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Inside the cult of Buc-ee’s: How a Texas gas station became the people’s pump

4 months 3 weeks 2 days ago Sunday, October 01 2023 Oct 1, 2023 October 01, 2023 5:53 PM October 01, 2023 in News - Texas news
Source: CNN
By: Scottie Andrew, CNN
Texas-based convenience chain Buc-ee's has a loyal and growing fanbase, which often shares its enthusiasm for the chain on TikTok. Courtesy Buc-ee's
Originally Published: 01 OCT 23 05:00 ET

(CNN) — A trip to the gas station usually warrants more of a hurried waddle to the bathroom than a commemorative TikTok. But most gas stations are not Buc-ee’s.

The Texas-based (and Texas-supersized) gas and convenience store chain offers much more than a place to fuel up and grab a bag of chips. Its devoted fans make regular pilgrimages, sometimes driving hundreds of miles, to stock up on Beaver Nuggets and brisket and merch with its bucktoothed mascot’s smiling face. Even its restrooms are award-winning.

Dylan and Shelby Reese, a husband-and-wife TikTok team, have been loyal Buc-ee’s customers since the chain first arrived in Alabama in 2019, opening its first location outside of Texas. In a June video that’s been viewed more than 6.7 million times, Shelby filmed her delighted husband nearly skipping into Buc-ee’s, fawning over its famous brisket — “meat for days!” — and a beaver-branded leopard print swimsuit while juggling coffee and sandwiches in both hands.

“Florida has Disney World — we have Buc-ee’s,” Dylan said, with deep conviction, in the video. (Florida also has two Buc-ee’s locations.)

Less than 24 hours after their filmed visit, they returned to do it all over again.

There are other regional convenience chains that inspire similar fervor among fans: Wawa has its hoagie enthusiasts, Maverik its Western-inspired architecture and in-house restaurant. But Buc-ee’s is the biggest of them all — world-record-breakingly big — and it’s regularly named one of the cleanest, tastiest and overall best places to stop for gas in the country. And now, its fanbase is surging among non-Texans and young people who’ve discovered the spot on TikTok and document their first visits for hundreds of millions of viewers.

How does a gas station cultivate such a devoted following? Buc-ee’s spokesman and general counsel Jeff Nadalo said the brand keeps it simple: “Buc-ee’s has remained committed to providing award-winning clean restrooms, freshly prepared food, cheap gas, and outstanding customer service.”

It’s a simple-enough recipe for success, and yet Buc-ee’s is still one-of-a-kind among competitors. Here’s what experts, some of whom are Buc-ee’s regulars themselves, say sets the Texas chain apart and turned it into a phenomenon.

Buc-ee’s turns a necessity into an adventure

Buc-ee’s turns what would be a quick trip anywhere else into mid-road trip adventure, said Jeff Lenard, spokesperson for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).

Buc-ee’s provides those necessities — food, fuel, restrooms — in such overwhelming quantities that a trip might extend a drive by 30 minutes to an hour, Lenard said. Its biggest store in Sevierville, Tennessee, is also the world’s largest convenience store at 74,707 square feet — almost 30 times the size of the industry average of 2,500 square feet, per NACS. It advertises its pristine bathrooms for hundreds of miles along interstates and delivers, too — Buc-ee’s bathrooms have won awards for their otherworldly cleanliness. And its food selection is more comparable to a Trader Joe’s than a vending machine, with a bakery, an entire wall of bagged jerky of varying flavors and a brisket station manned by employees in straw hats who holler every time a new hot slab of beef is ready for chopping.

“That’s the great innovation of Buc-ee’s,” said Eric Benson, a journalist and Texas transplant who wrote about Buc-ee’s path to “world domination” for Texas Monthly in 2019. “It took this thing people have to do, which is stop on these 200-mile car trips between cities, and make it into just a little bit of an experience.”

The evolution of Buc-ee’s into a Texas-sized gas station superstore with a cult following started off slowly, Benson wrote. Arch “Beaver” Aplin opened the first Buc-ee’s in 1982, in the small town of Lake Jackson, Texas. That first store was only 3,000 square feet and offered a few gas pumps and a modest selection of snacks, though it was built with brass ceiling fans and cedar wall accents for a slightly more upscale feel on the inside, wrote Benson. It wasn’t until 2012, when Aplin opened a 56,000-square-foot Buc-ee’s in Bastrop, a small city 30-plus miles outside of Austin, that the chain became known for its massive highway stops.

And in the 11 years since, as it’s expanded beyond the largest state in the lower 48, Buc-ee’s has become a must-stop, one-stop-shop for road trippers who want to do their business and grab a meal with the promise of quality.

