MENU in conversation with Mel Tiruneh, Sr. Director of Merchandising, 7-Eleven Canada, Inc.
The name alone conjures up childhood memories of neighbourhood grocery runs with hopes a parent might cave in and add a small snack or treat to the bag of milk and bread; of teenage meet-ups and multi-coloured Slurpee® cups sticky in the parking lot sun. It’s a brand that feels like it’s always been there, and for many of us, it has. Owned by 7-Eleven Inc. under the Japanese Seven & i Holdings Co. Ltd. umbrella, 7-Eleven stores can be found in 19 countries around the world with a total roster of more than 83,000. And, as times and behaviours changed, the brand changed at pace (and maybe stayed just a little out ahead). In 2017, 7-Eleven launched their 7REWARDS loyalty program, with home delivery following in 2018. Last year, the company collaborated with the popular video game Rocket League to offer customers in-game 7-Eleven branded customizations and the chance for gamers to win $2,500 to upgrade their gaming gear.
In December 2021, 7-Eleven Canada opened its first licensed, dine-in location in Edmonton. Now, with 11 Alberta locations and one in Leamington, Ontario, the C&G giant’s steady transformation into a proper QSR contender is getting noticed. We’re not talking about a convenience store with a hot dog value meal that includes a can of pop and a bag of chips. With intentional offerings and amenities that focus on meeting the needs of customers in the moment, the 7-Eleven menu drills down on personalization, with a relentless focus on fresh, high-quality food and the opportunity to enjoy beer or wine with your meal. They quietly joined the quick service game and allowed their reputation for good, affordable food to percolate over time, and have levelled up with features like better-for-you options and local sourcing. To find out more, we connected with Mel Tiruneh, Senior Director of Merchandising at 7-Eleven’s Canadian headquarters in Surrey, BC, to learn more about the company’s growing reputation and stake in the restaurant sector.
Tiruneh has been with the company for nearly 30 years, and over that time has learned every aspect of the business he is openly passionate about and committed to. Within just a few minutes it’s clear that he’s the kind of smart, motivated person who would be an asset to many organizations, so we wanted to know what’s kept him at 7-Eleven. “Customer insights. What excites me is anticipating where customers are going and innovating products to meet their want and translating that to a need. It’s like anticipating where the puck is going and being ready to shoot. Taking my team through the journey, seeing them champion it and grow as leaders—that is the magic that keeps me going.” Fair enough.
The evolved 7-Eleven format is fascinating. The big brand convenience store always stood out from the mom-and-pops with its bright lights, branded signage and exciting contests. It held a place in young lives similar to the arcades of the 80s, with simple hot snacks and the revered Big Gulp® and Slurpee® machines at the centre of the action. Over time, the minds behind the brand have consciously reshuffled the store experience, expanding its food offering, quality and prominence. Now, there’s no question 7-Eleven is in the restaurant business. “We are very close to a QSR from an assortment, takeout and delivery standpoint,” Tiruneh explains. “We sit in this unique space overall, where we are the hybrid of a convenience store, a restaurant, coffee shop and a fill-in grocery. This all started in 1927 when we had an icehouse, adding bread and milk for our consumers—always finding the solution to meet that customer need. We are a quick service innovator, meeting the needs of the communities where we operate. With the 7REWARDS programs, a proprietary delivery app, 7NOW, and our proprietary mobile checkout platform—you name it—we are well on our way to being one of the known and preferred food destinations for customers. We have an excellent team and they believe in it, so I know the results will come.”
Though often overlooked in the roster of top quick service restaurants, 7-Eleven is something of a leviathan, ready to breach the surface and demand broad market attention. Tiruneh’s delight in the company’s success is palpable. “Looking at the numbers—which is amazing—our combined food and beverage sales rank at #12 here in Canada in quick service or chain restaurants within the C&G channel. What makes it even more interesting is we own 30 per cent share on immediate consumption food and beverage, while we only have 4 per cent of the store count share for the same area. We rank really high as a restaurant. When you take it further and look at our menu, we have over 130 prepared food and dispensable beverage offerings. This includes Canada-made pizza, hot from the oven and available 24/7, locally-made, 100 per cent all-beef Canadian Big Bite® hotdogs, fresh, locally-made hot and cold sandwiches made in our local commissaries, and fresh salads and fruit delivered daily. We serve daily croissants, cookies and other fresh-baked goods from our in-store ovens, so the aroma and freshness are there, right in the store.”
The 7-Eleven secret?
