It's not uncommon for Andre Holden to stop for a bite on his way to his job as a bakery worker at an upscale Italian food emporium in downtown Chicago.
About three times a week, though, he's sating his appetite for some quick Italian at, of all places, 7-Eleven.
"I like it because it's quick. I don't have a lot of time," said the 23-year-old, picking up his usual pizza slice and fried mozzarella sticks during a recent visit.
The world's largest convenience store chain is banking on those sentiments as it ups its fresh food offerings, including a push toward more healthy snacks. With more consumers willing to pop into a convenience store for a quick meal, 7-Eleven is aiming to build a name for itself in the competitive sector, much as Starbucks and Walgreens have made bigger pushes into food. What's more, officials say food sales are helping to offset sagging tobacco sales.
Last year, privately held 7-Eleven rolled out Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, mozzarella sticks and more breakfast items, including a $1 chicken biscuit sandwich and hash brown bites, in its hot food cases. Sandwiches such as chicken with Sriracha (a hot sauce) on a pretzel bun appeared in the cold case. And lately, it's been pushing take-and-bake pizzas, as well as giving customers the option of having the $5.55 pies cooked on the spot.
Earlier this month, 7-Eleven rolled out its Egg White Breakfast Sandwich, a $1.99 creation featuring Canadian bacon and cheddar cheese on a whole-wheat English muffin,
"There's been a major focus on the push for fresh foods," said Kelly Buckley, vice president of fresh food innovation. "We know that is an area we have a competitive advantage. Part of our key differential here is we have fresh bakery items and cold sandwiches and wraps and cut fruit."
On the better-for-you front, the stores are offering rotating cold offerings seasonally. It offered a berry salad in the spring and summer. A bacon, lettuce and tomato salad in the fall. It's also added a line of premium wines ($55 a bottle) to about 800 stores.
Officials say they're pleased with results. Same-store fresh food sales for stores grew by 11 percent from 2009 to 2013. Overall, fresh food sales grew 58 percent in 2013 compared to 2009, largely due to the chain's growth spurt. It added 1,000 stores in 2012 and now counts more than 10,000 stores in North America.
The company decided two years ago to invest more in the development of fresh food. Buckley came aboard and assembled a team of food scientists, culinarians and engineers.
"We need to be looking broader in terms of what are our future offerings going to be to grow our business and play into our strengths," Buckley said.
Convenience stores own the out-of-home snacking market, so it makes sense for them to expand to meals, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group in Chicago.
"They've already got you for the snacks. They would really love it if you went there for main meals now," he said. "A lot of places, including drugstores, supermarkets and supercenters, are offering prepared meals."
Conversely, restaurants are more focused on drawing customers in for snacks.
"It's a battle for that dollar," Balzer said. "From 6:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night, I can find 50 percent of the population every hour eating. Now the question is, 'Can I make sure you come to me for that food?' "
The chain is attempting to replicate the successes of Pennsylvania-based chains Wawa and Sheetz with customized sandwiches and prepared foods, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry consultancy that puts the convenience store food-service industry at about $11 billion.
"Convenience stores have had success and are increasing their food service because they have a strong advantage of convenience over fast food restaurants," Tristano said. "Brands like 7-Eleven are increasing their investment in trying to take advantage of these opportunities."
"It's an evolution, and customers are beginning to recognize that C-stores are places where they can find quality, prepared foods," Tristano said.
According to a winter 2013 Technomic report, nearly half of consumers polled said they are now seeking more fresh options at convenience stores than they were a year ago. About 42 percent said the shops are doing a good job offering fresh foods.
About 59 percent of consumers polled -- and 63 percent of the women asked -- said they are now seeking more healthful food items at convenience stores than they were a year ago. But they said there's a lot of room for improvement. Only a third strongly agreed that the stores do a good job providing those options.