Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Why is Buc-ee’s so loved? We went Beaver Nugget shopping to find out.

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The Texas-sized gas station chain sells brisket, fudge — and friendship

Rows of beaver nuggets at the nation’s largest Buc-ee’s. (Photographs by William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Christian Blomquist looked stunned. Standing inside the self-proclaimed largest convenience store in the world, the visitor from Sweden tried to process the 74,707-square-foot funhouse of baseball-capped beavers, barbecued brisket and enough snack food to outlast a zombie apocalypse. He gripped the shopping cart he was minding for a friend and uttered one word: “Wow.”

Deb Collette returned to the cart with a six-pack of fudge and added it to a growing mound of purchases: oatmeal raisin cookies, cookie dough bites, pecan praline, banana pudding, a giant tumbler featuring the face of Buc-ee’s, a cartoon beaver.

Since opening in June, the East Tennessee branch near Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has become a pilgrimage site for Buc-ee’s devotees, such as Collette, and a revelation for the uninitiated like Blomquist.

“I think this one will put them all to shame,” said Collette, a Kentucky resident.

On Nov. 12, however, the company broke ground on an even bigger store in Luling, Tex., a small town about 45 miles south of Austin. Visitors to Tennessee will have to come soon if they want to see the country’s biggest Buc-ee’s before it drops a place.

“It’s exciting to be the largest one,” said Charlie Creech, the general manager of the Sevierville store. “But I think they deserve to be the largest because they’re in Texas.”

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The beaver’s humble beginnings

Buc-ee’s was born in 1982. Arch Aplin III, a recent college grad who came from a line of general store owners, built his first gas station and convenience store in the small Texas town of Lake Jackson. He named his company after his Labrador retriever, Buck, and a childhood nickname, Bucky Beaver, who was also a cartoon character in a toothpaste ad. In true Texas fashion, Aplin made his store bigger than his competitors’, a prelude to the chain’s supersize future.

For nearly four decades, Buc-ee’s was unique to Texas, where it gained a rapturous following for its brisket sandwiches, Beaver Nuggets (sweet corn puffs) and red-shirted mascot who appears on most items in the store. In 2019, Buc-ee’s opened in Alabama. The company has since expanded to almost 50 locations in seven states. Next up: Virginia, Louisiana, Colorado, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Missouri.

If you’re on the road, look for billboards that entice drivers with cheeky messages (“You had me at howdy”) or a promise of relief (“No games here. Just thrones!”) hundreds of miles out.

When Creech was managing a Buc-ee’s in St. Augustine, Fla., he met a woman on a Buc-ee’s national tour who was visiting stores from Texas to Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida.

“She was checking off every store she visited on a T-shirt,” he said.

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Every store basically sells the same array of food products and souvenirs, which are exclusive to Buc-ee’s. On its FAQ page, the company explains that third-party outfits hawk its goods, but these sellers are “not affiliated with, authorized, sponsored or endorsed by Buc-ee’s in anyway.” It does not sell online, either.

To experience the cult of Buc-ee’s, you must go to one of its stores.

Snacks as far as the eye can see

You know you’re in the presence of greatness when the attraction you are visiting has an eponymous road (Buc-ee’s Boulevard) with its own roundabout and electric sign directing traffic, plus a 500-spot parking lot that sometimes approaches full capacity.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a line of traffic had formed as cars waited to turn left into the lot. Drivers crept up and down the lanes searching for an opening. Meanwhile, over at the gas station, most of the 120 pump stations were empty, despite the remarkably low price of $2.76 a gallon. (A few days earlier, the national average had been $3.90, according to AAA.) At the world’s largest gas station, petrol is an afterthought.

The Buc-ee’s in East Tennessee is laid out in two main sections: Food and beverages occupy one half of the store, and apparel, knickknacks, sporting goods, housewares and other miscellaneous items fill the other half.

