Convenience Store Livin’
September 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
I live above a convenience store, which merits a lifestyle. In Taiwan, it’s odd and unlikely to visit a town, no matter how small, lacking a pair of competing convenience stores.
I used to think of convenience stores and gas stations as being interchangeable. However, thinking of it now, I’m pretty sure that most of the Seven Elevens in the States weren’t accompanied by gas pumps (maybe there were a few pumps accompanied by Seven Elevens to throw me off). It was a micro-assumption, an over-application. On the contrary, no one goes to the gas station except for gas in Taiwan.
In General, the products offered in Taiwanese convenience stores are extremely different from those offered in American ones. “Gas station food” brings to mind a greasy, factory-pressed taquito squirming beneath a cheese-colored heat lamp. The phrase brings acid reflux and stomach ache to my mind as well as a regretful afternoon moaning on the shitter.
Although there is a fair amount of junk food in Taiwanese shops, there are also substantial options and more of them. These options typically have their own section. You’re likely to find local eats such as tea eggs, bao zi, and fresh fruit in this section.
The typical drink section contains more bottled teas than sodas, and though it may be hard to believe, more options for water than you’d find in the States. There a ton of different juices and milks as well.
Don’t expect to find pretzels anywhere unless you’re looking for heavily saturated honey mustard pretzel pieces (which you can only find in 7-11).
It’s normal to find seaweed, shrimp, bbq ribs, chicken, or lobster chips in the chip section.
There are usually two sections of alcohol: refrigerated and non-refrigerated. Each convenience store has slightly different options in both sections. The refrigerated section usually contains these three basic beers: the green and silver Taiwan Beer, cans and bottles of Heineken, and the yellow Bar Beer. The non-refrigerated section contains wine, whisky, scotch, and an expansive selection of liquors. I prefer the petite red wine bottles in the picture below.
If you want coffee, you can usually get a hot or cold cup by ordering it at the check out counter. Lattes are mainstream. There are also many options for coffee-containing libations in plastic or glass bottles as well as aluminum cans. I don’t recommend any of them unless you’re in a hurry.
Remaining are the vitamin, personal need, sweets, frozen goods, dried goods, and magazine/book sections.
Most convenience stores have ATMs, although some do not.
Many of them have seating areas; some have large round tables, some have cafeteria-style setups, but most have window seat stools pulled up to a counter of meager width.
Most shops have taxi services that they endorse and will call you a taxi if you need it.
You can also buy minutes for your cellphone from convenience stores.
In Taiwan, there are three major names in the convenience store business: Seven Eleven, Family Mart, and Hi Life.
Seven Eleven started in Dallas, Texas as a milk, eggs, and bread stand in front of an ice house in 1927. It is now an international chain, and in 2007, it had around a thousand more franchises worldwide than McDonalds. The first store opened in Taiwan in 1980, and as of March 25th, 2012, some 4,820 stores have popped up across the Tennessee-sized island. It’s the most popular convenience store in Taiwan according to Wikipedia, and I’m convinced due to the fact that even if the locals can’t speak English, most can say Seven Eleven.
In general, I think 7-11 offers the greatest amount of options. They are also typically larger and nicer than others.
FamilyMart was founded in 1988 in Japan, and in the same year, the first Taiwanese location opened up in Taipei Main Station. In July this year, FamilyMart in Taiwan reached an accumulated revenue of NT$4.9 billion, which is an equivalent to roughly USD$169,000,000. I would call FamilyMart a proper rival of Seven Eleven.
The official motto is “FamilyMart, where you are one of the family.” Most locations have tables posted outside, with the phrase “Let’s café” written on the chairs. (I’ve adopted this phrase, using café as a verb).
The convenience store that I happen to live above is FamilyMart, and maybe that’s why it has my preference, aside from the fact that it’s the only convenience store I’ve seen selling pineapple cakes (below, center).
Finally, there is Hi Life, which was founded in 1988. Hi Life is strictly Taiwanese and the third biggest convenience store chain in Taiwan. The location in the picture above is at the end of the gondola ride through Taipei’s zoo “area,” and because it was the only convenience store on the mountain, it was super-mega-sized.
I don’t have anything special to write about Hi Life. I’ll go to one if it happens to be more convenient than the other two.
Convenience stores are a haven for foreigners. You don’t have to speak Chinese; all you have to do is pick something out and come up with the cash. They’re also good for getting together and drinking beers. The fact that they’re everywhere allows one the ability to roam without worry. If you get thirsty, hungry, tired, hot, or just have to use the bathroom, look for a convenience store. If you get lost, you can call a taxi.
Living above FamilyMart has the convenience thing going for it, but I’ve also been around to see some wild shit. I’ve seen a shirtless gang member screaming red in the face with his presumed tough as hell mother keeping him from disfiguring a punk at 12AM. I’ve seen a man projectile vomit on two of his friends while sitting at the café table. I’ve seen a spider the size of my hand walk through the automatic door like a regular. I’ve seen a man chewing beetle nut, toothless and drooling red like blood, stumbling around, asking for money and cigarettes. One time when I was sitting outside, I saw two older ladies pull into the intersection on their scooter to be sideswiped and knocked over by a speeding car which disappeared into the distance, leaving the poor women howling and picking their things from a pile of glass and plastic in the middle of the road.
In conclusion, convenience stores are quite the shallow water reefs, teeming with life and fulfilling the colorful needs of many.