“Buc-ee’s is a place where you get to see a real cross-section of society,” Benson told CNN. “Everyone drives. And everyone who’s driving has to stop somewhere to fill up their gas, go to the bathroom and get something to eat. Buc-ee’s is kind of the best place to do it.”

Don’t underestimate the power of a clean bathroom

Convenience stores across the country may tout their toilets’ cleanliness on billboards. But most of them don’t have dozens of stalls like Buc-ee’s does, nor do they advertise their facilities as “world famous.”

But the bathrooms at Buc-ee’s are the real deal, fans say. The Reeses told CNN that from the outside, it’s easy to assume based on the line of dozens of cars waiting for their chance to explore Buc-ee’s, one might expect the wait for a bathroom stall to be interminable. But one would be wrong, they said — “there are almost more stalls than gas pumps!”

Bathrooms are the “most important” component of the convenience store experience to nail if a business wants repeat customers, Lenard said. They’re often a customer’s first stop, and if the restroom is filthy, that customer is more likely to run back to the comfort of their car than wander the store for a few minutes afterwards. But if they’re pristine, like Buc-ee’s claims its bathrooms are, then that impressed patron’s curiosity is piqued, and they might spend more time perusing.

“They are so clean you could eat a sliced brisket sandwich off of them,” the Reeses told CNN, though they wouldn’t exactly recommend noshing on brisket in the bathroom.

At the biggest Buc-ee’s stores, there are countless aisles for customers to get lost in. There’s seasonal merchandise that dresses the Buc-ee’s beaver in a Santa costume or throws his gaping maw on a tie-dye T-shirt, along with far more expensive fare — Lenard said he’s spotted a gas grill worth more than $1,400 on sale at Buc-ee’s.

“It starts with the bathroom,” Lenard said. “Stellar bathrooms can sell an awful lot of product.”

The Buc-ee’s brand is singular and strong

Buc-ee’s lures drivers in over hundreds of miles before they even make it to a location, buying billboards with puns about taking care of business in its bathrooms. Much of the time, those billboards don’t even need to use the word “Buc-ee’s” — the smiling beaver with a red cap does the talking.

“I think there’s probably a little magic in that logo,” Lenard said of Buc-ee’s toothy mascot. “You can’t not smile looking at that guy.”

He’s so beloved that he’s been immortalized at many locations as a statue, greeting patrons like Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World. First-time Buc-ee’s visitors often start their trip by dangling off the beaver statue and filming themselves in those sparkling restrooms.

“When you stop at a convenience store off the highway, you’re looking for fuel, the bathroom and to eat,” Lenard said. “What Buc-ee’s does is add a social media post.”

And it’s a brand that its fanatics can take home, too, in the form of sugary corn puff Beaver Nuggets or picnic blankets or a beaver stuffed animal the height of a small child. Buc-ee’s regulars even resell the store’s products online so fans the world over can rock its merch and dine on its jerky without making it to Texas (though the brisket is usually reserved for in-store customers only).

For the Reeses, the brisket alone is worth a trip.

“It doesn’t matter what time of day or if we just ate — we are stopping for the brisket,” the couple said. “It’s life changing!”

Hungry drivers across the South will soon get the chance to taste for themselves. Buc-ee’s is expanding purposefully to smaller towns and cities across the region with ample acreage between major cities, Benson said. So far, there are are 58 Buc-ee’s locations nationwide compared to 13,000 7-Elevens in the US. Benson compared it to In-N-Out Burger, another beloved regional chain (this time based in Southern California) that thrives on scarcity and a following hungry for its one-of-a-kind offerings (animal-style fries, anyone?).

“They both manage to thread this needle — they’ve grown and maintained quality, it seems,” Benson said of Buc-ee’s and In-N-Out.

But Texas will always be integral to the Buc-ee’s brand, said Raji Srinivasan, a marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Texans have “considerable pride in their state,” and Buc-ee’s is a literal interpretation of “everything’s bigger in Texas,” she said.

Buc-ee’s was exclusive to the Lone Star State for most of its history, built along the highway exits between the Texas Triangle, the area where the major cities of Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio are concentrated. And its devout customers are often Texans, who feel a strong sense of brand loyalty to the chain that’s still true to its roots even when it’s transplanted to Florida, Georgia or Tennessee.

The chain is steadily growing its fanbase, some of whom found the brand on TikTok, where young people share their disbelief at the countless number of tchotchkes that can be branded with a beaver, or stumbled in during a road trip and fell in love with its iced tea. Whether it could find the same success in the Northeast or another area of the country where land is less readily available for a supersized gas station is unclear as of yet, Srinivasan said.

But as she pointed out: “What is not to like in cheap gas, lots of gas pumps and clean restrooms?”

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