In Hawai’i, gas station convenience stores are way more than just fluorescent-lit purgatories for the high and hangry. They’re fully fledged dining destinations with a side of petrol, and among the best places to eat anywhere on the islands, thanks largely to two standout chains that rule them all.
On Oahu, that’s 7-Eleven, where you’ll find dark chocolate-glazed mochi doughnuts and warm manapua (bao) of lap cheong wrapped in fluffy, soft dough. While you wait to pay for your takoyaki corn puffs, the construction worker in front of you is picking up a bento of guisantes, a Filipino tomato-based stew with pork and peas. Schoolchildren race down the aisles to grab a few award-winning Spam musubi, and the newly debuted tonkotsu ramen with fresh noodles is all sold out by the afternoon. (There’s one bowl left of beef pho, brightened with sprigs of Thai basil and sliced red onions, but you’d better hurry).
On Maui, there’s Minit Stop, with fried chicken and extra-large potato wedges cut from one-pound potatoes and double breaded in the same mix as the chicken. Almost 40 years and 17 locations later, the fried chicken and potato wedges are still a draw for Maui locals, as are more recent menu additions like pork adobo, and flying saucers — a 90-year-old Maui Fair tradition that’s similar to a Hot Pocket. Minit Stop’s version is more similar to a hand pie than the classic fair version, which features two slices of bread sandwiching a sloppy joe mix and pressed into a clamshell, but it more than does the trick, and comes in flavors like lobster melt, chicken adobo, and even vegetarian Impossible cheeseburger. (But just like the flying saucers at the Maui Fair, which were discontinued about five years ago, Minit Stop, too, plans on retiring them soon.)
This is gas station food in Hawai’i: equal parts nostalgic and modern, and, just as with so many aspects of Hawai’i’s food culture, at the literal and figurative crossroads of East and West. It’s a part of our everyday lives — gas stations are where we pick up a fried chicken musubi — aka the local-style energy bar — post surf, where we stop for a longanisa and tocino bento for breakfast on the way to work, where we go so often we know the cashiers.
In many ways, the above-and-beyond gas station offerings are an evolution of Hawai’i’s long tradition of general stores as the anchors of rural communities. These were often true mom-and-pop shops, some dating back to the late 1800s, that offered their neighbors everything from rubber boots and fishing lures to chicken feed, chili fried chicken bentos, and fresh-baked peanut butter cookies. Sushi was being sold at Hawai’i’s general stores as early as the 1920s — add a few gas pumps and you have gas station sushi, a joke elsewhere, but a stellar snack in Hawai’i.
But the superiority of Hawai’i’s gas station fare has even more to do with the state’s close ties to Japan, where convenience store snacking is an art unto itself. Before Maui native Jimmy Haynes founded Minit Stop in 1982, he was an executive with Unocal 76 (now known as 76) and was inspired by his trips to Japan, where convenience stores served everything from oden to onigiri. With Minit Stop, Haynes introduced Maui to self-serve gasoline, “a big thing on the mainland at the time,” says Minit Stop’s merchandising manager Kim Robello, but perhaps more groundbreaking was the fresh fried chicken and potato wedges. “People thought he was crazy,” says Robello. “At that time, the old adage with [convenience stores] was ‘smokes and a Coke.’ But Jimmy decided to go one step further and do food that’s made from scratch. The Minit Stop would have typical convenience store fare; the groceries, the cooler of beverages, coffee, and so on. But his edge was a proprietary kitchen making proprietary chicken.”
Over on Oahu, the first 7-Eleven in the state opened in 1978. At first, it was the same as all the others in the U.S.: Slurpees and sad sandwiches you heated up in a microwave. But that changed when the Tokyo-based Seven-Eleven Japan Co. bought all of Hawai’i’s stores in 1989 (by 1991, it would control 7-Eleven’s parent company, Southland). “Since then, we have been influenced by 7-Eleven Japan’s model,” says Debbie Lee Soon, senior category manager for 7-Eleven Hawai’i, who oversees its fresh foods.
That model means a large variety of food made daily, and new product rollouts to keep the stores exciting. “But from the beginning, 7-Eleven Japan knew that the people of Hawai’i were very different from the mainland,” says Soon, “and we needed to develop our own products for our local customers.” Products like the Spam musubi, which Soon thinks may have been 7-Eleven Hawai’i’s first dish developed specifically for Hawai’i.
Two more early introductions, pork hash and manapua, are now among the most popular items at 7-Eleven Hawai’i, and more items are in development constantly. Each week the company debuts one to three new dishes, from kimchi pork to mapo tofu. Soon has even collaborated with local culinary schools in Hawai’i to come up with new dishes, such as a sinigang noodle soup, based on the sour soup that’s a staple in Filipino cuisine, and an ’ulu (breadfruit) stew.
Though nearly half of Hawai’i’s 65 7-Eleven stores are attached to gas stations, and all but one of 17 of Minit Stop’s locations on Maui and Hawai’i islands offer fuel for you and your car, both companies downplay the gas station component of their stores. Kim Robello says he thinks of Minit Stop as more of a convenience store with “amazing food” than a gas station. As he puts it — and as many locals would agree — “the gas is secondary.”
Martha Cheng is a writer and editor based in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer. Michelle Mishina Kunz is a photographer based in Honolulu, Hawai’i.
Fact checked by Andrea López Cruzado