(Dec. 16) DALLAS — At some point, a customer of 7-Eleven may stop in for a Slurpee, gas — and a salad — and not necessarily in that order.

The world’s largest convenience store chain, which has 5,300 units across the U.S., appears to be making a serious push into the fresh-food business.

On Dec. 4, the chain introduced a line of fresh-food products, including salad offerings, to its 692 stores in Southern California. That brings the total number of stores involved in the fresh-food program nationwide to 4,700, or about 88% of the total stores.

QUADRUPLING OF SALES

The chain’s plans include expanding the program to all of its U.S. units within five years, anticipating fresh-food sales to quadruple. Earlier this year, the Boston area was added.

Dana Manley, spokeswoman for the company said the fresh-food program, which also includes bakery and deli items, represents about 9% of the chain’s $8 billion in annual revenue.

“We’ve developed fresh portable fast food, food you can grab and go,” Des Hague, vice president of fresh foods for Dallas-based 7-Eleven, said in a news release.

That includes fresh fruit and vegetables. Manley said produce items in the program include bananas, apples, oranges and fresh-cut fruit salads. Lemons and limes are also sometimes included, depending on the store.

“We have national menu items,” she said. “But each region also has products that meet the demographic needs of that region.”

The potential opportunities that such a turn presents are not lost on produce purveyors.

“It will help a little bit,” said Chris Martin, a salesman with Value Produce Inc., a Los Angeles wholesaler. “Of course, they’d need special packs, and we’d sell to foodservice people that would sell them. But more exposure always helps, being a nonproduce store.”

Hague says the chain expects fresh food to be a “pretty meaningful percentage” of its growth.

TRIED ELSEWHERE

The concept isn’t revolutionary, said Ed Odron, president of Produce Marketing Consultants, a Stockton, Calif.-based retail consulting firm.

“I think everybody’s looking for sales, and any way you can pick up sales is an area folks will look for,” he said. “This isn’t new. Gas stations have offered these kinds of things on a test basis before. They’ve tried salads and other items like that, but they went away.”

Done right, however, Odron said 7-Eleven could be onto something.

“I think it has some good possibilities,” he said. “Like anything else, they’re going to have to pick and choose where to start this thing in and move from there. I think Southern California is a good choice.”

Salads and other fresh-made items will constitute a major part of the company’s strategy for reaching a health-conscious consumer, the company said.

“Our customers are letting us know that they like to have products that are better for them, have a little more flavor and higher quality,” Chuck Kronyak, the chain’s regional fresh food merchandiser, told reporters in Los Angeles Dec. 4.