Happy Birthday, Slurpee!: Drink Symbolizes American Dream
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."
Posted by Debbie at July 11, 2005 09:53 AM
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Nice to see this story about the Slurpee published on 7/11! While I realize the story is more about the Slurpee than Mr. Kumar, I love reading stories about successful immigrancy. Way to go Anil!
Slurpee gum and lip balm failed, among other reasons, because there's no such thing as "Slurpee-flavored". Flavoring goes IN the Slurpee. You can have bubble gum. You can have a bubble-gum flavored Slurpee. But Slurpee-flavored bubble gum makes no sense. Saying something is "Slurpee-flavored" is like saying "gum-flavored" or "red-flavored".
Anyway, there aren't any 7-11's in my town, but I have good memories of 7-11 since they had a location right by the highway when I went to college, and, when I'd need to drive home on a weekend, a quick stop in for a Slurpee and a hot dog at 8AM was perfect for my budget.
(It should also be noted that the "Icee" has made a resurgence. It has finer ice crystals and carbonation, and is, IMHO, the superior product.)
Posted by: Yngvai at July 11, 2005 12:41 PM
I feel bad that you don't have a 7-11 near you Yngvai. I seriously have 3 of them all within about a 1 mile radius of each other. Total overkill, but it gives me great options depending on where I happening to be going.
I don't go that often anymore for Slurpees (trying to cut down on sugar), but my favorite has always been Sprite flavored which they pretty much never have anymore. After that the Cherry and then Coke are by far the best.
And nice job on the positive article Deb...I was honestly expecting to find some link to terrorists in there.
Posted by: Clompo at July 11, 2005 04:46 PM
Awesome versatility; great facts/background support. I only counter that "average Joe entrepreneur" is as much an oxymoron as "run-of-the-mill pretty pundit". How dare you.
It is amazing that Mr. Kumar altered his products to appease customer demographics. Especially when it pertains to religious and/or cultural values that are certainly different than the origin.
Another aspect, as you pointed out, is that 7-Elevens are able to be productive in areas that seldom see anything but liquor stores and churches. Community involvement and attempting to assimilate and blend in is important here.
For an organization and community that is continuously mocked, 7-Eleven and the franchise owners have shown that the underdog can triumph.
Posted by: Henry C. Alphin Jr. at July 11, 2005 06:30 PM
Good research, but actually not true that "At age 78, 7-Eleven is not only one of the oldest corporations to remain independent of mergers and acquisitions..." 7-Eleven parent Southland Corporation was acquired by franchisee 7-Eleven Japan and department store company Ito-Yokado (which also owns SEJ) about 15 yrs ago.
Posted by: hungupontwice at July 12, 2005 09:30 AM
Thank you, thank you, Ms. Schlussel,
I love these kinds of stories. Happy 40th to the Slurpee, too. It continues to evoke so many childhood memories, usually of three to five-car convoys, full of wacky family members and friends, heading to the beach while smelling of suntan lotion. It was our ritual to stop at this spot about halfway there, and Slurpees were a must all around--in addition to chips and sandwiches, etc. etc. bathroom runs.Also, to step off campus in high school to get a Slurpee at the 7-11 next door, in violation of a rule that was never enforced. In fact, when the weather was hot, we'd find our principal getting a Slurpee, too. Grest story, thanks again.--Andy
Posted by: Lawyer Greece at July 12, 2005 09:42 AM
Of course it's only after Anil "slurped" up to the Jewish communtity that he became successful right Debbie?
Posted by: stiegs5 at July 12, 2005 04:42 PM
It's funny how obsessed you are with discussing how disgusting fat people are while at the same time glorifying something that makes many of them that way :-)
Which is a shame because I like Slurpees and otherwise liked the article, kind of like the way you love certain movies but then get turned off because you find some "nth degree of separation" to terrorism :-)
Posted by: hairymon at July 13, 2005 07:28 AM
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