“If you know you know.” So said the billboard in yellow block capitals on a stark black background as I was passing through my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was advertising Buc-ee’s, a gas station about an hour away.
Weird marketing move, I thought, but only briefly. I’m no stranger to seeing billboards for places far away. I am living, after all, in the hometown of “See Rock City” whose advertisements stretch from Texas to North Carolina, Ohio to Georgia. So I didn’t think much of it.
But then I saw another. And another. And another.
Top two reasons to stop at Buc-ee’s: #1 & #2.
Don’t stay thirsty my friends.
It’s the brisket for me.
OMG! LOL… It’s a beaver.
My overbite is sexy.
It takes multiple impressions to get someone to take action after seeing an ad for your store. Despite being a marketer myself, I’m not immune to this rule. But I was awfully curious about what could be so great about a gas station that it felt the need to announce itself 60 miles away.
I just had to know…
What exactly is Buc-ee’s?
I get that describing a gas station as a must-see destination sounds like some crass clickbait, but I assure you it is not. When I first pulled up to a Buc-ee’s there was a mile-long line of cars. I just thought it was normal traffic until I pulled up closer.
That’s when I saw that Buc-ee’s is an unbelievably enormous gas station. The one I visited in Calhoun, Georgia was 53,000 square feet. This abstract statistic, of course, is meaningless without context, so I will instead explain the immensity of this store by analogy in much the same way that Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains the size of planets.
This gas station was the size of an average men’s soccer field. Or, in terms of commerce, it was the size of five average Dollar Generals, one-and-a-half Walmart Neighborhood Markets, or – for you Brits out there – a Tesco Extra. Were one to dig up the foundation of the building and grow calorie-rich crops in the soil, they could feed a family of five for an indefinite period of time.
Everything is bigger in Texas, goes the conventional wisdom. If this holds true, then Buc-ee’s is extremely Texan. This particular Buc-ee’s had 120 gas pumps and nearly as many urinals in the men’s room. The store was as packed as Times Square when I went, and yet there was nary a line for a gas pump nor a bathroom stall.
Buc-ee’s has an almost Costco-esque variety of merchandise. You could buy your entire wardrobe at the store, as well as all your kitchenware – including a $1,000 smoker. The selection of food is bigger than many small grocery stores, including everything from nuts, protein bars, chips, and other gas station snacks to dehydrated fruit and an entire carnival’s worth of candy. There’s even an entire wall dedicated to varieties of jerky.
The fact that Buc-ee’s has shopping carts is not an accident. Among the many things you can buy are T-shirts, sweatpants, caps, underwear, exercise clothes, shoes, pajamas, candles, toys, wall decor, cutting boards, cast-iron pans, cookbooks, soaps, and magnets. There was an entire display for Friends merchandise when I went, and another for cowboy-style belts. And, yes, much of this merch contained the smiling face of the Buc-ee’s beaver.
And if you want a hot meal? Well, there are dining options that, rather than being a single restaurant or two like you’d see in any other big travel stop, you have essentially a food court. Brisket. Tacos. Tortillas. Cranberry pecan chicken salad croissants. Cinnamon rolls. Kolache. Handmade fudge.
The food is fresh and warm. You can see the butcher chop up meat for the brisket and you can smell the candied pecans still warm from the oven. There is an entire fresh deli section.
This isn’t your dad’s Citgo, and it’s bigger even than Pilot Flying J or Love’s, both of which are large enough to have actual showers. You hear stories of people who live in airports for years. The most extreme example is Bayram Tepeli, who lived in Atatürk Airport for 27 years.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that guy could not only live in Buc-ee’s but probably have a better quality of life at that.
So it’s literally just a big gas station?
Yes. However, I’d like to point out that Buc-ee’s has fans. When was the last time a gas station had die-hard fans?
To call Buc-ee’s “just a really big gas station” is to say that ice is “just frozen water.” Technically, it’s true, but it’s reductionist and misses a larger point. Let’s just say, people are talking about Buc-ee’s a lot lately.
Buc-ee’s has a loyal cadre of fans, and the reasons are twofold. First, the chain takes the concept of “convenience store” and adds a lot more “convenience” and a lot more “store.” Every conceivable roadside need from gasoline to a wide variety of food, clean restrooms to beverage options, gifts and even groceries are available in massive abundance.
The other reason it works? To see a Buc-ee’s is to witness an absolute spectacle. Despite being nominally a gas station, the truth is that it is so much more.
But it wasn’t always that way.
The humble beginnings of Buc-ee’s
The origin story of Buc-ee’s sounds like it came right out of the movies. Understand that when you read the below, I’m not massaging the narrative into being something greater than it is. I’m simply paraphrasing this article on Texas Monthly.
