May 30, 2013
Roughly 30 years ago, the average soda serving was just six ounces. Today the standard is 32 ounces or more. Though most fast-food restaurants offer giant-sized beverages, 7-Eleven’s 32-ounce “Big Gulp” was one of the first of its kind. These days, at any 7-Eleven, you can choose from the original Big Gulp, the 52-ounce X-Treme Gulp, the 64-ounce Double Gulp (Though it was cut to 50 ounces when consumers asked for the cup to better fit into a car’s cup holder), or the astonishing, gallon-sized jug of soda called the Team Gulp—in case you’re really thirsty.
But what’s the story behind this cup transformation?
With more than 18,200 stores in 18 countries, 7-Eleven sells an average of 33 million gallons of fountain drinks a year—enough to fill 75 Olympic-size swimming pools. The company has always been a leader as far as convenience goes: in 1964, 7-Eleven was the first store to offer freshly-brewed coffee in to-go cups. Their hours put pressure on grocery stores to remain open later and the quickly attainable goods still make “life on the go” just a bit more manageable. This commercial from 1970, for example, flashes the words “convenience” and “FAST,” reminding us to “Thank Heaven for 7-Eleven”:
But it wasn’t always the go-to, “to-go” convenience store. Back in the early ’70s, Dennis Potts, who was the merchandise manager for 7-Eleven’s 300 or so stores in Southern California at the time, says sales were mediocre at best before the introduction of the Big Gulp.
“It was a sort of a ‘we-need-to-do-something-or-get-out-of-the-business’ situation,” he says. Sometime in the spring of 1976, Coca-Cola representatives approached Potts about a new 32-ounce cup design—a pretty significant increase in liquid as the store carried only 12 and 20-ounce cups for their fountain drinks at the time. It was an oddly shaped cup—circular on the bottom like any standard plastic drinking receptacle, but square on top, similar to a milk carton. (Sadly, we were unable to track down any images of this version of the Big Gulp. If you have any, please let us know in the comments.)
“I said [to the Coca-Cola representatives], ‘This thing is this too damn big.’” Potts says.
Unsure of what to do with the two cases of cups, the Coca-Cola reps gave them to Potts and said “Do what you want you want with them.”
Potts sent the 500 or so cups to a store in Orange County with the highest sales in soft drinks. The most popular item at the time was a 16-ounce returnable bottle that went for a total of 50 cents including tax and a bottle deposit.
It was a Tuesday when they introduced the new cup size. They put up a handmade sign that read: “39 cents, No Deposit.” That following Monday, the franchise called Potts in Dallas asking for more cups. “Once we heard we sold 500 cups in a week, we got the message dog gone fast,” Potts says. “We moved as quickly as we could to get this thing out. It just took off like gangbusters.”
After the first store’s success, 7-Eleven experimented with the cup in 25 or 30 stores and then with 300 more in Los Angeles. The sales for soft drinks doubled.
In August, three months after the cup’s launch, Potts learned that the supplier of the original design, Continental Can Company based out of Colorado, was moving its facility to Canada and would not be in production for several months. In an attempt to keep the new 32-ounce endeavor rolling, Potts explored the company’s options. The milk-carton shape of the original beverage seemed to be indispensable—”We thought it was magic,” Potts says— but eventually the 7-Eleven team went with an alternative “flush-filled” cup (a cup that holds 32 ounces of liquid if filled to the very brim, excluding ice and walking room) with the Coca-Cola logo, shaped like the round container we see today.
“They sold like hotcakes,” Potts says. Back at the Dallas headquarters, the Stanford Agency, an in-house advertisement team, decided the wildly popular cups needed a 7-Eleven logo and catchy name. The Big Gulp was born. Later, the slogan would read “7-Eleven’s Big Gulp gives you another kind of freedom: freedom of choice.“
In the summer of 1980, large, refreshing beverages like the Big Gulp and the frozen, slushy drink, the Slurpee increased in popularity. The opening line of this commercial from that same year is the perfect example of 7-Eleven’s promise of convenience and relief from the heat:
During 7-Eleven’s early years, only the West coast stores were set up with fountain drink dispensers, and with the Big Gulp’s popularity, the company made some changes. By 1979, every 7-Eleven was equipped with fountain soft drink machines.
In 1981, one of Potts’s employees proposed a new design—a 46-ounce cup tentatively called “The Super Big Gulp.” Potts gave it a shot and sent it to a division in Texas where the summers are hot and the customers are thirsty. History repeated itself when Potts got a call from a store manager in Texas: “We’re out of the damn cups,” he said. Soft drink sales doubled again—fountain soda profit was now four times higher than before the Big Gulp hit the scene.
Before 1983, all 7-Eleven fountain drinks were available only by counter service. When the Big Gulp and Super Big Gulp gained popularity, the amount of labor and time it took to fill up a cup that size increased (it took roughly 20-30 seconds to fill the cup, not including volume of ice and time for capping and handoff to the customer). “We had always sold coffee on a self service basis—early on we discovered customers like to put sugar and cream in to make it exactly the way they like it,” Potts says. “We thought ‘Why can’t we do it with fountain drinks?’”
In a few test stores, they turned around the dispensing station and let the customers help themselves.”It was sort of a rude crude, Jerry-rigged operation,” he says, “But sales rocketed and we didn’t have those labor costs.” 7-Eleven was the first retailer in America to install self serve beverage stations—a distinction from its competitors that this commercial from 1987 highlights perfectly:
By 1984, all 7-Eleven stores were outfitted with a self-serve beverage bar. That same year the chain launched the 64-ounce Double Gulp in a milk carton cup like the original Big Gulp design—what Ellen DeGeneres calls “six weeks in the desert.”
Mr. Potts, whose last position before retiring was vice president of merchandising, is not surprised that the soda cups keep getting bigger. “We should’ve known better. Some of our best selling beverages before the Big Gulp were our largest ones,” he says. “The customers were already asking for more volume—they always seem to be.”
But not everyone’s as thirsty as the Big Gulp compensates for. About a year ago when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on sugary drinks exceeding 16 ounces in the city’s boundaries, people got to talking. “It’s just pop with low-cal ice cubes in it!” Sarah Palin joked at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. Hip-hop songs were written in response to his plan. In March this year, a Manhattan judge ruled that measures to restrict soda servings to a maximum of 16 ounces in restaurants and other venues, were “arbitrary and capricious,” and he was barring the plan “permanently,” the AFP reports.
Good news for 7-Eleven if they’d like to someday offer something larger than the gallon-sized Team Gulp—more than 200 percent more than what the average adult stomach can hold at one time.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.