When Olivia Jones asked her daughter where she wanted to celebrate her sixth birthday, she chose a convenience store in another state.
Such is the appeal of Buc-ee’s.
Its fans say few things are more Texas than the chain of massive convenience stores with the disposition of an amusement park. Among its 38 stores, customers can find a whole wall dedicated to Icees. Seasoned nuts are roasted on site, and there’s a homemade fudge bar and a massive beef jerky display. The travel centers can have as many as 120 fueling stations but don’t allow 18-wheelers. And the bathrooms are high-tech and famously pristine.
Its legions of die-hard fans include Cody Esser, who visited 33 Texas stores in three days for his Impulsive Traveler Guy blog. “I’ve traveled all throughout the United States and into Canada, and I’ve never seen anything as big as Buc-ee’s,” he said.
Now hoping to capitalize on the cultlike devotion it has inspired at home, Buc-ee’s is in the midst of a multistate expansion. It recently broke ground in Alabama and soon will have stops in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.
“Texans held on for so long until they realized there’s a market elsewhere,” said travel blogger Brandi Perry of Columbia, Miss. “We’re begging for one in Mississippi.”
It’s the reliability that keeps people coming back, said Buc-ee’s general counsel, Jeff Nadalo. They come knowing that each store is “clean, friendly and in stock,” 24/7, no matter what.
Other than a few regional differences — such as a wider selection of fishing gear at Gulf Coast stores — Buc-ee’s is “insanely brand consistent,” Esser said.
“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
Arch Aplin III opened the first Buc-ee’s in Lake Jackson, Tex., in 1982. Its name and logo combine his mother’s nickname for him, “Beaver,” and the name of his Labrador retriever, Buck. Don Wasek signed on as a partner shortly after, and soon they were opening locations throughout Texas.
In 2003, the chain started transitioning to the massive travel centers for which it is now known, many upward of 40,000 square feet. Its New Braunfels, Tex., location is said to be the largest convenience store in the world: 68,000 square feet; 120 fueling positions; 80 fountain dispensers; 27 cash registers; and four Icee machines. It also has 33 urinals and 50 toilet stalls. The one in Katy, Tex., holds the Guinness World Record for longest carwash.
The company chose Loxley, Ala., for its first location outside Texas. The store, which is strategically located on the highway leading to the tourist-heavy Alabama Gulf Coast beaches, opened in January.
Construction started in June for a second Alabama location, in Leeds, outside Birmingham. It won’t open until early 2020, but Kevin Henry of Wilsonville, Ala., says he has already mapped out the 32.9-mile route to get there. It’ll take 40 minutes, he said, saving him the 230-mile trip to the Loxley store for the best barbecued brisket sandwich he said he has ever eaten.
Three more stores are in the works to open in Florida: Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and Fort Myers.
Still privately held, the company said it has no plans to go public or offer franchises. Dan Parkinson, Buc-ee’s district manager, jokes that Buc-ee’s is going to “take over the world, one clean restroom at a time.”
Green means go
David Huff lives less than a mile away from the original store in Lake Jackson. He’s been to nearly 20 locations but refuses to pick a favorite: “That’d be like asking a mom to choose between her favorite children.”
Huff is partial to the ham-and-cheese melt in a place where the snack options are epic: tortilla-wrapped sausage. Fruity-pebble Rice Krispie treats. Candied jalapeños. Camouflage-colored popcorn. And the ever-popular Beaver Nuggets (caramel-coated corn pops).
The chain also carries an array of locally sourced merchandise, such as Cajun fryers and Buc-ee’s-branded swimsuits. Leisha Bryant, a sales partner for This and That Windchimes in Nederland, Tex., said the western cedar wind chimes the store carries are handcrafted by her aunt and uncle.
Custom sock-maker Sublime Design launched private label Buc-ee’s socks and hair accessories last fall. Owner Miles Faust said he has worked with plenty of retail clients before, but none of them have been quite like Buc-ee’s: creative merchandising, neat displays and shelves, and a boutique-style format.
“They don’t follow a ‘top down’ model like most chain retailers,” Faust said. “They think outside the box, are willing to make decisions and take chances, and they execute really well.”
The bathrooms are a big deal; in three stores, stalls have overhead lights that switch from green to red to signal occupancy. They’re famously clean and well-maintained to appeal to the chain’s core audience — families on road trips — so much so that they get star billing on highway billboards (“Top two reasons to stop at Buc-ee’s: #1 and #2”).
The company has made other upgrades, Nadalo said, including digital-ordering kiosks to eliminate lines for customers. It has ethanol-free fuel available at some of its locations, and Nadalo said the company is working to install the infrastructure to accommodate electric-car charging stations.
