A few lessons to learn from Texas’ Buc-ee’s

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. – What can we as an industry learn from large, semi-aquatic rodents? Well, when one of them is the cartoon mascot for a fast-expanding category killer in convenience store-gas stations, the answer happens to be, “Quite a lot.” 

For those who live in Texas, the juggernaut status of Buc-ee’s is no surprise. For the rest of us, especially those of us who live in the Southeast, seeing Buc-ee’s locations sprout up and down the big interstates is something of a shock.

The formula is pretty simple: Buy an enormous parcel of land adjacent to a major interstate, preferably between but not in major metroplexes. Install a bevy of gas pumps. I’m talking about 120 of them. Price the gas below the competition, which, when you’re a company based in Texas, is a bit easier to do. For the convenience store, blow it up to hyperbolic proportions. Offer travelers more sour candy, flavors of beef jerky, southern fried Americana, snack and food items, and beverage options than they even knew existed.

Oh, and put an open kitchen serving up fresh pulled pork and beef barbecue right in the middle of the store. Think Otis Spunkmeyer on steroids. 

Oh, my: The barbecue kitchen in the middle of Buc-ee’s

Most importantly of all, have the cleanest restrooms anywhere, including and especially including any of the bathrooms of the customers coming through the store. Even with 125 stalls per gender, there often is a line to get in. But don’t worry, employees inside usher customers to vacated stalls with precision and cheer.

Taking a bite

A neighbor originally from Texas first told my wife and me about Buc-ee’s, hyping it up as distinctively Texan — big, bold and beautiful. A convenience store? Sure, Jimmy, sure. We believe you, buddy. (We learn to take the braggadocio of Texans, generally speaking, with a grain of salt, right?) I grew up seeing the billboard hype of South of the Border, an interstate gas option with a theme park and some of the dirtiest restrooms the South’s roadside attractions have to offer.  

Then a Buc-ee’s opened up just down the (rural) road to Adairsville, Georgia, a city of less than 5,000 equidistant between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

On a trip to ’Nooga, as locals call it, we stopped off in Adairsville, filled one of the roughly 1,000 parking spots, and ventured inside, eager to see what might explain Jimmy’s hyperventilating. A photo of my wife and me entering the space would show two fiftysomethings with their mouths agape and eyes as large as the Beaver Nuggets that Buc-ee’s sells by the metric ton. 

I am not easily awed, but the spectacle of so much of the DNA of the American South concentrated in one rectangular big-box store, all so clean and shiny, all of it for sale, and much of it mouthwatering? Breathtaking. 

When doing research on the chain’s aggressive push north, I saw that Buc-ee’s included “home furnishings” in its prodigious product mix. I couldn’t wait to suggest its addition to Joe Carroll’s legendary listing of distribution channels for our industry. Sadly, however, a return visit to find home furnishings located only accessories and home décor items, like wall hangings, candles, pillows and art. In short, things you can chuck in the back seat on your way to anywhere.

Part of the home decor section inside Buc-ee’s in Adairsville, Georgia

Sexy overbite

Undaunted, I saw before me an intriguing, perhaps even inspiring, case study to bring back to readers of Home News Now, a motivation only intensified upon seeing the newest Buc-ee’s location that just opened in late June in Sevierville, Tennessee, the “largest convenience store in the world.” (This designation will last only until the next one springs up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, along I-24 between Chattanooga and Nashville.)

The Sevierville location between Knoxville and Pigeon Forge clocks in at 74,000 square feet and 125 gas pumps, with a car wash that is 250 feet long. The grand opening on June 26 elicited warnings of traffic snarls, and it drew Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, out like a groundhog on Feb. 2. 

Wait, wrong rodent. … Back to the beaver.

In Native American traditions, the beaver symbolizes the call to be persistent, productive and opportunistic. Boom! That’s the Buc-ee’s formula. The mystery to me was how to explain how the chain motivates its workers to heed this particular call of nature. 

I asked several people in the know how a convenience store could attract, train and keep a workforce capable of maintaining the luster and sparkle for which Buc-ee’s stores are known, especially in their 125-stall bathrooms. The answer was consonant: Even entry-level employees make around $20 an hour, or double the minimum wage in Texas. Managers make $31 an hour, according to Salary.com. 

In our fair city, getting minimum wage workers to consistently report for work, then to actually do the job for an entire shift is a huge problem. There simply aren’t enough “good” workers to go around. Buc-ee’s will only exacerbate this challenge, because it takes as many as 250 people to staff one of its big boxes. This is the same labor pool looked to by the likes of Wendy’s, Kroger and Walmart, to name just a few.  

Repent and be saved

Since making our pilgrimages, my wife and I have turned into evangelists. We tell even our most cultured friends just how essential it is to visit a Buc-ee’s, even if they have no intention of buying anything, including gas. “You have to see it to believe it, and to believe it is to begin to understand something fundamental about the South and the people who live here,” we tell them. 

I believe this is the biggest takeaway from the runaway freight train success of the nearly $700 million blockbuster Buc-ee’s, which is to say the chain’s understanding and celebration of what is essentially working class Southern culture. 

Buc-ee’s is the truck stop that isn’t a truck stop. No semis allowed.

The motion picture Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby celebrated the South, its people and its culture, but by lampooning them, making them the butt of the film’s meta-joke. 

By contrast, Buc-ee’s curates some of the South’s “finer things” as defined and valued by the South itself, items such as the afore-mentioned smoked meats piled high, pecan logs, pickled veggies, kolaches and preserves. In their sheer abundance but also because of how they are joyously presented, this catalog of distinctly Southern “delicacies” inspires pride and vindicates a way of life. 

This “pride march” extends to the densely merchandised section of the store devoted to décor and home accents, many of which are emblazoned with Southern “wisdom,” such as, “A true Southerner knows you don’t ‘have’ a fit, you ‘pitch’ one.”

What have we learned from the beaver? That quality doesn’t have much to do with price points; it’s achievable no matter how high or low in the market you aim. That knowing and even celebrating your audience or consumer base can engender loyalty and even community. That knowing who you are and who you are not are important in establishing and maintaining brand identity. That a better-than-average workforce is paramount, and that the best way to get one is to compensate and enumerate better than the competition. And that energy and excitement beget yet more energy and enthusiasm.

A destination tourist trap and truck stop that doesn’t even allow trucks? Yep, y’all all need to take a pull off the slab to see one of these Buc-ee’s locations. This possum’s on the stump! 

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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