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.
December 14, 2012
It’s Christmas Eve in Japan. Little boys and girls pull on their coats, the twinkle of anticipation in their eyes. Keeping the tradition alive, they will trek with their families to feast at … the popular American fast food chain KFC.
Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan—only one percent of the Japanese population is estimated to be Christian—yet a bucket of “Christmas Chicken” (the next best thing to turkey—a meat you can’t find anywhere in Japan) is the go-to meal on the big day. And it’s all thanks to the insanely successful “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign in 1974.
When a group of foreigners couldn’t find turkey on Christmas day and opted for fried chicken instead, the company saw this as a prime commercial opportunity and launched its first Christmas meal that year: Chicken and wine for
834 2,920 yen($10)—pretty pricey for the mid-seventies. Today the christmas chicken dinner (which now boasts cake and champagne) goes for about 3,336 yen ($40).
And the people come in droves. Many order their boxes of ”finger lickin’” holiday cheer months in advance to avoid the lines—some as long as two hours.
The first KFC Japan opened in Nagoya in 1970 and quickly gained popularity. (There are now over 15,000 KFC outlets in 105 countries and territories around the world.) That same year, at the World Exposition in Osaka, KFC and other American fast food chains like McDonald’s were met with great market testing results and helped jump start the westernized “fast food” movement in Japan. After the big commercial push in ’74, the catchphrase “Christmas=Kentucky” paired with plenty of commercials on TV caught on.
The “Americaness” and simplicity of the message rather than any religious associations with the holiday is what makes it appealing. The Financial Times reports:
“Japan is well known for taking foreign products and ideas and adapting them to suit domestic taste, and Christmas is no exception. A highly commercialised and non-religious affair, lots of money is spent annually on decorations, dinners and gifts. KFC is arguably the biggest contributor, thanks in part to its advertising campaign.
‘One of the reasons the campaign lasted so long is that the message is always the same: at Christmas you eat chicken,’ said Yasuyuki Katagi, executive director at Ogilvy and Mather Japan, the advertising agency.”
These days, KFC records its highest sales volume each year on Christmas eve. Back office staff, presidents and execs come out to help move the lines along. Fried chicken and Christmas have become synonymous: KFC’s advertisements feature major pop cultural figures chomping on drumsticks, the company website even has a countdown until Christmas.
And this year, the company launched a campaign that takes the holiday hype to new heights. From December 1 through February 28 passengers on select trips between Tokyo and eight U.S. and European destinations can enjoy KFC in-flight.
But Japan’s love of American fast food does not dim with the Christmas lights once December 25 has come and gone—KFC’s ability to take its traditional foods and adapt them to Japanese culture has made a bucket of chicken a meal worth having year round. This April, they opened a three-story restaurant at the south entrance of Shimokitazawa station in Tokyo which offers the company’s first-ever, fully stocked whiskey bar—what their website says gives visitors a taste of “Good ‘ol America.”
Though, if you ever find yourself in Japan and not in the mood for fried chicken, Wendy’s Japan offers a $16 foie-gras-and-truffle burger.
October 6, 2011
I’m somewhat shocked and appalled that human behavior allows for recurring blog posts on criminal behavior involving food. Not that I’m one to complain about my muse. The month of September alone was rife with new shenanigans, and a couple of convictions, from society’s dark underbelly.
September, 2011. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The raw food movement?
On the afternoon of Monday, September 12, Wal-Mart security officers saw a man opening packages of raw hamburger and stew beef and eating some of the contents before putting the items back on the shelf. Police were contacted and arrested Scott Shover, 53, at taser point and charged him with felony theft. While only about $25 worth of meat was involved in this particular incident, Shover received the felony charge as this was his fifth retail theft offense.
September, 2011. Mount Prospect, Illinois. A Late Night Snack.
When most people get hungry in the middle of the night, they make a beeline for the kitchen. Hachem Gomez, 19, preferred to make a 3:00 a.m. trip out to Mr. Beef and Pizza. No matter that the restaurant was closed and the drive-through window was barred: Gomez broke through the security grating to gain access to the kitchen, where he began to prepare himself chicken tenders and fries in the microwave. Officers arrived on the scene at 3:30, and when asked if he worked there, Gomez simply said no and that he was just hungry. He was arrested and charged with burglary.
August, 2011. Denver, Colorado. Bring out your dead.
