BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG
Above: Kizer Couch tends bar at his Bend mini-mart, which boasts 47 taps of beer and other beverages.
Below: Couch plans to sell franchises of the “Growler Guys” portion of his store.
// Photos by Joe Kline
Soda Shaq, the new line of cream sodas from Shaquille O’Neal and iced tea maker AriZona, is a health nut’s nightmare. Each Shaq-emblazoned, 23.5-ounce can contains 72 grams of sugar — the equivalent of 17 teaspoons. In health-conscious Portland, one would think the sodas, sold primarily through retail partner 7-Eleven, would go over like a lead balloon. But one month after the product release this summer, Portland sales weren’t just good — the city’s 7-Eleven stores were selling more Soda Shaqs per location each day than any other store group in the country.
To hear the New York Times tell it, Portland is a foodie’s land of (organic) milk and (local) honey where every denizen shops at a co-op, tends a garden and contemplates buying a goat. Evidently, though, more than a few of us don’t fit into that paradisaical portrait; instead, we patronize 7-Eleven and sneak swigs of sugary soda. There is a disconnect here, and perhaps nowhere is this gap more visible than through the lens of that ubiquitous peddler of instant gratification: the convenience store.
Nationally, the convenience store industry is a powerhouse. The 149,000 “c-stores” in the United States handle 160 million transactions per day. They grossed sales of $700 billion in 2012 — more than either grocery stores or restaurants. Both the number of stores and total sales increased, albeit modestly, last year.
Despite the state’s slow-food reputation, Oregon’s c-store industry is no exception to national trends. Our store count went up every year between 2009 and 2012, and our homegrown chain, Plaid Pantry, was among the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the country last year, according to Inc. magazine. As the media portrays us — and as we collectively see ourselves — Portlanders wouldn’t be caught dead at a convenience store. The status of Oregon’s c-store industry, its strengths and the hurdles ahead, however, complicate the Portlandia picture.
Despite strong performance in Oregon and around the country, the c-store sector faces several challenges. Health consciousness is rising. Gas profits are falling. More and more businesses are encroaching on c-stores’ primary proposition, selling convenience in the form of a self-checkout stand or an express espresso. Though it may be an unexpected source for convenience store innovation, our idiosyncratic state offers the industry some distinctly Oregon solutions.