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    7-Eleven Becomes a Foodie

    Employees taste test upscale flavor of retailer's fresh food offerings.

    DALLAS -- Papaya-mango fruit cups with chili-lime spice and turkey capicolla wraps with basil spread. It's not the menu of the local gourmet restaurant, but what might be showing up in 7-Eleven stores across the country.

    These food items, along with others, were taste tested by the company's employees and franchise owners this week at the University of 7-Eleven at the Dallas Convention Center. The offerings are intended to position themselves in stores to replace some of cigarettes' lost revenue, the Dallas Morning News reported.

    The all-day taste-and-tell session raised employee enthusiasm and proved the convenience store industry has come a long way from its staples of gas, packaged snacks and beef jerky.

    "Fresh food is growing, absolutely, and it continues to grow," said John Vaughan, fresh food category manager for 7-Eleven, Inc. "It's the customer lifestyle. What we have to offer is convenience."

    For the chain, fresh food makes up more than 10 percent of sales, rivaled only by beer and wine, according to Vaughan. However, in Texas, the number is above average, at 13 percent.

    "We really think that fresh food is a huge growth opportunity for 7-Eleven," Margaret Chabris, company spokeswoman, told the newspaper. "We'd like to see it grow to 30 percent."

    7-Eleven has agreements with nearly 15 commissaries and bakeries across the nation to produce the fresh offerings in stores. However, it isn't the only one in the convenience channel that is ramping up meal options to time-pressed consumers.

    Florida's NexStore MarketPlace provides consumers with bread made in stone hearth ovens, chicken Parmesan with linguini and a variety of foods from its sushi chef. In addition, it caters weddings. Wawa and Sheetz also have thrived on extensive menus of made-to-order and other fresh foods.

    "It's one of the hot, up-and-coming areas within foodservice," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association. "It has raised the baseline expectation among consumers about where food service exists."

    Convenience stores are picking up on the trend of fresh foods to make up for losses in other categories. High margin foods can offset the lower margins seen in gasoline and cigarettes.

    "With cigarettes, the margins are not that large, and there are all these regulations and restrictions that are making it more challenging each year to sell them," Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, told the paper. "If you're looking long term, you have to look at the potential challenges" in cigarettes sales.

    Beyond that, enticing additional consumers in other demographics makes the fresh foods worthwhile for other convenience companies. "With [fresh] food, you can attract a whole new segment of customer, particularly females," said Lenard. "If you're not looking into fresh food," he said, "you probably need a good reason why you're not."

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