July 11, 2005, - 9:53 am
By Debbie Schlussel
A week after America celebrated its independence, a drink that epitomizes everything cool and kitschy about modern American convenience celebrates a monumental birthday.
Today, the Slurpee turns 40.
7-Eleven, Inc.’s flagship product is more than just another cold, slushy drink. In many ways, the Slurpee symbolizes America’s entrepreneurial spirit and capitalism at its best.
Take Anil Kumar. Like many 7-Eleven franchisees and Slurpee purveyors, he is an immigrant from India, as are several relatives who also own and operate 7-Eleven stores. But his Oak Park, Michigan store, near Detroit is different. It is the first and one of the few 7-Eleven stores in fourteen countries to feature all-kosher Slurpees.
Before buying his 7-Eleven franchise, Kumar sold high-priced gowns and didn’t do well. He sold a Michigan pageant winner thousands of dollars worth of gowns on credit. She paid him back months later, when she became Miss USA.
When Kumar purchased his 7-Eleven franchise several years ago, the store was not doing well, but he paid the Detroit area Council of Orthodox Rabbis to kosher his machines and regularly inspect them–one of the best investments he says he ever made. As a result, his store is a success, due to large purchases of kosher Slurpees by his largely Orthodox Jewish clientele.
Kumar says Slurpees not only put his children, Shawn and Sabrina, through college but also, respectively, through law and medical school. And, he says, it has educated him about Judaism. Because of kosher Slurpees, Kumar, a devout Hindu, has been invited to bar mitzvahs and weddings by rabbis at the nearby Yeshiva Beth Yehudah.
And Mr. Kumar is very protective of the Slurpee, which he says can comprise up to 40% of sales at his store. Recently, David Letterman and Rupert Jee, a deli owner who frequently appears on the late-night CBS show, discussed Jee’s new “Slurpee” machine. But Kumar, knowing that Slurpee is a registered trademark of 7-Eleven, was watching and reported them to his parent corporation franchisor. Kumar proudly recounts how, in late June, Letterman announced on his show that he and Jee could no longer refer to the new frozen drinks as “Slurpees.”
Kumar is not the only 7-Eleven franchise owner who owes much of his success to the Slurpee. His is one of several stores who make Detroit the Slurpee’s number one market in America (Winnipeg is tops world-wide). And in a tribute to America’s logic-defying consumer habits, Detroit 7-Elevens sell more Slurpees during their tundra-like winters than all of Florida’s 7-Elevens sell in the summer. Kumar says he sells at least 300 Slurpees per day on Detroit’s coldest days
Slurpee-like frozen drinks were invented in 1959 by Kansas hamburger stand owner Omar Knedlik, when his soda fountain machine broke down. He created the frozen drinks using an automobile air conditioner from a Dallas machinery manufacturer, the John E. Mitchell Company. The drinks were dubbed “Icees.” In 1965, 7-Eleven adopted the idea and perfected the machines and the product, creating the “Slurpee.”
Since then, the convenience store has sold over six billion Slurpees, and has tried to expand the Slurpee product line into other areas–some of which have failed, like Slurpee-flavored lip balm and bubble gum. Over four decades, Slurpee flavors and ingredients have adjusted not just to ethnic diets, like kosher, but to changing health habits and palates.
While the sugar-filled, calorie-packed classic Coke-flavored Slurpee remains the top seller, a sugar-free Slurpee is very successful. Pepsi’s Mountain Dew Blue Shock failed in the soda market and is no longer found there. But in Slurpee form, the neon blue drink was the most popular Slurpee flavor launch ever. In some markets, the Slurpee doesn’t sell. In Japan, 7-Eleven’s do not have seaweed flavor Slurpees or any Slurpees at all.
But the Slurpee is also the most well-known symbol of the world’s largest convenience store chain, with over 23,000 locations. At age 78, 7-Eleven is not only one of the oldest corporations to remain independent of mergers and acquisitions, it remains one of the most innovative, much of which is made possible by the Slurpee’s success.
The company regularly invites average Joes entrepreneurs and little guys to introduce new products for consideration by executives at “Product Innovation Days.” Events like these throughout the store’s history have revolutionized the way American companies do business. 7-Eleven was the first to advertise in a national television commercial–in 1949. Before Starbucks was a glint in Howard Schulz’s eye, 7-Eleven was the first national chain to sell fresh-brewed coffee to go, the first to have a self-serve soda fountain (now also for Slurpees), the first to offer super-size drinks (making the chain a frequent target for the PC food police), the first to introduce 24-hour operations (thus, the store name), and the first to offer pre-paid phone cards. And while other stores are escaping the inner cities, 7-Eleven is profitably serving urban areas and providing scholarships there.
Like Anil Kumar said, “Slurpees helped me live the American dream.”
Tags: America, Anil Kumar, Beth Yehudah, CBS, Council of Orthodox Rabbis, Dallas, David Letterman, Debbie Schlussel, deli owner, Detroit, Dew Blue Shock, Eleven Inc., Florida, food police, franchise owner, hamburger stand owner, Howard Schulz, India, Japan, John E. Mitchell Company, Kansas, machinery manufacturer, Michigan, Michigan store, Oak Park, Omar Knedlik, Pepsi, Rupert Jee, Sabrina, Shawn, Starbucks, Winnipeg