All images and videos by Stephanie Lee unless otherwise stated
Our weekly pitch meetings run on caffeine. Every Thursday, at ten in the morning, the RICE Media’s editorial team streams into the meeting room, each with a cup of coffee. Given our office location at Ann Siang Hill, brand-name coffees are commonplace—inevitable even.
From homemade barista-style cappuccinos—Zat, my Head of Content, has an espresso machine—to oat milk lattes from nearby upscale coffeehouses, like Parallel and Maxi, the team’s affair with coffee is, to put it plainly, hifalutin (Sorry, Nicole).
It’s why I stand out like a sore thumb. My weekly coffee fix, an iced latte, comes from a household brand name synonymous with convenience: 7-11.
“Can I try?” Zat asks. His question provokes some anxiety in me. After all, he was a food critic in a past life. I hand him the coffee and pray for leniency.
“I only taste the milk,” Zat laments. The cup of coffee is immediately shoved back into my hands as soon as it leaves them.
How could I ever bring convenience store coffee back to RICE Media’s office? The office of coffee snobs. And in the face of expensive oat milk cappuccinos from these upscale cafes nestled in gentrified shophouses? Blatant heresy.
(Note: While editing this, and to further prove his disapproval of my beverage choice, Zat left a comment that says, “I’d rather you drink a can of Nescafe coffee.”)
The first time I brought the cup in, I got perplexed looks from the team. It’s an understandable sentiment, especially when 7-11’s coffee has recently racked up a list of complaints from netizens.
Last month (November), Redditors questioned the drinkability of 7-11’s coffee. Netizens complained that the hopper of the coffee machine was lined with thick brown grease. It obstructed the view of the coffee beans resting inside, they bemoan
Another recounted ants on the surface of their coffee—an extra sprinkle of protein for the unsuspecting and unassuming customer looking for a shot of caffeine.
I’m fortunate enough to have escaped this experience. Even if I had met a greasy coffee machine, I’d hesitate to make a sweeping statement about the country’s 422 stores.
After all, the occasional poorly maintained coffee machine does not make for an evil franchise.
Aromatic, Robust, Flavourful. Sometimes.
Make no mistake. This article is not a dreamy-eyed review of 7-11 coffee. The spade shall be called a spade.
For the price of $2.90 for the Iced Latte—the Americano only costs a dollar on Mondays—you get what you pay for.
The coffee grounds are not tamped into a portafilter. Rich flavour notes of chocolate, typically expected of Arabica beans, are subdued.
Some days, the coffee is strong, almost indiscernible from your typical cafe lattes. On others, like the day of Zat’s taste test, the latte is similar to coffee-flavoured milk.
It’s to be expected. After all, the coffee that drips out, much like the machine that produces it, has no soul. The crude, mechanical machine replaces the skillfulness of the barista’s hands. It’s just, well, functional.
Still, a sip of convenience store coffee delivers the same utility as any other brand-name cafe. The taste of the coffee might not be as robust, but the important thing is that it tastes like what a latte should taste.
And while my colleagues might have elevated tastes, it doesn’t detract from the fact that 7-11 lattes do the job—all for the economical price of $2.90.
In This Economy? A Godsend.
Look. A latte from a ‘proper’ cafe nearby costs an average of $6 in Singapore. The $4 difference between the latte and convenience store coffee could be better spent on a decent plate of cai fan.
That’s not to say that the premium of cafe lattes and coffee is unjustified. You walk into an upscale cafe; the barista presents your cup of coffee with your name misspelt on the side; you lounge on cosy sofas and manifest main character energy. Someone has to pay for all that.
You can also be sure that the Arabica coffee beans in your coffee are grown at high altitudes, sustainably sourced, and freshly roasted.
The espresso is pulled by the calibrated deftness of a barista’s hands. A well-pulled shot is akin to a great work of art, and the barista the great craftsman.
There is no way to put it across less pretentiously. The cafe experience is as necessary as the coffee itself. And all of this adds to the price of an expensive cafe latte.
7-11 might have its own its own cafe in Singapore—a recent invention to branch into an area not typically associated with its zippy brand of convenience.
There’s none of that here at 7-11—get your coffee and go. 7-11’s cafe range caters to customers looking for a latte without breaking the bank. And, as a struggling student, I need to stretch that dollar—boujee on an actual budget, if you will.
In an economy marked by a recession on the horizon, the best taste is also economical.
The Convenience Store Experience
And while upscale cafes have a whole mood going on for them, a convenience store is not bereft of an experience either.
There’s the welcoming jingle that announces your entrance, the weary cashier either at the tail end of a night shift or the start of an early morning one and a customer, hungover from the previous night’s revelry, staring blankly at the glass fridges.
Like I said, experience.
Here in Singapore, convenience stores are often an afterthought. How can it not be? When plenty of supermarket chains are open every hour of every day, the convenience store is something you reach for only out of desperation.
It’s perhaps another reason convenience store culture isn’t as prominent in Singapore as in its overseas counterparts.
I reckon there isn’t enough space for a convenience store culture to flourish properly here because most stores in Singapore are crammed into tight nooks and crannies. Despite this, we are still unknowing participants of a larger culture playing out on the streets of Japan and Korea.
“The true star of the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel Convenience Store Woman is the convenience store itself. But what is it that makes these shops so magical?” reads the lead of a BBC article which interrogates Japanese convenience store culture.
Convenience Store Woman centres around 36-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura who finds herself working at the aptly named convenience store, “Smile Mart”. Through the unassuming doors of the convenience store, she learns and navigates the world that comes through it.
The article answers the question a few lines later with a quote from the novel’s protagonist. “(The convenience store) has to be somewhere people can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering the things they like.”
Somehow, I can relate.
A Creature of Routine
Maybe that’s what pulls me back to the convenience store every week—the routine discovery of something new. I am a creature of habit. I know my day is on track when I make it to the 7-11 just in time for a cup of coffee.
You peel back the lid on the pre-packaged cup of ice; adjust the nozzle on the coffee machine; ponder whether you should get a microwavable breakfast burrito—you don’t; select the iced latte option, and pay at the counter while the coffee beans are distilled into your weekly morning fix.
There’s a certain meditativeness to the whole gesture—it’s almost therapeutic.
Still, I concede. 7-11 coffee might need help to stand up to its upscale competitors. But what it lacks in taste and craftsmanship, it more than makes up for in what it represents.
Like the protagonist of Convenience Store Woman, 7-11 represents a chance to discover the things you like. Every time you choose to get 7-11 coffee, you enjoy and take pleasure in finding something you want, even if those things are motivated by a looming recession.
And if you can do it for 7-11 coffee, a product that people have taken liberties with to roundly criticise, you can do it for anything else.
It’s not the satisfying experience of enjoying skillfully made coffee that’s the draw. It’s the empowering experience of boldly owning your choices. And for me, that’s 7-11 caffeine.
All Hail 7-11 Coffee
I walk into the following week’s meeting with a 7-11 coffee in hand as if it were a badge of honour, calm, as my 7Cafe cup stands proud among brand names for iced lattes and mochas.
I am cognizant that convenience store coffee will—and understandably, I might add—never reach the aromatic and flavourful heights of your run-of-the-mill cafes.
But the convenience store experience offers something different while delivering value-for-money coffee. It’s not everybody’s first choice, but it can be if you want it to be.
While 7-11 stands dead last on the long list of places to get coffee for many coffee snobs drinkers, it is an experience that everyone should partake in at least once. Even Zat. Grease-soaked coffee machine or not.