Their Crispy Classic Chicken is possibly 7-Eleven’s best-kept, open secret. Ask any teenager lucky enough to have a little extra lunch money and they’ll tell you it’s a craving they carry for the rest of their lives, with the social media posts to back it up. This isn’t a heat-and-eat product; It’s made fresh, from scratch. “The legacy of our Crispy Classic Chicken goes back 30 years,” Tiruneh points out. And he should know. His first role with the company was cooking chicken in his early 20s. “I can tell you every detail about it. There are a lot of people who have been with this organization for a long time—championing it and saying, “We’ve got to let people know!” We actually started from scratch, breading and marinating and cooking in our own fryers in the back. We have those customers who know us from those days and stay with us. With the chicken sandwich and spicy chicken explosion, the new generation is looking for those kinds of items. They are also looking for quality, and we are consistently providing that, especially for Gen Z. We’ve really been able to capture those consumers as they age by making sure we’re providing quality products—the items they are craving—that are in style and on trend. By doing that, we have continuously kept them engaged. With our 7REWARDS program, we are able to continue to monitor what they are consuming, introduce new food items and continue their relationship with 7-Eleven. We do have many raving fans.”
Data-driven consumer insights to go.
Data drives the 7-Eleven business and the insights it reveals drive the innovation. The company was one of the original adopters of the personalization trend, even going back to its simplest form, when customers were encouraged to mix and match Slurpee flavours to their taste, a fun, creative feature now commonly shared on social media. Their new coffee bar’s bean-to-cup brewers allow consumers to select the size and intensity of their brew and hand-selected, Canadian-roasted, 100 per cent premium Arabica beans from the world’s best coffee growing regions. There are 13 condiments available to craft your perfect Big Bite hotdog, with marketing that encourages customization, asking, “How do you top that?” “Those are the things we want customers to do and enjoy,” Tiruneh acknowledges. “It’s yin and yang, but in the end it’s all about customer obsession, driven by insights. We want to be able to see that success through the consumer lens, being rewarded with their purchase and hearing people talk about 7-Eleven as a preferred food destination. I do believe there are a lot of people who do not know the effort we put into making sure our customers get that high-quality product. It’s not that C&G mentality of, “Oh, this must be cheap.” No. People have no idea how discerning we are about our vendor selection processes. Our mindset is, “Don’t ask me what I can afford—just give me the best product.”
I do believe there are a lot of people who do not know the effort we put into making sure our customers get that high-quality product. It’s not that C&G mentality of, “Oh, this must be cheap.” No. People have no idea how discerning we are about our vendor selection processes. Our mindset is, “Don’t ask me what I can afford – just give me the best product.”
– Mel Tiruneh, 7-Eleven
Menu development and evolution is a crucial part of the brand strategy. To retain customers throughout their life (and income) stages, 7-Eleven’s menu anticipates and responds to food trends and customer need states. “We continue to evolve our menu based on Canadians’ changing eating habits, dietary requirements, etcetera,” Tiruneh says. “Through understanding our customer—based on Canadian consumer data—and partnering with new Canadian vendors under the guidance of our own corporate chef, Benny Cheng, we continue to look at those new food habits and ensure we are meeting or surpassing them. Every aspect of our menu is constantly evolving and changing, other than the core items. We have a system where we consistently benchmark against our competition and evolve our products. We review and improve our core items, while looking at innovative items. Even if customers aren’t looking for it, we can anticipate and stay ahead of them. That’s the name of the game and one of the things that I love. Ahead of the pack is where we need to be.”
With a strong data-driven, chef-led food program in place, 7-Eleven is growing its options in all dayparts. Their hot and ready-to-go lineup is enhanced by meal options like the Crispy Classic Chicken or Italian-inspired whole pizza (hot from the oven in minutes) available with a Puglia-inspired crust. In January, they launched a plant-based breakfast sandwich and organic, fresh-pressed juice to complement other fresh, better-for-you options. The evolving menu reflects that hybridism the brand is really striving for: convenience that anticipates and adapts to the ebb and flow of their customers’ lives and food culture.
In-store, licensed dining…
7-Eleven’s Crispy Classic Chicken wings and strips are cooked by trained chefs in their 200+ commercial kitchen locations, which are zoned as restaurants. This zoning has opened the door to their latest venture: in-store dining rooms, with licensed locations in Alberta and one in Leamington, Ontario. “This has allowed us to serve beer and wine for takeout and delivery in multiple locations and add full-serve locations in Alberta.” Tiruneh notes. “That hybrid notion—offering fast and convenient food, and now with a dine-in option makes us a convenience store and QSR, all while giving our customers what they want. When you walk in to one of our dine-in restaurants, the first thing you’ll see is food product on display, and a redesigned floor space to showcase that dining room area adjacent to our storefront windows so people can look in to where people are dining.”