Arch Aplin III was born and raised in Texas, working in his family’s businesses from early on. He often helped his grandparents pump gas for the general store, even though they declined his requests to work the register. Not a job for kids, I suppose.
He majored in construction sciences at Texas A&M where he went to college, and in his own words, “I thought I would build skyscrapers.” It was after college that he opened the first Buc-ee’s in the Houston exurb of Lake Jackson, Texas in the year 1982.
True to his movie-esque origins, Buc-ee’s was named after his childhood nickname of Bucky Beaver, which is also incidentally where the distinctive logo came from. The gas station was nothing remarkable, at least not like the modern version of its namesake. But it was about 20% bigger than your average gas station and had nicer decor.
And it’s almost since he opened that first Buc-ee’s that he talked about turning it into a franchise. He opened a second location in 1985 which was twice as large as the original location and had the first on-site kitchen. By 2002, the chain had 20 stores in Texas, and stores just kept growing in size and square footage. What started as a gas station turned into a travel center, which then turned into something a step above that, which previously had no name.
American road culture and the rise of travel centers
Now at this point, it’s important to make it very clear that gas stations and travel centers are not the same thing. And before we can truly understand how Buc-ee’s went from being a humble simple gas station to the difficult-to-define thing that it is today, we need to talk about travel centers.
If you’ve driven long, lonely stretches of American highway before, you’ve probably come across travel centers. Travel centers are places where you can get off the road for a minute and have everything you need in one place. Not only do they have gas at a reasonable price, but they also have a wide selection of snacks and coffee, lots of restrooms, and plenty of merchandise.
Whether you’re traveling with your extended family or you’re hauling your big rig across the country, then these are great places to stop. When you’re on the road and you don’t know the area, it’s hard to know where to stop. Pulling over at any random stop along the highway could lead to some pretty bad outcomes, ranging from unsafe gas stations to restaurants that will give you food poisoning. Travel centers make these outcomes a lot less likely.
Add to that the fact that road travel is taxing on the body. It often makes you tired, hungry, and thirsty. All of this makes the idea of rolling the dice less attractive.
If you need a clean place to relieve yourself, a chance to buy a last-minute gift, get some fast food, and buy some hubcaps for your car, then that’s what a travel center is for. A lot of them even have showers. And thus, we started to see more and more travel stops pop up in the late 1970s and 1980s.
You’re probably familiar with the concept. Love’s is a popular brand of travel centers, and a particular favorite of mine. Pilot Flying J is also a good example. Many of the toll roads trafficked in the northeastern US also qualify, such as the ones on the New Jersey Turnpike.
And it’s this template that Buc-ee’s is working from. But they’re not content to create another Love’s or Pilot Flying J. They want to make something that you remember. They want to make something that meets needs you didn’t even know you had.
Buc-ee’s creation of a brand new niche between 2006 and 2009
It would be one thing if Buc-ee’s wanted to compete with Love’s or Pilot Flying J. Both companies are doing quite well, with annual revenue over $20 billion each in 2019 and 2017 respectively. Yet the goal of Buc-ee’s was to create a new category: not just a convenience store or a travel center, but something else entirely.
Now we know that the Buc-ee’s of today is unlike any other convenience store or gas station chain that came before it. But at what point precisely did Buc-ee’s become something novel?
According to Texas Monthly, this time came in 2006. It was then that the company expanded their Luling, TX location to 17,000 square feet, creating the first modern Buc-ee’s. It’s also the same year it banned eighteen-wheelers to rebrand itself as a family establishment, and not just a truck stop.
When I read these facts, I did a quick search of the largest Pilot Flying J and Love’s stores because they are Buc-ee’s closest analogues. I found that the largest Love’s location is just a 17,000 square foot building in Madison, GA. An interesting coincidence!
Arguably by banning trucks, Buc-ee’s already had a niche in 2006. And though Buc-ee’s never explicitly stated that it wanted to be “Love’s for families, not truckers”, it was a unique enough selling proposition.
But it was in 2009 that they doubled the square footage of their Luling, TX location again. That would make it roughly 34,000 square feet, dwarfing every location its peers Love’s and Pilot Flying J ever made. And it is in my opinion, with this action in 2009, Buc-ee’s truly created its new niche: the convenience superstore.
And ever since then, they’ve leaned into this approach. In 2012, Buc-ee’s opened what is still to this day, the world’s largest convenience store at a whopping 68,000 square feet in size in New Braunfels, TX. In 2018, it broke ground on its first location outside of Texas in Baldwin County, Alabama. Then it opened another location in Alabama in 2019, then one in Georgia in late 2020. It expanded into northern Florida in February 2021 and opened another location – the one I visited – in August 2021. As of the time this article is being written, the chain now has 40 stores.
