People keep telling me about the pho at 7-Eleven. But it’s not until the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant told me it’s good that I actually considered it. Everyone has their favorite 7-Eleven food: For one friend, whose first job out of college was stocking cigars at 7-Eleven, it’s the shrimp pork hash that reminds her of her childhood manapua truck. For another, it’s the fried chicken musubi, his energy bar for a paddle run. A farmer’s guilty pleasure is the ingeniously cellophane-sheathed tuna sushi that you roll in the still-crisp nori. And of course, there’s the ever popular Spam musubi—7-Eleven Hawai‘i sells 14,000 every day, requiring a pallet’s worth (2,000 cans) of Spam. For me, it’s the lup cheong manapua, warm from the steam case, the Chinese salami wrapped up in the dough equivalent of a puffer jacket. 7-Eleven Hawai‘i feels like one of those brands in Hawai‘i, like McDonald’s and Longs Drugs, that gets us. You won’t find our level of affection for 7-Eleven on the Mainland, just as you won’t find lau lau and kālua pig, recently spotted at the Second Avenue location in Kaimukī (the first 7-Eleven in Hawai‘i when it opened in 1978) and others.
But pho? Everyone approaches it for the first time with curiosity and skepticism, as if there are limits to what even Hawai‘i’s 7-Elevens can produce well, and pho is the uncrossable barrier. But pushing the limits of convenience-store food is where the company is concentrating much of its efforts: It recently debuted its own ramen noodles in a pork tonkotsu and a spicy tan tan broth, and this summer, an ‘ulu stew that’s been a year in the making will hit the shelves. But those are just a few of the new offerings: Debbie Lee Soon, who oversees the fresh food as 7-Eleven Hawai‘i’s category manager, says the company debuts one to three new dishes a week, with slower-selling items “deleted” to make room for the new. (Among past deletions: a sushi burrito, a chicken and cilantro salad sandwich created by Hawai‘i first lady Dawn Ige, and only a few years ago, a different version of the pork tonkotsu ramen.) In November, Warabeya USA, the Japanese-owned company that makes all the fresh food for 7-Eleven Hawai‘i, expanded its footprint by purchasing and moving into the former Fujifilm Hawai‘i office in Waipahu. Currently, there are 65 7-Elevens in the state (including 11 on the Neighbor Islands), and the new Warabeya facility has room to service all of them, plus two dozen more. Despite increasing competition from fast-food and fast-casual operations, 7-Eleven Hawai‘i hopes that with new and expanded offerings, from mentaiko sushi rolls to Nanding’s Spanish rolls, it will not go the way of Fuji’s film rolls.
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7-Eleven began in Texas in 1927 as Southland Ice Co., an outfit of ice houses before the advent of modern refrigeration. It evolved into convenience stores, and though 7-Eleven seems quintessentially American, inventor of Slurpees and Big Gulps as well as coffee to go and self-serve soda fountains, it has since 1991 been controlled by a Japanese company now known as Seven & i Holdings. 7-Eleven was introduced in Japan in 1974—there are now more of the stores there than in any other country, thanks in part to a strategy that ditched the sad sandwiches for a stunning variety of food made daily, from onigiri to bento to oden. It’s become a part of daily life in Japan (you can also pay bills there), and for tourists, as much a destination as the country’s hallowed sushi bars and thousand-year-old temples.
When Seven-Eleven Japan bought the Hawai‘i stores in 1989, “we needed to develop our own products for our local customers,” says Soon. Hence, Spam musubi and pork hash in its stores. Hawai‘i was unique, but it was also “like a test area for the U.S. They implemented some of their concepts here”—in particular, the fresh food program—“and then migrated them to the Mainland stores.” In 2002, some locations in California introduced sushi, seafood salads and even “Szechuan beef bowls.” The response was about as tepid as 7-Eleven’s hot dogs on rollers.
Seven & i was—and remains—undeterred. Last summer, in the middle of the pandemic, it announced it would more than double its stores in the U.S., from about 9,000 to 20,000, through new locations and the acquisition of gas station convenience store chain Speedway. This, despite a declining demand in gasoline as more hybrids and electric cars loom on the horizon—Seven & i is betting that shifting the Mainland model to fresh food will win over Americans there the same way it’s won them over here.
Franchisees manage the majority of Mainland 7-Eleven stores. In Hawai‘i, all are owned by 7-Eleven Hawai‘i, which reports directly to Japan. But that doesn’t mean every store stocks the same items: Each outpost is responsible for its own daily ordering, to better adapt to its customers. Roadwork outside the Waipahu location meant the store manager there had to order larger bentos and more drinks to keep up with construction workers’ appetites. And when schools closed last March, 7-Elevens saw a drop in musubi sales as students stopped coming into the stores every morning.
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If 7-Eleven Hawai‘i knows what Hawai‘i wants to eat, it’s largely because of Soon. She tastes every new product in development, and she’s always on the lookout for the next thing, combing new restaurants’ menus, food blogs and articles. Her first job out of college was in retail at Liberty House before she moved on to 7-Eleven Hawai‘i, where she has worked for about 30 years—she came up with the pork hash and manapua. “Normally, when you wanted to eat manapua, you had to go to Chinatown and go to the manapua place before 12 because they shut the door then,” she says. “It’s not available all the time.” 7-Eleven Hawai‘i changed that. “We sampled and critiqued all the manapua around, like Libby’s, Chun Wah Kam, Char Hung Sut, and noted what we liked to develop our own taste. We developed a program from scratch and brought in a machine [from Japan] that can mass produce thousands a day.” An entire section of Warabeya USA’s production kitchen (my hopes of seeing a magical manapua machine were dashed—I wasn’t allowed inside) is devoted to pork hash and manapua. If Soon has seen a trend in artisanal and handcrafted food, which I can’t imagine she’s missed, it doesn’t come through in our conversations. Instead, she marvels at the machines that create truckloads of bao, all tasting exactly the same, all the same shape and size, so that we can have the warm snack 24/7.