Standing at one end of the store, I could barely make out the products beyond the midway point, roughly the fudge and candied nuts counter. Somewhere in the distance, coffee brewed and Icees flowed.

Larger than a football field, the store could easily accommodate a duckpin bowling alley or a row of barbershop chairs. But Buc-ee’s is in the convenience business, not entertainment or personal grooming.

“This is a travel center, not a truck stop,” Creech said. “We’re mostly for traveling families. We don’t have laundry or showers.”

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But they do have bathrooms that are famously clean. In 2012, the New Braunfels, Tex., location won the Cintas America’s Best Restroom Contest. (This year, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport took the prize.) In 2019, GasBuddy, the cheap gas app, recognized Buc-ees for having top-ranking restrooms.

“Maybe Buc-ee’s will be our city’s new claim to fame, the ‘Taj Ma-Stall’ of Texas,” Aplin said at the time of the Cintas award.

I dipped into the restroom to judge for myself. While I wouldn’t patter around barefoot like Britney Spears, I wouldn’t have to leave my shoes outside my hotel room door, either. More than its spotlessness, I was impressed by what Creech referred to as “tush lights.” Each stall was accessorized with a pendant light that glowed red or green depending on availability, just like some parking garages.

Chanting at the brisket shrine

Every 10 to 15 minutes throughout the day, a chant rings through Buc-ee’s. I located the source at the Texas Round Up, where the arrival of brisket is cause for celebration.

“We’ve got fresh brisket on the board,” an employee in a red polo and cowboy hat called out in a sing-songy voice. A Greek chorus responded with a hearty “Yay!”

A small group of spectators gathered around the open kitchen to watch a worker who was wielding a double-handled cleaver hack a slab of meat for the chopped brisket sandwiches, one of the chain’s most popular food items. The protein, which is smoked 12 to 14 hours, also appears in a breakfast taco and alongside turkey and sausage in the Three Meat Sandwich.

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After the chopping, barbecue sauce landed on the table, an event worth hollering about. A staff member lifted his head and bellowed, “Fresh sauce on the board.” He then dipped a giant ladle into a pot and drizzled the liquid over the mound of meat, a performance he would soon repeat for anyone who missed it or was still standing there, deliberating over the options.

People who suffer from indecision might struggle at Buc-ee’s.

Every product has multiple varieties, from the pork rinds and pickled vegetables to the earrings and travel mugs. Visitors can sample the beef jerky, fudge and brisket, but that still leaves you with countless choices.

The fact the store never closes only makes it harder. You can stay all night — all week, all year — contemplating which kolache is right for you: sausage and cheese, with jalapeño or without.

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I cumulatively spent about four hours at Buc-ee’s. I walked out with one brisket sandwich, a kolache (no jalapeños), three flavors of beef jerky, a cheesesteak burrito (because brisket was sold out), cinnamon-glazed pecans, a bag of Beaver Nuggets, an extra-large soda fountain drink, a jar of Brussels sprouts and a beaver Christmas ornament. After returning to my rental car with my goods, I realized the one amenity missing at Buc-ee’s: There is no place to eat your purchases.

Creech said the absence of dining facilities is intentional. Despite appearances, Buc-ee’s is a gas station convenience store, and the most appropriate place to consume a meal from here is in your car, driving away.

I am a convert. I was in awe of the enormity of the store but also the intimacy of the place. Everyone was so friendly. Employees and visitors alike were offering recommendations and engaging in cheerful banter as we waited for a sample of, say, tiger butter fudge or bohemian garlic beef jerky.

Though I would rethink the pickled Brussels sprouts, my friend devoured the brisket sandwich. The snack food options were above and beyond what I have found at other gas station chains, and the beaver makes for a great travel companion, whether he is on a bag of nuggets or appears in costume.

During my visit, I met a dad, son and dog from Texas. They told me they stop by Buc-ee’s all the time at home, but the Sevierville store was next level.

Coming from Texans, that says it all.

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