I Do Love Me Some Buc-ee’s
How the convenience store—with its bathrooms, barbecue,
and boundless choices—became the nexus of Texas
A newly married couple stops at Buc-ee’s prior to the airport for their honeymoon.
Felicia lives in Poolville
and drove nearly an hour to get here. She brought her mother, Brenda, who lives in Jacksboro, and they decided to make a day of it. They’re both wearing tennis shoes, sweaters, and glasses, and Felicia is carrying a blue, bell-shaped blown-glass wind chime on a rope. Price tag: $24.99.
“You never know what you’ll find here,” Felicia tells me.
“Here” is a Buc-ee’s on the west side of Interstate 35 in Denton, a crossroads in the middle of North Texas. It’s late morning on a random Thursday, and Felicia and Brenda are wandering around, chatting as they examine the broad array of offerings: home décor, glassware, books, novelty shirts, knickknacks of all shapes and sizes. Felicia and Brenda come here a few times a year for anniversary gifts, birthday gifts, gifts for as-yet-unknown occasions. But this wind chime isn’t a gift. It’s for Felicia’s backyard.
The mother-daughter duo also come here to spend time together. They normally buy something, or a few somethings, then eat. They usually get Buc-ee’s barbecue sandwiches. Brenda prefers the pulled pork, Felicia the chopped brisket. Then—after the sights, the smells, the spending, the full stomach—they head home.
If you’ve never fallen under the trance of Buc-ee’s in person, the concept might sound strange. It’s ostensibly a gas station, known for its dozens of gas pumps (you almost never have to wait) and its reliably clean bathrooms (again, you almost never have to wait). It’s a convenience store, but 15 or 20 times the size of regular convenience stores. There are dozens of different beers, dozens of different chips, about 20 different energy drinks, exactly 22 different kinds of fudge, and a 24-hour short-order kitchen. Picture a high-end flea market crossed with the nicest Fina station you’ve been to, then add a touch of truck-stop diner, and then give the whole place a slight theme-park vibe. Buc-ee the Beaver, the Buc-ee’s mascot, is everywhere: cups, bags, shirts, hats, toys, and staring down from the wall over the fountain drinks.
There are about 40 Buc-ee’s locations, mostly in Texas, where the chain started in the early ’80s. From the beginning, the mission has been to provide an everything-is-bigger-in-Texas alternative to the traditional, gritty road-trip convenience stores. Every Buc-ee’s is next to a highway and in between the big cities, and each location has become a roadside beacon, summoning hundreds of thousands of people every day, at all hours of the day.
The founder of Buc-ee’s, Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, says his goal was to create a happy, Texas version of Grand Central Station: grinning people, bustling in every direction. “At a travel hub, there can be a certain level of stress,” the native Texan and Aggie tells me. “What I always look for is the faces, the mood, and that’s what I use as much as anything to judge how we’re doing.”
For some, it’s a stop to fill up the gas tank and maybe take a quick bathroom break. For others it’s a destination, a wonderland worth planning a day around. It’s the kind of place Texans tell out-of-staters they have to visit while they’re here.
To understand the splendor of this bizarre bazaar, I wanted to study what makes Buc-ee’s so alluring for all walks of people yet distinctly Texan. So, I decided to spend a day at one location, documenting 24 hours in the life of a Buc-ee’s. I’d observe the many, many different items for sale. I’d talk to some of the people passing through. And I’d try to understand what undergirds this strange, modern mega-version of the old country store.
By early afternoon, Buc-ee’s is lively. It feels like a stadium or an airport terminal. There’s something happening in every direction. Men chopping meat behind a counter, constructing dozens of barbecue sandwiches at a time. Women slicing and packaging varieties of fudge and candied nuts. Travelers pouring through the doors in search of the perfect snack and drink—and maybe a quick dart through all the other stuff for sale here. Some are in the middle of long road trips. Some are running errands and decided to drop in.
Johnny Cash sings from the store’s speakers, a cover of U2’s “One.”
By the front entrance, a tall, pear-shaped old man in wide denim overalls pays the cashier for at least half a dozen Bud Light Cheladas and a case of Keystone Light. A young couple in workout attire buys a fire pit and a log rack, totaling something around $500. After checking out, they carefully load their new purchases into the back of their white Ford F-150. Then they pull onto the highway and disappear.
A college student named Alexis, wearing a leather jacket and yoga pants, talks into her phone as she stares at an entire wall of beef jerky options. “Let me call you back,” she says, before moving in for a closer look at a few labels. She decides on one bag of “Bohemian Garlic” and one bag of “Steakhouse Beef.” Then she goes back to her phone and back to her life.
Throughout the day, I talk with all sorts of people. It’s a mix of ages, races, and everything else. It’s blue-collar, white-collar, Democrat, Republican, rich, poor. There are people from out of state, people from other countries, and people from the apartments down the road.
A mom in an embroidered Texas sweatshirt is driving her adolescent son back home from a doctor’s appointment in Dallas. They both sip from their fountain drinks as they contemplate their snack choices. “He has to stop,” the mom says.
A man wearing creased Wranglers, a rodeo T-shirt, and a Cowboys-blue baseball cap with a large “214” across the front stands by the wall of fountain drinks, carrying a tall Styrofoam cup filled with cold Dr Pepper. He says he’s on his way home from a casino in Oklahoma, and he seems to be in good spirits. “I did all right,” he tells me with a subtle nod. “I came back with more than I left with, and that doesn’t happen too often.” As a small celebration, he came to Buc-ee’s.