One thing industrialization can’t seem to crack, though, is Spam cans. 7-Eleven sells so many Spam musubi that it’s the job of two people to open Spam cans for four hours a day (the equivalent of one person’s full-time job).
Spam musubi, pork hash and manapua may be the anchors of 7-Eleven Hawai‘i, but “just like in retail fashion, there are lots of different trends in food, so we have to keep changing,” Soon says. “And the difference with food is we can develop it locally. I can be hands-on through the whole development process.” Soon doesn’t cook much at home—in that way, she’s a lot like her customers; her job is to come up with the product idea, down to how many carrots and potatoes a stew might have, and let Warabeya develop the recipe. “It can’t be too soft or can’t be too hard. We chill it, we microwave it, sometimes we transport it through our refrigerated trucks to make sure that when it gets to the store and it’s reheated, the quality is good.” When we talk, she has just finished tasting the new tonkotsu ramen with noodles made by Warabeya. “They’re almost there,” she says. “The texture was really good; I just thought it was a bit salty. Just little things, but it’s pretty much ready to go.”
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Last year, 7-Eleven Hawai‘i ran a competition at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific aimed at finding a healthy entrée limited in calories. Soon picked an ‘ulu stew and worked with the winning student chef to scale it for 7-Eleven Hawai‘i. It went through five iterations until it had the right taste, texture and appearance, but when it came time to secure the ingredients, they ran into a snag. When 7-Eleven Hawai‘i launches a new item, it needs to stock a month’s supply of ingredients so that it can consistently offer the dish for at least a few weeks. That meant 1,200 pounds of ‘ulu. But the ‘ulu available at the time had a softer consistency from the one they developed the recipe around. Soon put the recipe on hold until the next ‘ulu harvest this summer.
But sometimes, instead of replicating popular Hawai‘i foods in its production kitchen, it goes straight to the source. “If it’s something like Nanding’s Spanish rolls … they make the best one, and [if] they can produce it for us, we will definitely buy it,” Soon says. (It’s maybe also because Japanese machines don’t exist for Spanish rolls and other Filipino baked goods.) And so in 7-Eleven’s pastry cases, you’ll find Nanding’s guava pianono and, right by the cash register where it’s especially hard to resist, its famous Spanish rolls. Other local favorite straight-from-the-source treats at 7-Eleven include oatcakes from Honolulu Baking Co., ube tarts by Ubae, and kūlolo ice cream bars from Franny’s Hawaiian Ice Pops.
At 7-Eleven Hawai‘i’s newest store in Kapolei, I find a variety greater than at my neighborhood store on Sierra Drive. I can’t help examining every item on every shelf—much to the annoyance and inconvenience of the workers shuttling around me trying to set up and stock the wine section. Do I want lychee sour belts or non-GMO real sugar Red Vines? Takoyaki popcorn puffs or “thick-cut” seaweed crisps? Sriracha ‘ahi jerky or beef jerky chips? Ubae crinkle cookies or a dark chocolate mochi doughnut? I haven’t even gotten to the “real” foods yet, but I already know I’m going to need those ginseng detox foot pads that I saw in the first aisle.
By the time I reach the cash register, my haul consists mostly of equal parts snacks; bentos and bowls (tocino and longanisa with egg, saimin and that beef pho); and my attempt at vegetables (packaged edamame in a black pepper sauce from Thailand, and a pickle in a pouch). To my stoner/pregnancy-cravings stash, the cashier adds a bag of Korean tteokbokki chips, which they’re giving out free that day.
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Digging into the pho, which I’ve heated in the microwave at 7-Eleven and am eating in the car, my first thought is what a brilliant solution to the soup problem. Sloshing bowls of soup are the last thing you’d want to have to deliver to 65 stores, not to mention the noodles would get soggy sitting in liquid. But Warabeya adds gelatin to the soup to make it firm—when you heat the bowl, the block melts back into broth. It’s the same alchemy that makes xiao long bao, or Chinese soup dumplings, such a delight and turns your leftover oxtail soup into a solid block in the refrigerator. It keeps the noodles the perfect texture, the broth light and clear—words you don’t often hear about convenience-store food—and it even has a bit of brightness, delivered through fresh Thai basil, and green and red onions.
Hawai‘i is like neither Japan nor the continental U.S., and while I, like Soon, marvel at the technical details of mass production, I also love the traditions of small, unique restaurants. I always loved stepping into Char Hung Sut, among the Chinese cooks who reminded me of my grandma, but more often, I turned to 7-Eleven’s available-anytime manapua. Is 7-Eleven contributing to the demise of such institutions, or is it the keeper of a flame that’s already dimming? I don’t think the food landscape in Hawai‘i will eventually resemble Japan’s, where a fast and fantastic meal from 7-Eleven can exist side by side with tradition-bound tonkatsu and soba from generations-old establishments. It will likely look more like the ice cream freezer at a 7-Eleven Hawai‘i, where kūlolo bars and boba milk tea bars and wafer azuki ice cream sandwiches and It’s-It are stacked side by side—new and old, global and local, but only the local businesses that have learned, like 7-Eleven, to meld newness with nostalgia.