For nearly a century, convenience store chain 7-Eleven has been quenching consumer thirsts with Big Gulps, Slurpees, and other refreshments. (It actually got the name 7-Eleven owing to its original operating hours—from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.—starting in 1946; prior to that, it was known as Tote’m Stores.) Worldwide, there are more than twice as many 7-Eleven stores (71,100 and counting) as there are McDonald’s restaurant's (an impressive 34,000).
With that much success comes the occasional hiccup, and not just from one too many Big Gulps. As the world celebrates 7-Eleven Day on July 11, take a look at 11 times the company has served up some controversy.
1. 7-Eleven's cold war with a Japanese franchisee.
In 2019, 7-Eleven franchisee Mitoshi Matsumoto decided to shorten the hours of his 7-Eleven location in Osaka, Japan, from the standard 24 hours to 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. This provoked 7-Eleven to engage in a court battle with Matsumoto over control of the store, and the feud has escalated beyond normal channels. The company constructed a second store in the parking lot of Matsumoto’s store and claimed they have surveillance video of him assaulting customers—once with a headbutt, and once by kicking a car. 7-Eleven has also alleged that Matsumoto did not fulfill obligations to hand over “commemorative mayonnaise” to customers during his 2012 grand opening. The eventual court decision could impact how much power franchisees have over store operations and how much resides with the company.
2. 7-Eleven once got involved in a charity 3-D glasses fiasco.
Intrigue and 3-D glasses combined to boil over in 1982, when 7-Eleven locations in Montana came under fire for selling 3-D glasses for a movie, Revenge of the Creature (1955), being shown on local television. The issue, according to the Easter Seal Society, was that the movie was being shown so profits from sales of the 50-cent glasses could be directed to the Society. But 7-Eleven wasn’t one of the participating retailers, meaning they could keep the profits for themselves. Dave Bingman, an area sales manager for 7-Eleven's then-parent company in Montana, Southland Corporation, said that the chain offered the Society 5 cents for every pair sold but that the Society wanted all of it. Instead, 7-Eleven donated a share of glasses profits to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
3. A 7-Eleven sandwich stirred online dissent.
In 2020, 7-Eleven locations in Japan drew fire on social media for what some consumers alleged was a misleading sandwich. The Atsuyakitamago Mix Sand (“thick omelet mixed sandwich”) looked like a delicious breakfast egg offering. But the sandwich is front-loaded—that is, the wall of egg seen in profile isn’t consistent throughout. Critics dubbed it a “paper tiger sandwich”; 7-Eleven responded by stating a manufacturing error had resulted in a small portion of egg and that it wasn’t intentional.
4. 7-Eleven found one rival convenience store too close for comfort.
In 2019, 7-Eleven sued Quick E Mart, a Portland, Oregon, convenience store, for trademark infringement. The Quick E Mart, which takes its name from the Kwik-E-Mart store seen on The Simpsons, was using the green and red stripes seen in the 7-Eleven logo. Between that and the fact 7-Eleven has sometimes redressed stores to look like the Kwik-E-Mart as a promotional tie-in with The Simpsons, the chain argued that consumers would be confused. There has not yet been any announced resolution to the case.
5. 7-Eleven has gotten criticism for some deceptive drink packaging in Japan.
Slurpees and Big Gulps aren’t the only beverages on tap at 7-Eleven. In Japan, milk mixed with strawberry or banana flavoring has proven popular. But in both cases, the plastic drink container appeared to be designed in such a way that it looked like the cup was full of liquid to the brim (banana) or had fruit packed at the bottom (strawberry). Once consumed, patrons realized that these images were just a visual element of the cup's design, and that there was less liquid in each cup than they had originally presumed by looking at it. The complaints gained steam in early 2021: One social media critic dubbed the practice the work of “devious geniuses.” However, most agreed that what little beverage was included tasted delicious.
6. 7-Eleven had to mandate customers not fill toilet bowls or kiddie pools with Slurpees.
Slurpee, that trademark (and trademarked) icy drink, is often the subject of promotion. In 2015, 7-Eleven offered to fill up containers brought in by customers for just $1.50. The problem? Some decided to drag in kiddie pools, toilet bowls, and sleds to game the system. The following year, the store mandated that any container had to fit in a 10-inch cutout set up in stores.
7. 7-Eleven endured ICE raids.
In 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stormed 98 7-Eleven locations in 17 states and Washington, D.C. in what was billed by ICE as an organized raid on undocumented workers. A total of 21 people were arrested. In a statement, the company said that stores were overseen by independent franchisees who did their own hiring. ICE conducted an earlier investigation in 2013 that uncovered nine 7-Eleven managers in New York and Virginia who used fake identities to employ illegal workers and then kept a portion of their wages for themselves. Franchisees who violated laws had their 7-Eleven franchise agreements terminated.
8. 7-Eleven had to navigate a proposed Big Gulp ban.
Big Gulps don’t hide their purpose: to deliver up to 64 ounces of soft drinks to willing and eager consumers. In 2019, the state of California tried to curb that consumption by introducing a ban on sales of large unsealed sodas in excess of 16 ounces in stores and restaurants. The bill was shot down, but it was a scary time for 7-Eleven, which argued that diet education would have a greater effect on waistlines than drink bans. A similar bill championed by then-New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg was yanked by a Manhattan judge in 2013, though contrary to perception, it wouldn’t have affected Big Gulps—only places receiving health grades would have had to honor the ban.
9. 7-Eleven was caught up in an Australian wage theft scheme.
In 2015, The Sydney Morning Herald dropped a bombshell investigative report that alleged 7-Eleven managers in Australia were docking the pay of international student workers by as much as half and threatening them with deportation if they complained. Managers also scheduled employees to work in excess of what their visa conditions allowed—student visas limit work to 20 hours weekly—and insisted they cover lost earnings if someone pumped fuel without paying. The report prompted Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) to investigate the claims. Over the next five years, 7-Eleven paid out more than $173 million in earned back wages.
10. A 7-Eleven employee had to endure assault by Slurpee.
Slurpees can be refreshing, but probably not when wearing them. In 2020, 7-Eleven customer Brian Duffy was arrested in Pinellas Park, Florida, for slapping a Slurpee out of an employee’s hands because he thought he was being overcharged. It was treated as a felony offense due to a prior conviction.
11. 7-Eleven was once a little too dirty for some customers.
In 1984, the National Federation for Decency picketed 7-Eleven locations with signs reading “Slurpees yes, porno no,” a response to the chain's distribution of Playboy magazine. In 1986, 7-Eleven succumbed to pressure from conservative groups and discontinued sales of Playboy in its 4500 U.S. locations. At the time, the chain was the magazine’s largest single sales outlet, and their exit represented a 5 percent loss in revenue. But Playboy may have gotten the last laugh: A pictorial in a subsequent issue featured “The Women of 7-Eleven.”