The green, red, orange, and white 7-Eleven signs seen along highways in every state have become synonymous with late-night pit stops, Slurpees, and hot dogs, but there was a time when the convenience store was the first of its kind, operated as a small, family business in rural areas of Dallas.
In 1927, families could face long commutes “to town” to stock up on basic necessities. “Uncle Johnny” Jefferson Green — an employee of Southland Ice Company, which had eight ice plants and 21 “docks” that sold the ice — had an idea. Why not stock those stores, which were open later and on more days than grocery stores, with staples such as milk and eggs, which kept well when stored alongside blocks of ice? (Before modern refrigerators were a common convenience, ice was sold in large blocks — rather than small cubes — to keep groceries cold.)
Southland was run by one of its founders, Joe C. Thompson Jr. of Highland Park, who recognized the potential of Green’s idea and made such goods available at many of the company’s locations; the ice docks that carried a few extra items acquired the name “Tote’m Stores,” which alluded to the way customers “toted” their goods away by car.
Thompson soon noticed how many of his customers drove cars and predicted their growing popularity, so the Tote’m Stores started selling gasoline and offering curb service. They also expanded their grocery selections to include such goods as watermelon and canned food.
The Southland Ice Company’s side venture spread like wildfire across Texas, where small stores provided a niche for folks who didn’t want to make the long drive into town just to pick up the basics. However, the Great Depression affected the business as it did most others in America. Though the company was bankrupt by 1931, Thompson managed to keep the stores open.
Luck turned for the family when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Liquor and beer sales sparked rapid growth for the stores, and by 1937, there were 60 Tote’m stores in Texas. Though they were all built in different styles, and some operated under different names, most of the stores were identified by the real Alaskan totem poles erected in front of each one.
In 1946, the stores’ name was changed to 7-Eleven, which reflected their late-night hours of operation — 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Less than 25 years after Southland Ice Company pioneered the first convenience store, 100 were operating across Texas in Dallas, Austin, and Houston.
In 1954, the business began to breach the Texas border. Under the supervision of Thompson’s eldest son, John, five stores opened their doors in Florida.
Joe Thompson Jr. died in 1961, just short of seeing his small country store explode into an international corporation. By the mid-1960s, John Thompson, who took over after his father’s death, oversaw the expansion of 7-Eleven’s hours, operating 24 hours a day, and the growth of the chain to more than 1,000 stores. John and his brothers, Jere and Jodie, all graduated from Highland Park High School and all worked for the company.
Today, there are more than 50,900 7-Eleven stores around the world. A new store opens every two hours across the planet, and the neon signs that act as midnight beacons to families’ favorite, road-trip pit stops are reminiscent of the totem poles that once marked the first locations.
Margaux Anbouba contributed to this report.