In the 1989 movie comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, two men, promised a ritzy weekend at their boss’ weekend home, arrive to find their boss dead, but decide to tote the corpse around so that they can enjoy the few days of luxury they felt entitled to. According to police reports, on the evening of August 27, Robert Young, 43, arrived at the home of Jeffrey Jarrett, only to find the man unresponsive. In lieu of calling 911, Young, along with friend Mark Rubinson, 25, piled the corpse into a car and went to Teddy T’s Bar and Grill. Jarrett was left in the car while the other two enjoyed libations charged to his card. Next stop was Sam’s No. 3, a diner, before they returned Jarret’s corpse to his house. Young and Rubinson next made a pit stop at a strip club, using Jarrett’s ATM card to withdraw $400, and before the night was over, they flagged down a police officer notifying him that they suspected their buddy was dead in his home. The pair was later arrested, and while they are not suspected of causing Jarrett’s death, they stand charged with abusing a corpse, identity theft and criminal impersonation. Both men were released on bail. Young has an arraignment date set for October 6. Rubinson has since been arrested again for drunk driving. He also happened to be driving in a stolen vehicle, but whether he was the one who snatched it has yet to be determined.
September, 2010. Denver, Colorado. Playing chicken.
To some, like The New York Times, raw chicken evokes l’amour in a big way. But 58-year-old lobbyist Ronald Smith was feeling less than amorous when he placed raw chicken in the heating ducts of his ex-wife’s home. (Other non-food-related acts of vandalism included wiping the hard drive of her computer, pouring bleach on her grand piano and marring her hardwood floors with mountain bike cleats.) Michelle Young, the former Mrs. Smith, discovered the damage on returning from a California vacation. It was allegedly the culmination of months of harassment, and while prosecutors could not produce eyewitnesses to definitively place Smith at the scene, they were, however, able to illustrate that the blue duct tape used to package the chicken pieces matched the roll of duct tape found in Smith’s home. Jurors deliberated for about six hours before arriving at their decision. Smith was convicted in September 2011 of second degree burglary and criminal mischief and is awaiting sentencing. He could face up to 18 years in prison.
January 2010. Leeds, England. A big break.
On the evening of January 30, Hussein Yusuf had been drinking at a local pub when he asked the chef, Roger Mwebiha, to cook him a meal. After repeatedly entering the kitchen asking if his food was ready yet, Mwebiha got fed up to the point where he returned Yusuf’s money. At 3:00 a.m. the following morning, Yusuf again asked the chef to prepare him some food and the two began to argue. Mwebiha went to take out the trash when he was confronted outside by Yusuf, who kicked the chef’s right shin, shattering both lower leg bones. Yusuf fled the scene while Mwebiha spent months recuperating from the injury. But about a year later, in a logic-defying move, Yusuf returned to the restaurant. The chef recognized his attacker and notified police. Yusuf, 23, admitted to the crime and was sentenced in September 2011. He is currently serving a 15-month prison term.
October 5, 2011
Every year I try to plan ahead and think up a clever Halloween costume, only to end up rushing around the day before a party trying to scrape up something passable. It helps to have a theme; one year I was invited to a “one-hit wonders” party, to which I went as Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, with leg warmers, an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and a welding mask. The food world is also rife with costume potential. Although you could go as or with a food itself, like a bunch of grapes made out of balloons, I think character-based looks are more fun.
Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing while there’s still time:
Paula Deen: The Food Network’s high priestess of high-cholesterol food is easy to emulate. Just don a white, feathery-coiffed wig, a generous amount of mascara and a pastel-color collared shirt. To complete the look you’ll need some reference to her favorite ingredient, butter—maybe wrap a couple sticks of yellow-painted styrofoam in a butter wrapper (or waxed paper) and turn them into earrings.
The Swedish Chef: If only all cooking shows were as entertaining as this recurring sketch on The Muppet Show. And considering that a new Muppet movie is due out this holiday season, the cheerfully indecipherable chef is newly relevant. You’ll need a chef’s hat and either a chef’s jacket or a pin-striped shirt, bow tie and white apron, a bushy orange wig, mustache and eyebrows. If you ever run out of party conversation, you can always retreat into character, lilting, “Bork, bork, bork!”
