The phrase “fast food” likely evokes some very specific brand names: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, White Castle. There are visions of paper bags filled with steamed buns and sides of fries, fountain sodas with squeaky straws, drive-thru lanes, and greasy smells galore. But a shift in the way convenience stores operate could be changing which brands and which items we consider fast food, giving the traditional chains a run for their money.
The evolution of convenience stores
Convenience store leader 7-Eleven isn’t just nipping at the heels of major fast food brands—it’s surpassing them. At 9,000 units, the chain has more locations than Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Burger King, and in recent years has been leaning more heavily on its ready-to-eat options. Here are some other recent innovations:
- In 2018, 7-Eleven debuted its delivery app, one replete with deals.
- In 2019, 7-Eleven introduced Evolution Store prototypes, the most recent of which includes a full Laredo Taco Company restaurant complete with a patio, beer, wine, and frozen margaritas, according to QSR Magazine.
- In 2021, one 7-Eleven Laredo Taco Company hybrid store featured the chain’s first drive-thru where, in addition to tacos, customers can get anything from 7-Eleven’s shelves, heat lamps, or soda fountains. Yes, that means drive-thru Slurpees.
This 7-Eleven takeover isn’t exactly a surprise. Back in 2019, we reported that convenience stores posted 16 straight years of record sales and it seems that momentum hasn’t slowed. According to Forbes, food sales specifically at convenience stores have increased more than 20% since 2019, and the convenience stores now take up more than 20% of the quick service restaurant market share.
Why convenience stores are the future of fast food
It’s not just 7-Eleven changing its model. BP now has Ampm convenience stores that serve hot deli items, fresh fruit, and other more traditional groceries. QuikTrip has a variety of made-to-order subs that rival chains like Subway. The $5 Kwik Trip chicken is a venerated institution. And Casey’s continues to experiment with its breakfast pizza.
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From a customer perspective, it seems like a no-brainer. If you need to pick up a few small grocery items, gas, and dinner, a convenience store is just more, well, convenient than making multiple stops to hit your favorite drive-thru. And Forbes reports that as of now, convenience store wait times are shorter than traditional fast food: 4 minutes as opposed to QSRs’ 7 minutes.
This all certainly doesn’t mean that fast food chains as we know them will be going away any time soon. A more likely shift will be toward partnerships between major convenience store brands and fast food companies, placing McDonald’s inside Ampms, for instance. And in that world, look out, because 7-Eleven is poised to reign supreme.