The whole idea driving the dine-in design is the brand’s self-awareness. They understand they are a C-store company that wants to become a restaurant. Tiruneh shares 7-Eleven’s approach: “How do you change that dynamic? By making sure our customers see people dining in all our restaurant stores. That’s how it all started. We know people are consuming our food. We know we have a lot of raving fans, but other customers are not participating in this. How can we share the message to our other consumers that we’re offering restaurant-quality products? Our licensed restaurants have this distinct dining area separated from the rest of the space by low walls with upgraded lighting, flooring and a digital menu board, wifi and music—everything you think about a restaurant right there. Beer and wine are kept in a visible, locked cabinet fully serviced by our staff. Our Alberta teams are ProServe-certified and our Leamington store team is Smart Serve-certified. We really have the right people in place and the strategy is to continue to evolve this concept around the fresh and prepared foods with our dine-in and licensed options. We’re complementing what we are already doing well and we have the right people in place to do it.”
As for whether 7-Eleven has plans to feature a Slurpee® cocktail, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Investing in people and planet.
Like most other restaurants, 7-Eleven is not immune to the labour shortage. They do; however, have an established history of attracting “diamonds in the rough” in their convenience operation, often providing jobs to new Canadians who may have other training or professional experience the company can tap into and develop. “We hire a lot of new immigrants in our convenience and restaurant business,” says Tiruneh. “I was a lab tech in the U.S., and when I came to Canada, the first thing I could find was a 7-Eleven job. That’s how I started. I had the opportunity to fall in love with the brand and continue to grow. There are a lot of people in the company with unique skillsets we can leverage. We invest the time to find and nurture them—it helps the organization enormously. Our recruitment slogan is, “The sky’s the limit.” We ask people who they want to be and what they want to do. It’s not just a poster. We believe it. Most of our leaders in this organization have grown from the sales associate level. This is a global brand—this is not just about Canada. There are people who have moved to the U.S. and beyond with 7-Eleven.”
Global thinking is not limited to employee development, Tiruneh points out. With stores located across diverse countries and economies around the world, they have taken their corporate responsibility across all markets and set firm goals to reduce their environmental impact. “We took a leadership position on the reduction of plastics and plastic packaging, eliminating almost 31 million hard-to-recycle, fossil-fuel-based virgin black plastic boxes by switching to FSC-certified recyclable and compostable paper boxes, bags, straws for our items including straws and packaging for hot dogs, pizza, chicken burgers, and cookies—we have a clear roadmap for continuing to reduce our environmental impact.” Tiruneh says. “We eliminated over 50 tonnes of 100 per cent PET resin and more than 116 tonnes of double PE-coated chicken buckets, and moved from plastic bags for carry-out to paper carry-out bags. We recently partnered with Too Good To Go to help fight food waste and our C02 footprint. We’ve soft-launched this in 37 stores in the Vancouver and Greater Toronto Area, and the program is being well received—it’s exceeded our expectations—and we’re planning on rolling it out nationally this year. We are taking our corporate social responsibility to the next level. We want to lead, not follow.”
Slurpee has landed at Toronto Pearson Airport.
In November 2022, 7-Eleven opened a new location in Toronto Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 1 Arrivals, offering travellers a familiar on-the-go product line from their most popular meal options to snacks, treats, essentials and mobile checkout and order-ahead for pickup—possibly the penultimate test for a brand that seeks to anticipate and respond to consumer need states. “Slurpee has landed!” Tiruneh laughs. “This location was designed to meet Canadians where they are, with what they need.” He notes that for this location, the company took a food-forward approach delivered via its customized merchandising plan that prioritizes food and travel items heat-mapped to meet the needs of a travelling customer’s journey through the open-concept space.
Pricing was another key component of the Pearson location strategy, Tiruneh points out. “Our Pearson Airport employee base is a critical part of the plan as well. We want to make sure we’re providing them with a good meal at a reasonable price. It’s one of our top-selling restaurants now, even without having our Crispy Classic Chicken program, leveraging both combi and TurboChef ovens to deliver a hot meal from the oven in minutes…24/7.”
We are a big C&G brand, but that halo really hurts when we want to stand out in foodservice,” says Tiruneh. “We continue to work between those two lines, and having beer and wine and designing a dining area into our stores will change that perception for those who are not yet raving fans. The opportunity is endless. A recurring comment we hear from our guests is, “Who knew you could find this at 7-Eleven?” Now, with our new beer and wine offering, we’re hearing, “It’s about time.” Or even, “Thank heaven.”