A just-off-the-clock construction worker waits for a fresh barbecue sandwich. A man visiting from Greece stops just long enough to say he doesn’t have time to chat. A University of North Texas football player, offensive lineman Jacob Farrell, comes in for a large order of chicken tenders. Two women who work together came here to get snacks for their office but also end up buying two adult-size Buc-ee’s onesies. The arms and pants are brown like beaver fur, and the hoodie includes the eyes, nose, and teeth of a beaver, plus a sewn-in red cap. Price: $24.99.
The two women describe the sojourn to Buc-ee’s as their “adventure of the day.”
From your first steps inside, you’re hit with smells and colors. The store seems to stretch out into the horizon with endless possibilities. It’s overwhelming, dizzying, titillating.
The billboards for Buc-ee’s sometimes start hundreds of miles away. Each one features the illustrated, baseball cap-wearing mascot, Buc-ee the Beaver, and what is often some sort of cryptic joke or invitation. Seeing them over and over—with messages like “LET US PLAN YOUR NEXT POTTY” or “OMG! LOL… IT’S A BEAVER!”—calls to mind an old-timey mystery. As the miles of highway roll by, at some point you can’t help but ask yourself: What is this “Buc-ee’s?”
The answer: an intentionally overwhelming, astonishing temple of mass consumption.
Outside the building, greeting all comers, is a statue of Buc-ee. From your first steps inside, you’re hit with smells (sugar-roasted pecans and cashews, mostly) and colors (red and yellow, mostly). The store seems to stretch out into the horizon with endless possibilities. It’s overwhelming, dizzying, titillating.
Though there are now a few locations in other southern states, every Buc-ee’s maintains its Texan-ness. It’s not just the size. Nor is it just the barbecue—served under a sign that reads “Texas Round Up.” It’s the general feel of the place, the warm greetings patrons get from the couple dozen employees working at any given hour of the day, and the intuitively Texan wares for sale.
Here’s a brief, very abridged list of things you can buy at Buc-ee’s: gas, beer, ice, deer feeders, bars of “wild carrot” soap, wine glasses with a cheetah-print heart on the side, dozens of stuffed animals and children’s books, Buc-ee’s brand blueberry jalapeño jam, cookbooks, cutting boards, turquoise crosses, electric candles, fishing shirts, reasonably priced bottles of pinot noir (with tasting notes and pairing suggestions!), Buc-ee’s socks, Buc-ee’s pajamas, Buc-ee’s towels, mugs that says HOT MESS, iron skillets, boot-shaped jars of local honey, watermelon saltwater taffy, and a $400 painting of a bull. The most expensive item I find is a $1,200 barbecue pit. The weirdest is the Buc-ee’s brand pickled quail eggs.
The number of people at Buc-ee’s in any given hour ebbs and flows, but there’s always a handful of people no matter what time it is. After rush hour, several Buc-ee’s patrons are wearing nametags or have office fobs dangling from their waists—people stopping in on the way home from work. There are fewer day-trippers and more commuters. The Buc-ee’s staff tells me a couple people come in more than once a day. Buc-ee’s has regulars.
At one point, the men’s basketball team from the University of Texas at Tyler stops in. A woman and her dog stand by the kolache counter for a couple minutes. The dog seems confused and periodically emits a few loud barks. A group of four women from Oklahoma are heading to Dallas for a three-day weekend extravaganza—there’s no occasion—and have stopped to get booze and snacks. They’re buying White Claws, Topo Chicos, cinnamon buns, and orange juice for the morning.
The store speakers play Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and Robert Earl Keen’s “Feelin’ Good Again.”
Around 8:30 p.m., a young couple walks in. He’s wearing a green, velvet tuxedo. She’s in a white wedding dress with matching floral circlet. They just got married at a chapel in nearby Aubrey, they tell me, and now they’re driving to the airport for their honeymoon. They decided they needed snacks for the trip, so here they are. Their first stop in life as husband and wife: Buc-ee’s.
After enough miles of broken white line and billboards, it’s impossible to resist something so … offbeat. Buc-ee’s breaks up the monotony of the road. It breaks up the monotony of life.
Around 10 p.m., the employees close the side entrances. Traffic slows, but there’s still a steady flow, always at least 15 cars parked outside. Families on long trips with kids elated to see a penny reshaped into a Buc-ee’s-branded smear of pressed copper. Couples heading home from a night of who knows what. Truckers moving up and down I-35.
By the middle of the night, the store is almost quiet. There are always at least a few people getting gas, but when there are only a handful of cars filling up, the colossal rows of pumps are so empty they seem ghostly in the night wind. No matter what the weather is like outside, though, inside it’s always glowing LEDs across the massive ceiling. There’s always popular music playing. There’s always something to eat, something to drink, something to buy for yourself or for someone you love.
After so many hours here, I realize that’s the allure of Buc-ee’s: There’s something for everyone, all the time. It’s no coincidence that every Buc-ee’s is along a highway. After enough miles of broken white line and billboards, it’s impossible to resist something so … offbeat. Buc-ee’s breaks up the monotony of the road. It breaks up the monotony of life.
By 4:30 a.m., the brisket sandwich stations turn into breakfast sandwich stations. Construction crews trickle in, grabbing coffees, pastries, sandwiches for lunch later. The side entrances open back up, and the sun comes up on another day at Buc-ee’s.
This majestic rest stop on the wide-open horizon might seem like a contrived modern version of the small-town general store, some ex-urban approximation of “country,” but it’s so much more. Buc-ee’s is a nexus of a diverse Texas. Our world is so bifurcated—so consistent in its way—that there are many people we almost never see. But not at Buc-ee’s, where the most interesting thing you can get is the fascinating view of a cross-section of humanity. And that’s free of charge.
I guess it would be hard to fit all of that on a billboard, though.