Boston natives and their southern cousins go to war over the merits of Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Shipley’s. Despite its terrible French fries, In-N-Out holds a special place in the hearts of Californians, while Texans know that Whataburger reigns supreme. Chicagoans would fight for the sanctity of mild sauce from Harold’s Chicken Shack, while further south, North Carolinians safeguard their Bojangles’. But the one place that might bridge all those regional differences—besides McDonalds of course—is 7-Eleven, described by Eater editor Amy McCarthy as “the country’s most recognizable convenience store.” Indeed, any American who’s gone on a road trip can almost certainly relate to the overwhelming craving for a toxically colored Slurpee and some taquitos, or perhaps a hot dog shiny with grease.
But that distinctly American pastime might be facing a rebrand soon, according to McCarthy’s recent article on the 7-Eleven “lab store” that debuted in early March in Dallas. “This 7-Eleven,” McCarthy explained after visiting, “is stocked with enough gluten-free, paleo, vegan, organic, and naturally sweetened options to feed an entire army of wellness-obsessed snackers, with just enough ‘normal’ food to resemble a small grocery store.” The lab store features frozen yogurt bars and cold brew taps, keto-friendly hard-boiled eggs and gluten-free chili, and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, organic decarbonated Slurpees packed with turmeric and celery and black carrot. According to McCarthy, the chain has plans to open five more lab stores across the country in the coming months, including in D.C. and San Diego. And while six woo-woo lab stores out of the approximately 8,500 7-Elevens across the country do not necessarily portend a total corporate overhaul, the fact that one of America’s most iconic junk food outposts is dipping its toe into the waters of the wellness trend is depressing.
McCarthy writes persuasively on the “bizarre juxtaposition of the organic and the chemical-laden, the sacred and the profane” that defines the lab store experience, a juxtaposition so strong that, “in attempting to please literally everyone,” the concept might just end up alienating everyone. This tension can at least partially be attributed to the fact that while we know why we shouldn’t eat chili-lime Hot Cheetos, “wellness” offers very little in the way of real justification for the things it pushes—besides vaguely moral notions of wholesome goodness.
There is very little science behind supposedly healthy products like kombucha and celery juice and turmeric as cures for “inflammation.” All these things have the shine of healthfulness because of incredible marketing by Instagram influencers and Goop, but deep down I am fully aware when I buy kombucha that I know as little about why it is good as I do about why fat is bad, or sugar is bad, or gluten is bad, or dairy is bad. I just know that no one from Wellness Land has told me that kombucha is bad … yet … so I should probably buy it if I want to be a good person. The experiment that 7-Eleven is really carrying out in these lab stores is setting up a collision between cheap food that is unequivocally “bad” but desired and expensive food that is virtuously “good” and not really desired, but presented by tastemakers as desirable. In other words, the store is creating a crazy-making microcosm of the dietary head trip that our faddish culture already subjects us to daily.
7-Eleven has always been a fluorescent escape from that tension, in that everything is knowingly and gleefully “bad.” The only choice to be made is walking in. But the lab store model, if rolled out more broadly, would change that, turning safe havens of uncomplicated indulgence into spaces where I once again have to choose between two things based on knowledge that I don’t have and moralizing that I don’t need.