of firsts although I am not sure I still want them around as nowadays they offer nothing special.

    I forgot that Jewel started and owned the White Hen chains. Not all have been converted yet. They are actually slowly doing it one by one so there are still a few around for now. Although I do not know for how long.

    I was wondering, Dave, whether you knew what the connection was between White Hen Pantry and Family Pride Laundrymats. A lot of old White Hen strip malls had and still have the Family Pride chain in the same strip mall next to them. I have many photos of old White Hens (ones closed off and converted years before 7-11 scooped them up) that are right next door to Family Pride Laundrymats. I have been trying to find out what the connection is to no avail. One of these days, in addition to the Open Pantry photos, I will post the White Hen stuff I have as well.

  5. These are great! Thanks so much. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and I loved 7-11, I even worked at one, 1982/83. Cool pic of the counter, how many dairy products does that lady need! Oh, you can see the smokes under the counter..

    Great blog, keep up the great work!

  6. Aw, Didi, we'll make a 7-Eleven fan out of you yet! Or maybe not.... :)

    I'm pretty certain that there was no ownership connection b/w Jewel/White Hen and Family Pride, but its highly likely that Jewel struck a real estate deal with them to co-locate in a large number of strip centers. They did this a lot in the shopping centers that they developed, often setting up a separate individual corporation for each shopping center to handle leasing. Laundries seemed to be common sight alongside White Hens.

    I'm interested to know more about the Lawsons chain. Were they Cleveland-based?

  7. Vintage DLTix -

    Thanks for the comment, and glad that you like the site! It's always interesting to hear from those who "wore the uniform" (so to speak)in their youth.

    ...and I'm really enjoying seeing those tickets!

  8. Dave, if you can get 7-11 to sell that really good irish creme coffee they used to have in the machine, I might like it again. Truth is, I didn't start getting tired of 7-11 until they completely butchered the White Hen chain.

    I figured that White Hen and family Pride had probably struck some sort of real estate deal because I couldn't find any ownership connections when I searched this some time ago. Just wanted to make sure there was no connection anyone knows of other than filling up the strip malls with something. I love old Family Pride laundry mats. I have done laundry in a few and most are still pretty outdated. One that I remember going to once on Lincoln and Bryn Mawr still has these trippy late 60s psychedelic crap on the walls. Totally groovy.

    Lawson's was based out of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio right outside Akron. They were bought out by the Dairy Mart chain in the 80s. Consolidated Food (Sara Lee Corp today) bought them out in the late fifties at a time when they also bought a coop type grocery store called Royal Blue which had many stores here in Chicago and were like the little corner store convenience. The Royal Blue tracks stop dead in the 50s and I can't find much info on them after that. Ever heard of them?

  9. I'll do what I can about 7-11 and the Irish Creme, Didi. (Which to say "ain't much" would be overstating!)

    I had never heard of "Royal Blue" before, it sounds lke an interesting chain. Consolidated (Sara Lee) was one of Chicago's monster food companies along with the long gone Beatrice Foods. Sara Lee is more diversified now. A good many of America's larger food companies tried their hand at chain ownership (and quickly seemed to get out of it)in the 50s-70s.

  10. Honestly, I had never heard of it either. My husband was the one who told me about it because he grew up around the corner from one on Madison and Ada in Chicago. Interesting thing is that when Consolidated (Sara Lee) bought out Royal Blue they tried to make some stores into the bigger full service grocery stores concept according to one Tribune article. They even had one in the marina style that was located in the Chicago area. Royal Blue had started in Chicago in the early 2s by two brothers who started the co-op and expanded over the years. What happened to it after Sara Lee bought it back in the late fifties is still a mystery I am trying to crack.

  11. That's interesting. I never would have guessed that the Royal Blue chain would have been around anywhere near that long. I'm assuming that when you mentioned your husband growing up around the corner, we're talking about the 70's or 80's here. Now I'm really curious.

  12. Well, I found info that says the Royal Blue name did at least last into the 70s and maybe early 80s, but I am not 100% sure on the 80s part. Early 70s definately.

  13. Count me as probably the other person in the world who is interested in the Royal Blue chain. I first found out about them because sometimes on long winter evenings I like to pass the time looking through the old (suburban Chicago) Daily Herald archives, and the Royal Blue name comes up often. I mentioned it to a friend of mine who told me there was a Royal Blue near where we grew up on Foster Ave west of Harlem, which I never knew about. This would have had to be late 60's / early 70's, and my suspicion is that only the name survived on a lot of these storefronts, long after they had been sold to Consolidated Foods, which is something I learned only from Didi's post. So just to keep the subject bubbling, I wonder too if any old-timers can shed some light on the Royal Blue chain and how it faded away.

  14. Oak Farms is still around. They had a huge building in Houston (Westheimer near Shepherd) that is now used as a self storage building (my Dad took a tour of the facility back when he was a cub scout in the early '60s). The logo still remains on the building. You can still buy Oak Farms milk and dairy products in the Houston area, but I didn't know they produced bread.