As you drive the actual thousands of miles that comprise Texas’s highway system, dining options can be decidedly hit or miss. This isn’t a tale exclusive to the Lone Star State, but Texas’s massive size exacerbates the problem, meaning that the distance between you and a good meal can sometimes be several hundred miles.
That is, of course, until you see the bright lights and friendly beaver logo at Buc-ee’s, both the world’s largest (literally: Its New Braunfels, TX location occupies more than 68,000 square feet) and what many Texans believe is the world’s best gas station. Home to hundreds of gas pumps, the certified cleanest bathrooms in America, and a dizzying array of snacks and prepared foods, Buc-ee’s holds a special place in the heart of every traveling Texan. Much of that goodwill comes from a comforting reliability in knowing that every time you head down the highway, a bag of Beaver Nuggets and beef jerky awaits.
The chain inspires such loyalty that Buc-ee’s sells a popular line of t-shirts, emblazoned with its unnamed beaver mascot and cheeky slogans like “my overbite is sexy!” and “power to the beaver.” It’s not uncommon to see yellow bumper stickers stuck to the bumpers of cars on Texas highways, beckoning you to “Follow me to Buc-ee’s.” There are cups, throw blankets, children’s toys, and infant onesies, among other branded souvenirs. When the chain opened its Fort Worth, Texas store in May 2016, fans were so enthusiastic about its arrival that they lined up to wait for the 6 a.m. grand opening.
In 1982, Arch “Beaver” Aplin and Don Wasek opened the first Buc-ee’s in Lake Jackson, Texas, and though they couldn’t have guessed it would become a much-loved super-chain, many of the store’s now-famous features were present in that OG location. “The first store is what I would call a typical convenience store, except for a couple of things that have always been our focus at Buc-ee’s,” says Kraig Junck, director of food and beverage. “The clean restrooms, a staff that is friendly, and a clean and fully stocked store with no empty shelves: Those basic objectives have never left our culture.”
Building the cult of Buc-ee’s
Since it was founded, Buc-ee’s has expanded to 32 locations, all of which are located in Texas. Strategically placed an hour or so outside of major city centers like Austin and Dallas, most Buc-ee’s locations serve as the first or last stop on a trip out of town: The chain’s rabidly obsessed following includes fans who stop at Buc-ee’s on every single road trip. Considering that Texans travel more than 55 billion miles of interstate highway in a year, Buc-ee’s locations are packed at all hours of the day.
“You want to plan your trip so that you run out of gas right there,” says Texas-born chef and restaurateur Ford Fry. “Even if you’re not running out of gas, you’re stopping at Buc-ee’s.” Part of the draw is thanks to the legendary status of its facilities. “The bathrooms! Everybody loves clean bathrooms,” Fry says. “I heard they clean them every single hour.” (According to Junck, it might be more frequently than that, depending on a store’s volume of customers. “The bathrooms are cleaned constantly,” he says. “We have dedicated people employed daily to make sure that we are keeping everything clean.”)
But for many chefs, Buc-ee’s is the best site for a snack run, with a ridiculous assortment of food, branded and otherwise. Buc-ee’s most well-known packaged item is Beaver Nuggets, a sweet, crunchy corn snack with a flavor reminiscent of caramel. Hundreds of bags of Beaver Nuggets line endcaps and shelves, along with dozens of varieties of trail mix, nuts, and dried fruits and vegetables. Specialty snacks, like a savory version of Beaver Nuggets called Buc-ee Nug-ees, and ranch-flavored Corn Nuts, are also in the mix.
At each location, there’s an entire wall of gummy candies, followed by another wall packed with butterscotch, saltwater taffy, gum balls, and Buc-ee’s pecan logs, a cream-filled candy studded with the fruit of Texas’ state tree. Rows of jams, jellies, pickles, and preserves are equally expansive: Mayhaw jelly, made with a berry common across the American South, is a particular favorite. Spicy pickled quail eggs, Texas queso, and candied jalapeños are also popular, though typically, these items aren’t consumed on the road — they’re brought home as souvenirs, given to family, or hoarded until the next Buc-ee’s trip. At each store, at least 24 different flavors of fudge are displayed in a glass-enclosed case every day, ranging from classic chocolate with nuts to a white chocolate-based watermelon fudge infused with a weirdly addictive, fruity flavor. Cinnamon-roasted nuts, Dippin’ Dots, and freshly-cut fruit offer alternative ways to satisfy a sweet tooth.
And in each store, a counter the size of a small New York City apartment is piled high with beef jerky, smoked sausages, and other cured meats. “You can tell by the square footage that we’ve dedicated to that product line how important jerky is at Buc-ee’s,” says Junck. “I won’t get into specific numbers, but it’s one of the predominant items we sell.”
