I recently had the chance to spend some time with Chef Benny Cheng at the TuttoFood show in Milan. TuttoFood is a growing international food showcase hosted by Fiera Milano. We were invited as a Canadian delegation to experience Italian products, and all the show has to offer. Nothing too unusual about spending time with a chef at a food show except it was in Italy, and Chef Cheng is the corporate chef for…wait for it…7-Eleven Canada. He was at the show looking for global food innovation ideas to help drive 7-Eleven Canada’s business. Their foodservice business.
Now, as you contemplate that introduction, I will tell you that I have had three distinct responses from other foodservice professionals to this seemingly odd pairing. It prompted me to dig a little deeper.
The first reaction was a polite chuckle, which is understandable. A corporate chef at 7-Eleven Canada. Really?
The second was a bit more inquisitive. That tilt-of-the-head look of “WTH?” The kind of reaction that includes doing the math behind the mismatched association of a corporate chef position within 7-Eleven Canada.
The third response was an upright bolt, a look that says, “HOLY SH*T.”
As it turns out, the last reaction is the correct response. And, as you ponder it, you may run through all three reactions to come to the same conclusion as I did.
As we all know, consumers are feeling pressed for time. They are looking for convenience, value, frictionless transactions while trying not to sacrifice the quality of food they eat. They simply want what they what, when they want it, with no issues. It is forcing the entire foodservice sector into scramble mode right now, and everyone is being pushed to try to meet these new demands.
But, if you think about it, 7-Eleven has been providing that “grab and go” service for years. In fact, in the 60s, they moved to their first 24-hour-service operation and introduced take out coffee, which is commonplace today. They just weren’t focused on the ”fresh” side of the business.
You can always count on 7-Eleven to be open for your convenience to pick up bread, milk, late-night munchies, or a fresh to go packaged sandwich when you are dashboard dining. And, let’s not forget about a Slurpee. But you don’t associate 7-Eleven Canada with a fresh hot food program, until now.
7-Eleven Canada has been quietly transforming their business by diversifying their food program with the key component of that strategy being the expansion of fresh cold and hot food products.
Just to put it into context, 7-Eleven is a leader in the convenience retailing industry. Based out of Irving, Texas, they operate franchises and licenses in more than 66,000 stores in seventeen countries, including 11,600 in North America and 636 locations in Canada. So, when they look to join in the foodservice sector, people are taking notice.
Chef Cheng explained what is driving 7-Eleven. “I came on board six years ago, and our goal was a lofty one: to make 7-Eleven Canada a food destination. We started with basic recipes, fresh sandwiches, subs, wraps. We have been selling Crispy Classic Chicken in a small number of stores for over 20 years. In 2015 we decided to expand it to over 200 stores. Crispy Classic Chicken is made fresh in stores throughout the day from fresh 100% Canadian chicken pieces, battered and breaded in built-in kitchens with multiple fryers.”
Just over two years ago, 7-Eleven Canada introduced a fresh-baked program that included pastries, croissants and cookies. Chef Cheng indicated: “It has been a huge win for us, as we now have over 400 stores on the program.”
7-Eleven has also outfitted over 500 stores with TurboChef ovens to supply their customers with “hot from the oven in minutes” grab and go pizza, wings, chicken fingers, etc. They have even partnered with the Chicken Farmers of Canada to emphasize their locally sourced 100 per cent Canadian chicken.
Chef Cheng outlined the vision. “We are striving for restaurant-quality delivered with 24/7 convenience. We see where the consumer is heading, and we see that adding a better-for-you food program is a sustainable way to grow our business. Our test of beyond meat pizza is another example of driving innovation to meet the Canadian customer’s changing needs.”
7-Eleven Canada has also been trying to incorporate the fresh offering the right way. They lead by voluntarily posting calorie labels nationwide on non-packaged foods and beverages. In 2015, 7-Eleven Canada announced its “Better Choices” program to provide customers with nutrient data for non-packaged foods and beverages.
Continuing the evolution to a foodservice-first retailer, “7-Eleven Canada is the first convenience store to gain membership with Restaurants Canada and subscribe to the informed dining program,” said Mel Tiruneh, 7-Eleven’s senior director of merchandising. “Canadians appreciate the choice we provide from craveable favourites to healthy snacks and meals on the go.”
One of the challenges for 7-Eleven Canada, like all retailers in food, is service standards and training. They are a must for 7-Eleven. And, as chef Cheng said, “It is a bit harder for us verses other franchised foodservice operations. Our assortment and services are broader, and we never close.” This creates the need for ongoing training and standards reinforcement of foodservice basics and processes across a large team. They have developed best practice guides to reinforce and maintain high foodservice handling standards.
So, why was Chef Cheng at a food show in Milan? “We are looking for products to help us continue to expand our food program. Global product innovation, ingredients and things like quick-serve pasta ideas and hopefully some outside-of-the-box solutions.”
7-Eleven Canada has also hooked up with third-party delivery aggregators Foodora and Uber Eats, creating a whole new level of opportunity.
So, as I sat on the plane ride home and thought about the blurring lines between retail and foodservice, I pondered…Could one now order freshly made pizza and wings, a Slurpee, toothpaste, milk and bread, maybe even fresh produce and healthy prepared meals…and all delivered to my house? That will make the industry wake up and smell the coffee.
Milese Tiruneh, Senior Director of Merchandising, 7-Eleven Canada Inc. will be speaking on the profit avenues panel in March at RC Show 2020. Get your tickets today to learn more about how 7-Eleven is changing the game of convenience food and retail.