Despite its superficial similarity to airplane food, microwavable 7-Eleven food in Taiwan is actually quite good! Though each dish tastes very little like the original food it is named for (spaghetti, mapo tofu, and so on) most seem to agree that it is delicious, if far from healthy. Once you realize that the technology exists to make instant microwavable food taste this good, you’ll find the bad taste of airplane food (particularly in the case of airplanes to and from Taiwan) to be inexcusable. Yet sometimes I get to thinking that what I’m really eating from 7-11 is a form of zombie food, or the simulacra of food.
In at least one possible timeline out there, after the apocalypse, I suspect that all humanity will have left is the 7-Eleven version of food. We’ll no longer have spaghetti, or curry, or mapo tofu, or bentou, or any of those things, just the 7-Eleven versions of them. When archaeologists dig up all the statues of 7-Eleven mascots in Taiwan, they’ll probably think that we worshipped OPEN Xiao-jiang (OPEN小將), 7-Eleven’s mascot in Taiwan, as some kind of god, part of a pantheon including his rival LOCK Xiao-jiang (LOCK小將), and love interest Xiao-tao (小桃).
7-Eleven is the dominant convenience store in Taiwan, so ubiquitous that sometimes you’ll find more than one on a single city block. With its highly concentrated, mostly urban population, Taiwan has one of the world’s densest concentrations of these stores.
The wide variety of 7-Eleven food items offered in the form of microwavable dishes perhaps only scratches the surface of the company’s expansive ambitions. At a 7-Eleven in Taiwan you can pay your gas, water, and electricity bill, order movie tickets, train tickets or concert tickets, use the ATM, pick up deliveries, print, scan, and copy documents, buy coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, fruit, salad, snacks, microwavable food, newspapers and magazines, cleaning supplies, toys, and much besides. 7-Eleven even sells undershirts, underwear, and socks. In the aforementioned dystopian timeline, perhaps the only clothes worn by members of society will be standardized 7-Eleven-wear. I’ve heard that you can even take your laundry to 7-Eleven and they will ship it to a laundry service for you. I’ve actually run into more than one 7-Eleven clerk who does not believe that 7-Eleven offers a service that I know for a fact it does.
As a result of the disproportionate, perhaps even monopolistic role played by 7-Eleven in the distribution of consumer goods in Taiwan, some joke that Uni-President, which operates both 7-Eleven and Starbucks here, is so large and powerful it’s almost like a government ministry at this point.
I find myself consistently surprised at how 7-Eleven offers different seasonal microwavable foods, as if they were some kind of seasonal produce like fruits or vegetables. For example, microwavable burritos (basically Hot Pockets) are only available part of the year.
7-Eleven has attempted to bolster coffee sales, to move into the bubble tea market, and to make its stores more comfortable by offering public seating and bathrooms. Some outlets offer imported snacks from neighboring countries, and partnerships with established brands such as Muji, Go! Go! Curry and Ramen Kagetsu Arashi are on the rise.
7-Eleven also seems to be aiming to displace traditional Taiwanese establishments—eateries, for example, by offering microwavable food for around the same price, with in-store seating.
These attempts don’t always work too well. I think I’m the only person I know who has ever tried 7-Eleven bubble tea. The one time I ordered it, the store clerk gave me a long look and told me that I would have to wait fifteen minutes. He then took out a packet from the freezer that he subsequently left to melt on the counter for ten minutes, poured the contents of the packet into ice water from the coffee machine, added bubbles from another package, and stirred. The result was one of the worst concoctions I have ever drunk.
The domination of 7-Elevens in Taiwan began with displacing and replacing zahuodian (雜貨店, literally “assorted goods stores”), bodega-like establishments which usually did not serve instant food, but provided ordinary convenience-store goods such as magazines, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, toys and other odd items. Zahuodian tended to be family-run community hubs.
However, zahuodian weren’t 24/7 establishments, as 7-Elevens are, and they were usually not as modern and clean. The few remaining zahuodian are frequented only by older people, perhaps because of ties going back decades with the families that run them.
The institution of the traditional neighborhood book or magazine lending store, too, is on the decline, because one can simply order the magazines or books one wants online and either have them shipped directly, as people often arrange to do, pick it up at the 7-Eleven nearest your house.
7-Eleven has also taken to increasing their fresh fruit and vegetable selections, competing with traditional markets. Certainly, fruits and vegetables that come in plastic wrapping from a 7-Eleven are of questionable freshness, but the fact that this may appear cleaner or more “modern” than the traditional fruit or vegetable seller whose wares are haphazardly slung on the side of the road, along with the “convenience,” may appeal to some.
With the replacement of traditional neighborhood establishments by 7-Eleven, much local color is lost. At the same time, 7-Eleven has itself become a local hangout for some lonely souls.
At the one nearest my apartment, for example, I see the same cast of people every night: A old couple who sit for hours reading magazines and newspapers, who seem to have no other family or friends except the 7-Eleven clerks; the late-night gas station attendants from a block over, who duck in for a snack; a man who works in a local restaurant, who sits with a few beers every night after work; and the woman who wanders around the neighborhood in the dead of night to dig through garbage for cardboard, plastic, or metal recyclables. Some 7-Elevens even have chat groups on Line, an instant messaging app commonly used in Taiwan, not only for stores to send news of their latest promotions to customers, but to build a sense of community.
The 7-Eleven across the street from me is run by a group of aging rockers, all tattoos and piercings, who seem also to all live in the same apartment. I see them in the night market and in the laundromat sometimes and, as I’ve run into them opening their front door before, I even know where they live. They’ve run into me coming out of my apartment, as well. Since my partner organizes underground electronic music events and DJs, we’ve even invited them to parties before. They’ve never shown, probably because they seem to be into heavy metal and not, say, techno, house, or gabber, but we’re friendly enough that it wouldn’t be weird if they did show up sometime.
Working as a 7-Eleven clerk is a brutal minimum wage job. The stores are open 24/7, every day of the year, so employees miss out on holidays and are sometimes stuck working all night. There’s pressure to handle a large variety of tasks—making coffee, microwaving food, sorting out package deliveries, servicing ticket machines and printers, restocking the shelves.
But there are rumblings of automation coming to 7-Eleven. This way, 7-Eleven could get rid of its workers and cut costs—a development touted as futuristic by the company, with little public discussion of how that this would lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, grueling as they are.
There is a broad lack of consideration of potential alternatives. People take the convenience for granted, without thinking about how hard 7-Eleven is on employees, or the larger role of convenience stores in displacing local establishments. Most seem just to find the sheer convenience of 7-Elevens in Taiwan to be nothing short of miraculous.