I will make no apologies. No excuses, rationalizations or justifications. Rather, I proudly declare (from on high, if necessary) that I regularly eat pre-packaged sandwiches from 7-Eleven.
OK, so I lied about that “proudly” part. I actually have plenty of rationalizations. For starters, 7-Eleven is a monolithic corporation and is thus presumed to be evil. The sandwiches are undoubtedly made in a fiery dungeon by malnourished children forced into hellish servitude where they get whipped by sadistic men with beards when they don't slap that ham-and-cheese together just right.
You've seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. You know what I'm talking about. And for what? So I can grab a quick bite for less than $4?
When you work in Mission Valley, most other sandwich options are more expensive and no less corporate. And, face it, the service at indie eateries is typically slower than a narcoleptic sloth on a Thorazine drip. Besides, while I do enjoy good vittles, I generally subscribe to the “It's all going to end up in the same place” school of culinary thought.
But it was still disconcerting to see the abject look of horror on CityBeat food writer Candice Woo's face when I mentioned that I regularly dine in the refrigerated section of my neighborhood convenience-store conglomerate.
I was nonetheless obstinate that I represented all working men and women who don't have the time, money or inclination to choose between Parmesan oregano and honey oat bread. I was the voice of the stomach-growling proletariat, a veritable V.I. Lenin of the shrink-wrapped hoagie, and I would prove there's nothing wrong with 7-Eleven sandwiches.
So I looked at the back of the wrapper—the one with the reassuring “Delivered Fresh Daily” and “Fresh Made Fresh Taste” labels—to examine the ingredients. Some I recognized (“wheat bread”) while others (“ESL-3” and “Starplex 90 Kosher”) I did not. No bother. I'm sure “ESL-3” is just food-industry jargon for “Hey, this sandwich isn't half-bad.”
But I wanted to dig deeper. And, after an exhaustive investigation (I looked at the wrapper again), I discovered the sandwiches come from an Orange County company called “Fresh Grill.” That sounded promising. So I did a Google search.
One of the top returns was a link to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration bulletin that began “Fresh Grill Recalls Smoked Turkey & Jack Cheese Sandwiches Due to…”
I looked down at the wrapper to see that I'd just consumed a “Smoked Turkey & Jack Cheese.” I frantically clicked on the link to read the rest of the headline, “… Due to Undeclared Anchovies.”
A few questions popped into my mind: 1) What the hell are anchovies doing in a turkey sandwich? 2) What is an “undeclared” anchovy? Did it sneak into California from international waters without proper documentation? 3) What the hell are anchovies doing in a turkey sandwich?
The press release (dated Nov. 21, 2006) announced the recall of 2,056 “units” due to the possible inclusion of undisclosed traces of anchovies, which could result in serious allergic reactions for some people. The communiqué ended with the curt assurance that “no illnesses have been reported to date.”
I see. Oh well. I could forgive a labeling omission (since corrected). And, in the realm of things that could be undeclared (mice, tainted meat, human appendages), anchovies weren't so bad. Still, I craved more answers. So I called Jeff Heavirland.
Heavirland is the co-owner of Fresh Grill, a company that provides a wide variety of food products for an assortment of clients. When I spoke to him, Heavirland was cordial but cagey. He asked me to send him an e-mail to prove that I am who I say I am.
“For all I know, you could be a competitor,” Heavirland explained.
An uncomfortable silence ensued as we waited for my e-mail to go through. I made an off-hand comment about the prepackaged-sandwich business being more cutthroat than I ever imagined.
“Every business is cutthroat,” Heavirland said, noting that he frequently gets calls from dubious sources trying to ascertain the particulars of his business.
There is reason for caution. The 7-Eleven contract is a biggie—Fresh Grill services some 800 locations throughout Southern California, including more than 100 franchises within a 12-mile radius of downtown San Diego.
Heavirland wouldn't divulge specific numbers (citing contractual stipulations), but it's conceivable that thousands of these sandwiches are consumed in San Diego County every day. And every one of them is made-to-order according to 7-Eleven specifications.
“They send us their order at 10:30 a.m. today, we make it and it's in their stores by tonight,” Heavirland says.
“That's kind of amazing when you think about it. And that happens seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
The Fresh Grill complex in Santa Ana spans more than four acres and employs hundreds of people. The company contracts with farms for fresh produce and operates its own bakery and vegetable-processing facility. So, less Temple of Doom and more blue-collar assembly line.
According to company literature, Fresh Grill ensures every product is “top-quality, pathogen-free and ready to serve with pride” thanks to the rigorous quality testing (“to the microbial level”) that accompanies each production run.
Heavirland said the sandwiches keep for at least a week, but 7-Eleven insists on a two-day “code” (the part of the label that says your sandwich was made on Wednesday and is best before Friday) to ensure freshness.
“I do think there was a stigma in the past, but I think that stigma will go away once people realize how fresh these products are,” Heavirland says. “I don't know that anybody is doing fresh sandwiches as well as 7-Eleven.”
Relatively speaking, of course. But the ultimate question remains.
“Yes,” Heavirland says, “I eat the sandwiches.”