SAN MATEO -- Countless consumers thank heaven for 7-Eleven -- but in communities across the country, some people are cursing the presence of the ubiquitous mini-marts.

The world's largest convenience store chain is growing at a blistering pace, packing more markets into regions where the company is already established. But this unprecedented expansion is meeting resistance in some cities over concerns including crime, traffic and health.

In San Mateo, a group of neighbors fought back against -- and may succeed in shutting down -- a 7-Eleven that opened last month in a mostly residential area near a high school. Similar controversies have erupted in Florida, Connecticut, Oregon and several other states.

The company acknowledges it is not always welcomed with open arms but says it tries to work with communities to address their growing concerns. 7-Eleven claims it is offering more healthful food and leads the industry in crime-prevention measures.

Growth and change

How fast is 7-Eleven growing? The company, founded 86 years ago in Dallas, has doubled its footprint since 2003 to more than 48,000 stores worldwide, about 8,000 of which are in North America. The chain -- long associated with the advertising slogan, "Oh, thank heaven for 7-Eleven" -- is now based in Japan. The company estimates it opens a new store approximately every two hours.

The Bay Area is among the U.S. metropolitan areas where the growth is focused. 7-Eleven added 44 Bay Area stores in 2011 and 2012, bringing the total to 295. The company aims to add 130 stores in the region over the next two years, an increase of 44 percent.

The chain has taken advantage of depressed real estate prices, said retail analyst Brian Kilcourse, and capitalized on the increasingly harried nature of American life, a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by the recent poor economy.

"When people are short of time and short of money, they'll go for consistency, convenience and a good price," said Kilcourse, managing partner of Retail Systems Research. "7-Eleven continues to exploit that trend as we continue to work ourselves to death."

The company has also changed with the times, said spokeswoman Margaret Chabris, who claims people who protest new 7-Elevens may be responding to old stereotypes about the company.

"We've reinvented ourselves over the past couple decades," said Chabris. "From soup to nuts, inside and out."

Stores now offer healthful options such as low-calorie sandwiches and wraps as well as sliced and whole fruit, while a high-tech tracking system allows each outlet to tailor its products to local customers and receive daily shipments of fresh food. The chain has also upgraded its coffee -- the disputed new 7-Eleven on San Mateo Drive has a 12-foot table arrayed with six blends of coffee and a cappuccino machine.

The stores still feature Slurpees and other standbys. Burlingame resident Craig Jacobson grabbed a morning hot dog at the new store last week on the way to work moving pianos.

"I like the food and the coffee -- just everything, really," Jacobson said.

To Peter Breining, one of the skeptics in the San Mateo Heights Neighborhood Association, the company hasn't really changed its approach. He regards the fresh, low-fat offerings as mere window-dressing.

"I think it's lip service to the obesity epidemic," Breining said.

Crime magnets?

The most serious concern raised by 7-Eleven opponents has to do with crime.

Foes of the new store on San Mateo Drive point to the fatal shooting in September of a 7-Eleven clerk in Milpitas as an example of how convenience stores act as magnets for would-be felons. On Nov. 16 a man was killed in a carjacking attempt at a 7-Eleven in San Jose.

But while the threat of robbery is real, crime expert Rosemary Erickson says the public perception of the risk is exaggerated. Convenience store robberies accounted for 5.1 percent of U.S. robberies in 2011, according to FBI data. More than three times that many occurred in homes.

And the number of convenience store holdups has dropped roughly 65 percent since the 1970s, Erickson said, thanks in part to strategies 7-Eleven and the rest of the industry have developed to deal with the problem.

Convenience stores generally don't attract criminals from outside the neighborhood, added Erickson, president of Athena Research Corp. They tend to reflect crime that already exists.

"The convenience store is typically a microcosm of the community it's located in," Erickson said.

Chabris, of 7-Eleven, claims the 24-hour stores can serve as safe havens for people who have been threatened or victimized, which adds to the number of 911 calls generated from the markets.

"Many people tell us we are a beacon of light in the dead of night," Chabris said.

Breining and other critics, such as Orange County resident Tanna Lee, consider the stores' extended hours a regional draw for crooks and ne'er-do-wells.

"They tend to gravitate toward places that are open," said Lee, who lives in Mission Viejo, where the City Council approved a new 7-Eleven in August over the opposition of local residents. "It's not rocket science."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.