Available in more than 30 occasionally rotating flavors, Buc-ee’s frequently tests new flavors of beef jerky to suit changing customer tastes and demands. The chain’s classic peppered jerky, both in beef and turkey varieties, is massively popular, but according to Junck, its sleeper hit is Bohemian Garlic, a potent, funky jerky that would make vampires weep. Buc-ee’s also recently introduced a Hatch green chile flavor, along with fajita-spiced jerky and snacks made with wild game like buffalo and venison.
But in addition to the convenience-store-like snacks, Buc-ee’s is also a de facto quick-service restaurant. Junck, in his role as director of food service, oversees more than 600 different prepared food items, ranging from cups of cut fruit and cheese to smoked brisket sandwiches to breakfast tacos. The store’s pastrami reuben is among the most popular sellers, and comes highly recommended. “The first time was my heroin and I have been chasing the dragon ever since,” reads a particularly enthusiastic review on Texas A&M University fan forum TexAgs.
Junck wasn’t willing to divulge the logistics of how all these food items are prepared, stocked, and replenished throughout the day, but most food preparation happens outside the store. “Our barbecue is hand-sliced and hand-chopped at the big chopping block you see, but it is cooked most of the time out of the store,” he says. “The demand is just so large that we can’t do everything in-house. There’s just too much foot traffic and the stores are way too busy. But it’s still a really nice smoked brisket that we’re hand-carving to order for our guests.”
Not surprisingly, no serious Texas barbecue experts rank Buc-ee’s among the state’s best smoked meats. Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn recalls a particularly harrowing experience with a sliced brisket sandwich at a Texas City Buc-ee’s in 2014, the last time he tried Buc-ee’s ‘cue. “The uncomfortably salty sliced beef was oddly firm and crumbly at the same time,” Vaughn wrote in his notes at the time. Still, it’s obviously good enough to satisfy many cravings when hallowed Hill Country barbecue institutions like Snow’s and Black’s are hundreds of miles away.
What makes Buc-ee’s work
The logistics of selling all of these different food (and retail) products are an undertaking: The best stores run like finely-tuned machines. “It’s a very cultural part of Buc-ee’s,” Junck says, calling out the chain’s notably friendly staff. “We’re very selective in our hiring process and there’s an expectation of friendliness. The training is high, the expectations are high, and the employees we have on board respond to the environment that we’ve created. They actually like working here.” Buc-ee’s also has a reputation of paying its employees above minimum wage. According to GlassDoor, cashiers start at around $11.44 per hour, more than two dollars above the national average. Store managers, responsible for overseeing the organized chaos that is a well-running Buc-ee’s, can reportedly earn upwards of $88,000 per year.
As Buc-ee’s has continued its aggressive expansion throughout Texas, it has promised to bring new jobs to struggling rural communities, but not without opposition. When the chain tried to open a store in Denton, about an hour outside of Dallas, residents in the city fought tooth and nail against granting tax incentives to the company, alleging that the store would disrupt traffic flow and increase light and noise pollution, along with gas emissions. (The expanse of rural, midsize Texas towns like Centerville and Terrell allowed for massive stores.) Ultimately, in the case of Denton, Buc-ee’s prevailed, and the chain is set to open next year.
Because the company is privately held, no revenue figures are publicly available. But it’s safe to say that the chain is pulling down major cash, judging by the company’s growth in recent years. Now, Buc-ee’s is looking to spread its wings. Earlier this year, the chain announced that it would open four new locations in Florida and Alabama, its first outside of Texas. No opening date for those stores has been established yet, but construction is expected to begin soon. “We are taking our love of Buc-ee’s on the road, sharing the best convenience store experience with America,” said Buc-ee’s general counsel Jeff Nadalo in a statement announcing the news.
It’s also been fiercely protective of its territory in Texas. In 2015, Buc-ee’s sued Bucky’s, a similarly-named Nebraska-based convenience-store brand, when it attempted to open locations in Houston. Buc-ee’s had filed suit against Bucky’s 11 years prior, but a court determined that the two companies’ logos and geographic locations weren’t similar enough to confuse customers. The next year, Buc-ee’s sued San Antonio-based chain Choke Canyon Travel Centers, alleging that it ripped off Buc-ee’s concept of “over-sized, clean bathrooms, abundant gas pumps, and parking.” Also at issue was Choke Canyon’s logo, which features an alligator surrounded by a yellow circle, similar to Buc-ee’s iconic beaver.
Whether or not Buc-ee’s is successful outside of Texas remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely that the chain’s future expansion plans will change the opinions of the millions of Texans that pass through one of its stores every single year. “Too often, you’re trying to judge these gas stations and convenience stores from the road, and you never really know whether or not it’s going to be a little rough until you get there,” chef Fry says. “With Buc-ee’s, it’s always the same.”