Upon receiving my learner’s permit at age 16, my mother gave me a piece of advice about exercising caution on the road: “You know those people who are screaming to themselves outside of 7-Eleven? They got there by car. Be careful.”
That more or less sums up the suburban American relationship with the convenience store franchise – its unwavering fluorescents a 24-hour beacon for anyone needing a bucket of Dr Pepper. It is perfumed by the display of rotating hot dogs, each of which looks like it carries an exciting new strain of listeria. The color scheme of red, orange and green is complemented by a puddle of blue slushie created by an 8-year-old who wanted to see what would happen if they held the Slurpee handle down after their cup was filled.
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7-Eleven is a place to get a spare charger, a water gun, disturbingly good coffee, toothbrushes, adult magazines, an electric razor, a Hostess Snoball. It is a social glue. It does everything a convenience store is supposed to do. At least, it did about a decade ago, the last time I visited one.
So when I heard that a 7-Eleven was opening in Tel Aviv, I was ecstatic. Sure, its presence is completely unnecessary in a city of convenience store chains, but I’m in it for the nostalgia value.
With a Slurpee craving already forming, I made my way over to its first branch – at the Dizengoff Center mall – the day after its grand opening earlier this month.
Considering it was about 2 P.M. on a weekday, I expected to have free rein of the place. Instead, I was met with a line that spanned several storefronts. A security guard was lifting a literal velvet rope as people entered and emerged in ones and twos.
I got into line and found myself behind a small group of U.S. seminary students. “Do Israelis understand that this is, like, the most nothing place in America? I can’t believe there’s a line,” one said.
Not only were the natives queuing to enter the equivalent of a gas station convenience store, they seemed to be committing another culturally bizarre act: many were walking out of the establishment with hot dogs. Although my curiosity was piqued, I decided I had too much dignity to wait in line any longer and went on my way.
I returned a few days later. There was still a line, and still an absurd velvet rope. But this time I had less shame and more time to kill. I was rewarded with entry.
The Dizengoff Center 7-Eleven is hip, luxe and tiny. No fluorescents here; it is illuminated by stylish spotlights. Everything feels upscale, even the fonts.
An employee approached me – something that would already never happen in a U.S. branch – and asked what sounded to me like “How old are you?” So I replied “I’m 30.” He said “What?” And I said “What?”
Then he said he had asked if I needed help, but added that I really didn’t look 30, leaving us both uncomfortable. This brought the experience back in line with the sort of interactions I’m used to having at American convenience stores.
First up, a Slurpee. The sizes here are noticeably smaller than their U.S. counterparts, but that may be to our benefit. Muscle memory moved my hands, which grasped a small cup and lid and began to fill it with the Coca-Cola flavor before my mind could realize what they were doing. It tasted exactly as I remembered it.
Next to me, kids were filling cones with soft-serve ice cream and spooning on toppings, with others opting for Israeli-style coffee slush. Even on a relatively cold day in January, the novelty of frozen treats won out.
The coffee counter, however, was disappointing. Instead of the drip coffee options I grew up with, there were espresso machines – the sort usually found in corporate offices. Absent were the pumps full of flavored syrups that elevated a humble cup to the status of diabetic threat. Israel might not be prepared for that.
Also disappointing was the selection of snacks, toiletries and miscellaneous items. It is limited to just a few shelves of wares – a fraction of the size of an average AM:PM (and priced similarly).
Puzzlingly, they also found room for “merchandise,” so if your heart yearns for a set of 7-Eleven-branded notebooks, at long last they can be yours.
No one seemed to join me in the small aisles; the real novelties were lining the walls. In addition to the frozen treats, the coffee and the soda fountain, the store boasts a large supply of prepared food, which both frightened and vexed me.
The CEO of the Israeli franchise holder, Electra Consumer Products’ Zvika Shwimmer, told Time Out magazine: “You can leave 7-Eleven with a full stomach at breakfast, lunch and dinner, at a competitive price.”
To me, that was not so much an invitation as a threat. Back home in New Jersey, if a friend told me they were about to hunker down for a meal of prepared food at the 7-Eleven next to the local gas station, I would call urgent care and see if they took reservations.
The place had been open for only a few days, I thought, so what’s the harm in taking a chance? I forewent the wall of perfectly fine-looking salads and sandwiches, and pulled out a bun from the hot bun drawer (helpfully labeled). I gave the tongs a good click and chose the juiciest hot dog among those rolling on the steel rods.
I opted for the one marked “spicy” out of a selection that included “American style” and a vegan Rainbow dog (a must in Tel Aviv). I slipped it into its bun, dressed it in some sauerkraut, mustard and ketchup – 7-Eleven brand, also for sale – and paid for my haul.
My hot dog and Slurpee set me back 25 shekels ($7.40), which is America terrible but Tel Aviv fine.
Of course, there is nowhere to eat your food, which is something nobody really considered during the construction process. I took mine into the mall and camped out at a little table outside a shop for trading card collectors.
The Slurpee? Sentimental, sweet, chilling; I apologize to everyone who was subjected to my symphony of overeager straw-sucking sounds. The hot dog? The bun was a bit dry, but the dog itself was well-sized and perfectly average-tasting, with a little nip of spiciness – exactly what it’s supposed to be.
In my bid for nostalgia, I realized that I was now eating processed meat in a mall, in front of a shop that sells holographic Pokémon cards. I had come looking for my American childhood, and I had found it.