Colonel Sanders: The KFC founder’s secret fashion recipe was simple—white suit, string tie, horn-rimmed glasses and a cane. And don’t forget the white hair, mustache and goatee. Bonus item: a classic red and white chicken bucket, which can double as a trick-or-treating basket for the kiddies. In fact, this look works for kids too—I mean, how cute is this?
Wendy and Jack in the Box—the couple: What if two of the burger world’s biggest celebrities got together? One half of the couple could go as freckle-faced Wendy, the other as cone-hatted Jack. The pièce de résistance: their globe-headed, red-braided baby. I thought I was pretty clever for thinking this one up, but it appears others have beat me to it. Oh well, chances are no one at your party will have seen the idea before.
The Unknown Restaurant Critic: The supposed anonymity of critics has been a topic of foodie discussion this year, with one Los Angeles Times writer outed—and kicked out—by an irate restaurateur. You could go two ways with this: either a paper bag over the head with eye holes cut out, à la the Unknown Comic, or a classic nose-mustache-and-glasses disguise. Either way, you’ll need accessories to indicate you’re a food critic—maybe a reporter’s notebook and pen, and a napkin tucked into your collar.
Anyone else have fun food-related costume ideas?
March 17, 2011
As delicious as the golden arches’ minty nod to St. Patrick’s Day—the Shamrock Shake—may be (or as delicious as I remember thinking it was the last time I had one, circa 1978), it’s not exactly Irish. Surprisingly, something on the McDonald’s menu is authentically Irish, and green to boot: its beef.
Not green as in artificially colored (like the shake); green as in “good for the environment.” As in grass-fed, which is the standard in Ireland, unlike in the United States and many other countries, where cows are often fattened with grain on massive feed lots. If you’ve ever been to the Emerald Isle, or even seen a picture of it, you know why: the country really is just lousy with chlorophyll. The first time I visited my Irish friend Annette, a farm girl from County Kilkenny, it was January. Just as I was thinking to myself that I’d never seen so much grass in my life, Annette said she wished I could see the country in summer, when it would really be green.
As for the other kind of green, vis-à-vis Mickey D’s and its burgers, some qualifications are in order: This grass-fed Irish beef is available only in Europe, and only in about one in five burgers. Also, opinions differ on whether even grass-fed beef production is sustainable. But most people can agree that grass-fed is at least an improvement over grain-fed—it’s leaner and its production emits less greenhouse gas. This week the worldwide chain reported that it had increased its export of Irish beef to its European outlets by 37 percent, to 110 million Euros. (Ironically, in the United States McDonald’s has taken flak for importing some of its beef from New Zealand—where grass-fed is also the norm—to supplement its domestic meat purchases.)
All of this underscores another trend in the Republic of Ireland: a renewed emphasis on farming following the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” economy, which had transformed the country from the late 1990s to 2008. During the boom, Irish citizens who had once had to emigrate to find employment (I met Annette in 1992 in Germany, where we both found temporary work as hotel maids) could return or stay home. For the first time in recent history, mass immigration was happening in the other direction. When I last visited, in 2000, this transformation was in its early stages. The dirty old town of Dublin I remembered from my first trip was starting to sprout gleaming skyscrapers and trendy cafés.
Since the bubble burst, agriculture has been one of the few bright spots in the wounded economy. Irish agricultural exports grew almost 10 percent in 2010 over the previous year, according to The National, which also cited a government report identifying “the agrifood and fisheries sectors as the country’s most important and largest indigenous industry.” Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority, says agriculture and its associated professions account for 10 percent of employment there. Some Irish workers who had abandoned or rejected farming during the 1990s construction boom have returned to the livelihood that sustained their parents and grandparents.
Blessed with abundant pasture land and little need for irrigation, Ireland is well-positioned to help satisfy growing world food demand, the government believes. The strong market in developed nations for artisanal foods is also a natural fit for Irish dairy producers. Teagasc recently reported that Ireland’s milk was rated as having the lowest (tied with Austria) carbon footprint in the European Union, and its meat had one of the lowest.
I remember my first taste of unpasteurized milk from grass-fed Irish cows on Annette’s family’s farm. The cream rose to the top of the pitcher, and even the milk below it was far creamier and more delicious than any dairy I had ever tasted. Maybe McDonald’s should try using it in its Shamrock Shakes. They already contain another ingredient associated with Ireland: carrageenan.