Texans Travel Miles For 'Restrooms So Clean, There Are Mints In The Urinal.' Will The Rest Of America?
On long stretches of highways between Texas cities, billboards for Buc-ee's count down the hundreds of miles until the nearest store, all touting a bathroom so clean you could practically eat off the floor, alongside 13 varieties of fresh-made jerky, Beaver Nugget-branded corn puffs and a host of other sought-after snacks.
By the time drivers hit the last billboard, the one letting them know the cavernous rest stop is just ahead, the company expects them to have passed every other gas station and convenience store along the way in favor of what Texans have come to recognize as the ultimate road trip experience.
Lake Jackson-based Buc-ee's has spent decades enjoying comfortable cult status in its home state. But recent years have seen the company creep elsewhere in the South, first to Alabama in 2019, and, more recently, to Georgia and Florida. Stores in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina are going up between now and 2026. And earlier this month, the chain announced it would open its first store in a northern state, planting its flag in Johnstown, Colorado, about 50 miles north of Denver.
At only a few dozen stores nationwide, Buc-ee's doesn't have anything approaching the presence of competitors like 7-Eleven, also Texas-based. But retail experts don't believe the company will struggle to gain new fans outside Texas with its large-format gas and retail emporiums that approach the size of small big-box stores.
"I think that Buc-ee's has a model that really has made an impact and appeals to all kinds of demographics," said Rafael Melara, director of leasing and investment sales at Hunington, who specializes in retail. "That would be nationwide. I think Buc-ee's has gone from a large convenience store market to an experience."
Convenience stores like Buc-ee's, by industry definition, are designed for rapid-fire transactions. Walk in, pay for gas, maybe grab a bag of chips and walk out, the entire exchange taking minutes. But Buc-ee's is unique in its status as a destination, a place customers will spend a long time browsing jerky, picking out a T-shirt emblazoned with its beaver mascot or ordering fudge and a barbecue sandwich, only remembering at the checkout to get some gas, too.
The business model, which emphasizes quality and quantity, along with the sheer size of the stores is what it's needed to stand out among the crowd of competitors, according to Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for the National Association of Convenience Stores. Stores might not be on every street corner, he said, but that's a benefit in Buc-ee's case.
Then, of course, there are those cleaner-than-clean bathrooms, advertised on roadside signs as "so clean we leave mints in the urinals" and "your throne awaits."
"One of the things that you'll hear at business meetings is, 'Be famous for something,'" Lenard said. "Buc-ee's is famous for just being enormous in size and vision. How do you take it beyond that? It's the idea that we have a bathroom, there's 35 urinals and another 20 stalls in the men's room, and they're spotless. You're setting up what they're famous for, is you're going to want to stop there if you need to go to the bathroom, because you know they are fanatics about keeping them clean."
Gas stations don't make much on gas itself, only about 5 cents per gallon, so most want to sell as many other items as possible, according to Melara. At Buc-ee's, customers browse shelves for nearly 30 minutes — 600% longer than the typical convenience store 5 minutes or less — and are expected to spend about 30% to 40% more by the time they leave.
In part, that's because there is a lot to browse. Convenience stores typically average only about 2K SF, but Buc-ee's calls its largest store, at 66K SF, the largest convenience store in the world. Its upcoming Tennessee store aims to topple even that, at 74K SF. Buc-ee's are larger than some grocery stores, with an average Whole Foods coming in at only about 40K SF.
"[Buc-ee's] want you to be in the store, they want you to walk the store. Typically, you're in and out of a typical convenience store in 2 minutes. Here, it takes at least 3 or 4 or 5 minutes just to walk to the store [from your car]," Melara said. "They tend to go into the interstate, high-traffic areas, because they appeal, obviously, to travelers."
When it opens in 2024, the Colorado store will also be 74K SF, and will hire about 200 employees. Buc-ee's posts signs in stores advertising its wages, which start at about $15 an hour for a cashier and can climb into the six figures for an assistant general manager, according to the company. Buc-ee's also offers medical benefits and paid time off.
“We think the Buc-ee’s experience will translate well beyond the South, and what better place to test that theory than one of the coolest states in the West?” said Buc-ee's Director of Real Estate Stan Beard in a release on the Colorado store. “Colorado is a popular playground for our favorite customers: families on road trips! Johnstown is perfectly situated in northern Colorado, along a highly traveled route through beautiful country. Buc-ee’s and Johnstown make a great match.”
Buc-ee's declined to comment to Bisnow on its national expansion ambitions. But with the glut of convenience stores in the U.S. — almost 150,000 — Lenard doesn't believe that Buc-ee's will ever become one of the top chains in the country in store count. Currently, the company only just cracks the top 200 convenience retailers in the country by number of stores, according to CSP Daily News.
Sai Thakor, associate at Marcus & Millichap who specializes in gas station and convenience store acquisitions, isn't convinced that will stop Buc-ee's from taking a greater market share, however. Newer stores tend to have about 120 pumps, he said, and the sheer sales volume at a Buc-ee's, compared to a typical gas station with only a small handful of pumps, pushes it ahead of its competitors.
"[Buc-ee's] moving out of Texas is actually pretty smart," Thakor said. "Buc-ee's itself is a big player in the whole gas station industry. Everybody knows who Buc-ee's is. The average good gas station on a highway will do around 130,000 to a 140,000 gallons [a month]. Buc-ee's does anywhere from 200,000 to 250,000 gallons a month."
As it grows, Melara believes Buc-ee's will seek to further draw out the time a customer spends at a store, perhaps adding more fresh produce options and sit-down eating areas to its stores. Experts who spoke to Bisnow don't see Buc-ee's taking much, if any, real estate in the Northeast, due to density and high land prices there, but Melara sees a lot of possibility for Buc-ee's growth in the Midwest, with the exception of higher-cost Illinois. The relative affordability of land prices, he said, means Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and other Midwest states are a ripe market.
Melara sees particular value in the Midwest for its growing Hispanic population. Melara, who is Hispanic, thinks that is a perfect target demographic for Buc-ee's. Latin grocers, like Buc-ee's, tend to offer fresh food and house-made items as opposed to only prepackaged items.
The chain has faced some resistance in newer markets, according to Texas Monthly, which last year reported on a Buc-ee's backlash in Efland, North Carolina, where residents feared a planned store would lead to traffic snarls, contamination of a protected watershed and simply "offend aesthetic sensitivities."
But neither Melara nor Lenard think Buc-ee's will struggle much outside of Texas. East Coast chain Wawa has a similar cult following, but the only other Wawa market where Buc-ee's might build nearby is Florida. Melara and Lenard believe they both focus on different enough needs, they can market to the same people.
Buc-ee's has existed in Texas since the 1980s. Its recent jump into expansion mode elsewhere is likely driven by opportunity brought by social media and more consumer demand for quality and convenience, Melara said. Social media has transformed the company from a Texas secret to a nationwide curiosity. Meanwhile, experts have said for years that brick-and-mortar retailers that succeed amid heavy demand for e-commerce tend to be those that offer a unique experience.
Lenard thinks the chain will continue growing beyond its announced new stores and traditionally southern geography.
"The Buc-ee's that you see today will not be the Buc-ee's 10 years from today. That's just the way convenience is changing," Lenard said. "Frictionless payment is big, EVs are growing, although they're still only about 3% of new car sales. People want different things, and the people who will win in retail ... will be the ones that are able to address change the best. Not the fastest, just the best."