“We’re evaluating different transportation modes and what the fuels of the future will be and making sure [we’ll] be ready for them when they come,” he said.
GasBuddy ranked Buc-ee’s No. 1 in its ranking of 101 gas station convenience stores this year. It beat out much larger operations such as Wawa (800 locations) and Sheetz (580), familiar to drivers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
‘Sitting on a gold mine’
The company’s growth is all the more remarkable by what it doesn’t do. It has little to no engagement with customers on social media, and store phone numbers are unlisted. No current store managers were available for comment.
Esser said he prefers blogging about companies smaller than Buc-ee’s because of the customer interaction. He said he never received much of a response from Buc-ee’s, despite being the only person he’s aware of who has launched on a journey like his.
“They’re sitting on a gold mine with their private label stuff that they could sell online or through Amazon,” Esser said. “You can tell from a social media perspective they don’t really care.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In 2014, the company found itself under fire from #BoycottBucees, led by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), after the owners announced their support for Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s campaign. Patrick is a prominent conservative in support of stronger border security who once said undocumented immigration is an “invasion” and responsible for bringing “Third World diseases” to Texas.
Aplin has contributed heavily to Republicans, including the congressional campaigns of Randy Weber, Bill Shuster and John Cornyn. But he also donated $12,000 to Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois.
Behind the register
Evelyn Kleinke-Prine of Columbia, Miss., recently visited the Loxley, Ala., store and said she was impressed when the entire Buc-ee’s staff sang “Happy Birthday” to a customer.
“I like how when I walk in, a cashier will say, ‘Welcome to Buc-ee’s,’ ” said Paul Bryant of Fort Worth.
“Or howdy,” added his wife, Makaela Bryant.
Buc-ee’s has a strict employee dress code: no visible body piercings or tattoos, “unnatural” dyed hair, open-toed shoes or torn or faded clothing. Employees say they’re expected to arrive not even a minute late (with three strikes, you’re fired); to keep their phones in lockers and only take one break during their shift for a “moment,” which is less than 10 minutes to eat lunch and use the restroom. There isn’t any seating inside Buc-ee’s, which may keep customers cycling through quickly but can be difficult for employees who stand for as many as 10 hours straight.
Full-time employees qualify for health and dental insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan and three weeks of vacation. At the Loxley location, Buc-ee’s advertised the starting entry-level salary at $14 an hour — almost twice the state’s minimum wage.
“We want people who are clearly happy to be working there so that comes across to the customer when the customer walks in,” Nadalo said.
A current cashier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for job security, has worked at a Buc-ee’s store in northeast Texas for a few months but is already looking for a different job. She works full time and says the $13-an-hour pay is higher than most jobs where she lives.
She understood the expectations when she sat for the job interview, she said, but she didn’t realize how strenuous the job would be without being allowed to take a break.
“Until you get in there and experience [it], it just blows your brain,” she said. “You just don’t expect it to be quite so hard-line. You expect some kind of human compassion, I guess.”
She said in-store cameras are used to monitor employees. Signs that read, “Don’t forget who pays you,” are posted behind the register. Managers encourage employees to report one another for infractions. It feels as though they are constantly being watched, she said.
“Going to the bathroom is a hassle,” she said. “I’ve asked sometime to go to the bathroom, and it’s been a couple hours before I’m allowed to go.”
Nadalo disputed the employee’s claim regarding workplace conditions.
“We comply with all state and federal laws regarding breaks,” he said.
Will they sell out?
Whenever the Jones family gets in the car to make the drive to Houston from their home in Lake Charles, La., Olivia Jones said, they don’t have any choice but to stop at Buc-ee’s along the way. Her 6-year-old daughter Lily and 2-year-old son Luke know how to spot the billboards.
Lily, who celebrated her sixth birthday with a Buc-ee’s-themed party in April, knows she can pick out a new “plushie” stuffed animal to add to her 25-member collection each time.
Customers such as Paul and Makaela Bryant say Buc-ee’s has been their saving grace. One day, their daughter, now 3, had an accident in the car, and after whipping into the closest Buc-ee’s, they left with clean clothes, gas, food and the store’s newest fan.
“It’s not uncommon for my daughter to say, ‘I want a Buc-ee’s hot dog,’ ” said Paul Bryant, who recently returned to Buc-ee’s for his Father’s Day dinner: a Philly cheesesteak burrito.
Another time, Makaela Bryant was driving home in a thunderstorm with a tornado warning. She pulled into a Buc-ee’s on the stretch between Tyler and Fort Worth, where many drivers had already gathered to wait out the storm. Inside, the store had everything she needed: blankets, hot food, clean bathrooms.
“I hope they don’t sell out like Whataburger to the North,” Paul Bryant said. “If Buc-ee’s were to ever change, it’d be heartbreaking.”