By Caitlin Dewey / The Washington Post
Like thousands of U.S. convenience stores, many 7-Eleven stores cram rows of snacks between a wall of chilled sodas and a bank of churning Slurpee machines.
But starting this month, 7-Eleven will also begin selling cold-pressed juice. It’s organic, vegan, fair trade, non-GMO, gluten-free — and designed to appeal to an entirely new type of convenience-store consumer.
Analysts say the launch is a tiny part of a major trend sweeping truck stops, corner stores and mini-marts from coast to coast. As sales of gas, cigarettes and soda plummet, many stores are vying for consumers with fresh produce and other “better-for-you” products that would have once looked out of place in the land of Big Gulps.
That could make a difference in the diets of millions, experts say, especially those who rely on convenience stores as a primary source of food.
“There is a convenience store in every community in America,” said Amaris Bradley, the director of partnerships at the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier America, which has worked with stores to offer more nutritious items. “If you can transform that industry, you can make healthy options more accessible for a lot of people.”
Already, convenience stores have begun to change how they do business, said Jeff Lenard, who heads strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores. Nearly half of all convenience stores expanded their fruit and vegetable offerings in 2017, according to a NACS survey, and thousands more introduced yogurt, health bars, string cheese, packaged salads and hard-boiled eggs.
At 7-Eleven, the world’s largest convenience store chain, with 10,500 U.S. locations, the company has aggressively developed “better-for-you” products under the Go!Smart banner, pushing low-sugar herbal teas, fruit-and-nut bars and rice crackers.
At Kwik Trip, the Midwestern chain seen by many in the industry as the leader of the healthy stores movement, executives hired an in-house dietitian, Erica Flint, to help introduce new products and reformulate old ones.
Each of the company’s 586 stores now stocks fresh fruit and vegetables, from avocados, potatoes and mushrooms to “snack packs” of grape tomatoes. Over the past four years, the chain has also gradually begun introducing healthier items like an egg white breakfast sandwich and reduced the sodium in its soups.
“As the generations change, what consumers are looking for changes as well,” Flint said. “Different consumers are looking for different things, and we’re trying to provide options for all of them.”
Convenience stores also face a collapse of the industry’s top-selling items — cigarettes, soda and gas — said Frank Beard, an analyst for GasBuddy, an app and data service for convenience stores. Soda and cigarette sales have been down for years, he points out, and the margins on gas are low.
“Food sales are an opportunity for them,” Beard said. “It’s a perfect storm of factors.”
This isn’t to say, of course, that convenience stores don’t still sell junk. Before Beard worked in the industry, he spent 30 days eating only gas station food as an internet stunt. Customers must often navigate a maze of chips and sodas, he acknowledged, to reach the raw almonds and bottled water. Healthy foods typically don’t replace unhealthy ones on shelves — they simply move them over.
And while chain stores have leveraged their size and distribution networks to source healthy items, many independent stores have struggled to change their stocks, Lenard said.
When a team of researchers from the University of Illinois tallied the foods available at 127 stores in underserved areas in 2015, they found the stores stocked 1.8 fresh fruit options, on average, and 2.9 fresh vegetables. Only 12 percent offered whole-wheat bread or low-fat dairy products.
“We’ve seen that smaller, independent stores have a much harder time picking up on this trend,” said Melissa Laska, the director of the Public Health Nutrition program at the University of Minnesota. “They don’t have access to the distribution chains that other stores have, and that creates challenges.”
Despite those challenges, Laska and other public health advocates continue to push for change in convenience stores. They’re a prime target because they’re everywhere: 93 percent of the U.S. population lives within 10 minutes of one, according to NACS figures.
Convenience stores are often one of the only food sources in low-income areas, where people may rely on them for groceries in between big trips or drop by regularly for snacks. Research has not strongly demonstrated that healthier convenience stores lead directly to healthier diets – but they are a necessary prerequisite.
“People can’t purchase healthier foods if they aren’t available,” Laska said. “So this is the first step — but only the first step. Other things need to happen to change the wider food system.”
For Lenard, those next steps will necessarily involve getting more produce and other perishable foods to smaller stores that can’t buy in bulk. The industry is working on a number of possible solutions, including cooperative buying arrangements and direct sales from farms.
Already, they say, there are positive signs. In the past year and a half, four of the country’s largest convenience store distributors have committed to initiatives with Partnership for a Healthier America, which is allied with former first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! project. With PHA, the companies have promised to make it easier for convenience stores to source produce and other healthy foods — and to market those products.
Collectively, PHA estimates, the four distributors reach 130,000 convenience stores.
“Some stores may be slower to adapt,” said Beard, the analyst. “But there’s no question that everyone is going to follow.”