7-Eleven’s new Evolution Store still needs to evolve

Tim Carman

THE WASHINGTON POST – The flower boxes on the patio at 7-Eleven’s new Evolution Store in Washington are your first clue that the push-button nacho cheese dispenser may be on the endangered list.

In the not-so-distant future, the machine may be headed to the great convenience store in the sky, where it can rendezvous with the 1980s-era burger bar and grumble about those kids who want their made-to-order tacos only on fresh tortillas, washed back with an organic blood-orange Slurpee.

The patio at another Washington Evolution Store would appear to trumpet the convenience chain’s new marching orders: It wants you to linger (even if most of America doesn’t feel like it right now), maybe sit down at the outdoor table under a branded umbrella and enjoy the sunshine and the planter boxes filled with young pansies, their petals impossibly purple and yellow.

There’s even a counter inside the store where you can take a load off and recharge, both yourself and your phone.

The days of blasting Verdi to shoo away loiterers would appear to be ancient history.

ABOVE & BELOW: Customers at the Laredo Taco Co counter; and enchiladas and a mango agua fresca. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

This is the 7-Eleven of the new urban frontier, where electric scooters, Uber and your own two feet are the preferred mode of transportation, where cars and their ugly little grease stains in the parking lot are relics of earlier generations raised on grab bags of Cool Ranch Doritos, microwaved burritos (still frozen in the middle) and roller dogs garnished with unlimited pumps of mustard and ketchup.

This is the 7-Eleven for those who don’t want their dinner offloaded from an 18-wheeler or pried from a plastic coffin.

The Evolution-branded store in Washington – one of several introduced or planned following the concept’s debut in Dallas last year – has re-engineered 7-Eleven into a multiheaded beast: part fast-casual, part Whole Foods, part standard grab-and-go. The juxtapositions inside one store, with its breathtaking highs and lows, can generate motion sickness: Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free oatmeal sits next to king-size Lucky Charms marshmallow treat bars; 7-Eleven macarons (not bad, actually) lounge in the same case as pepper Jack cheese sticks; certified organic lemonade, with turmeric, is just steps from a Slurpee machine that releases a steady stream of sky-blue cotton candy slush.

While you can still get your Big Gulps, cheeseburger bites and self-serve nachos with push-button cheese, the signature junk from previous eras is not the star of this store. The featured attractions here carry a whiff of the elevated, the artisanal and the authentic: In one corner, there’s a drinks bar, dubbed the Southland Coffee Co in a nod to the Texas ice house that launched 7-Eleven, as well as a Laredo Taco Co. counter, where customers can dig into freshly prepared tacos, enchiladas and fajitas, a Tex-Mex alternative to Wawa’s custom-made hoagies.

These additions to the 7-Eleven brand signal major changes on the horizon for America’s largest convenience chain, but right now, at one Washington store, what you mostly experience are the growing pains. 7-Eleven entered the restaurant industry just two years ago, when it acquired Laredo Taco in a 1,000-store deal with Sunoco, and the chain that has built its reputation on self-service and grab-and-go convenience is still struggling with the fundamentals of quick-service operations. More problematic, it’s simply promising too much, and delivering too little.

The construction of your meal at Laredo Taco can, at times, devolve into borderline chaos, as employees lose track of orders as your taco assembly moves down the counter. The system further breaks down as you enter the toppings stage: Some add-ons are free, others demand a small surcharge, which employees explain to every customer and then repeat to the cashier who rings up your meal.

I can’t recall the last time I saw a business in such dire need of poaching staff from the competition. You’ve been warned, Chipotle.

You can put together a tasty bite at Laredo, and it starts by skipping the corn tortillas, which are pulled from a bag, stiff and woody. The housemade flour tortillas are far superior.

Like every fast-casual, the quality of your meal will depend on your ability to arrange ingredients, but there’s something of a disconnect between the items advertised on the overhead menu (tacos) and what the counter staff will try to compose (Chipotle-style burritos, stuffed with rice, beans and proteins).

The problem is that the flour tortillas, though wonderfully fresh and chewy, are not large enough to accommodate such overstuffing. Less is more at Laredo.

Laredo has nailed the language of a Tex-Mex taqueria, if not the techniques. Its barbacoa is almost minced – and dripping with grease.

Its chunky carnitas meat is aggressively spiced, but not cooked down into the rich, shreddable meat you want. Its beef enchiladas are tawny and seductive, stained with chili gravy and cheese, but one bite into the dish and you realise they’re dry husks, the moisture basically cooked out of them.

The fajita meat is your best option, except for the beef: I preferred the chicken, golden and well-seasoned, over the pale beef fajitas.

Your best recipe for success: Chicken fajitas, grilled onions and a few choice toppings tucked into a flour tortilla.

Make sure to add one of the salsas from the bar, each of which packs more heat than you would expect from a concept with national aspirations. Skip the refried beans, which taste like they were scorched in a pot, and steer clear of the agua frescas, which are as sweet as the Slurpees.