Who needs these gigantic stores anyway?
That’s a valid question. We already live in a world of hulking giants – Amazon for eCommerce, Walmart for your day-to-day needs, and Costco for bulk purchases. Why would we need yet another massive chain of massive stores?
And, of course, the straightforward answer is no. We don’t need Buc-ee’s and we don’t need anything like it.
And yet, Buc-ee’s is genuinely useful. It’s what I would call “chaotic good.” Buc-ee’s wants day-to-day travelers – families, road-trippers, and the like – to have a predictable and positive experience, as over-the-top as it may be. And if that means a dockyard-size array of gas pumps and a big enough refrigerated section to fill my house with craft beer and Monster, then so be it.
There’s another positive aspect to Buc-ee’s, too, and it’s easy to miss. For as big and loud as the store may be, its prices are very reasonable. If you did your grocery shopping at Buc-ee’s, you would probably spend little more than you would at Walmart for the same items. The gas prices are about as cheap as they can be. And they do this while paying the workers better than its peers.
This is not to imply that Buc-ee’s is a franchise with no sins. Some people resent having a big store jam up traffic in their neighborhood. Competitors don’t like having to square off against aggressively low prices. Some people just find the whole idea trashy.
These are fair criticisms. However, these issues strike me as criticisms of the idea of Buc-ee’s – gigantic convenience stores. Criticisms about the execution of Buc-ee’s are few and far between. Or, put more succinctly…
And, hey, if that’s your gut reaction to Buc-ee’s, then I don’t blame you one bit! I thought that was going to be mine, too. But truth be told, next time I have to drive to Atlanta for a redeye flight, I’ll probably stop at Buc-ee’s on I-75 along the way.
5 Specific Ways Buc-ee’s Made Itself a Must-See Destination
By now, it’s pretty clear that Buc-ee’s isn’t just “some random gas station.” It’s a must-see destination that attracts long lines and big crowds with its unusual amenities and extraordinary variety.
But what exactly takes Buc-ee’s from being “a good place to pee when you’ve been driving on I-40 for three hours” to “a must-see destination” is a little more complex.
1. Buc-ee’s is an absurdly large convenience store and it leans into this.
We Americans are no strangers to “the world’s biggest X” when it comes to roadside attractions. On our infinite stretches of highway, you can find 150-foot Brontosaurus statues, a 30 foot tall dog statue that is also a hotel, a 13 ton ball of twine, 134 foot thermometer, and a recreation of Stonehenge with cars.
Sometimes, you just need to get away from day-to-day life for a minute, and kitschy roadside attractions provide the escape you seek. It doesn’t matter if you know it’s foolish, and that everyone around you does too. In fact, that makes it better.
Buc-ee’s took this time-honored tradition and is on a mission to recreate it across the country. The fact that travel stops happen to be necessary, lucrative, and omnipresent is just smart business. But the logo, the name, the layout of the store, the fonts used on their signage – everything, really – harkens back, quite effectively, to the kitschiness of roadside attractions.
2. Buc-ee’s builds hype with well-placed billboards that take advantage of the “rule of seven.”
The rule of seven states a “prospective buyer should [see marketing messages] at least seven times before they buy.” You can debate whether or not seven is the true average number of impressions a buyer needs to make in order to buy something these days. But that’s not really the point, is it?
People are busy. They don’t know about your business and, if they do, they don’t necessarily care about it. They need a reason to remember you and then be convinced to take action. Consumer behavior is weird like that.
Buc-ee’s is known for a lot of things, including its humorous, hype-building billboards. When you’re cruising down the interstate in a given direction, if there is a Buc-ee’s within a couple hundred miles, you’re going to know about it! You’ll probably see at least one billboard every ten miles.
The branding is so consistent too. Black background. White and yellow text. Buc-ee’s logo on the right, red bar at the bottom telling you how many miles you have to go.
3. Buc-ee’s actually keeps its lofty promises, which reinforces the hype.
Billboards lie. They show you beautiful burgers that turn out looking like flaccid, gray meat substitutes between two pieces of sandpaper. They say “clean restrooms” to get you in the store where the toilet looks like a murder scene.
But Buc-ee’s doesn’t do that. Their restrooms are actually clean. The food is both diverse and decent. The gas is cheap.
The reason why franchises succeed as much as they do is, in large part, because middle class consumers love predictability. Stopping on the side of the road to get gas, stay in a motel, or buy food is one of the few things left in middle class culture where the outcome is truly a roll of the dice.
Not so with Buc-ee’s. Once you go to one, you get the idea. There aren’t that many gas stations that you can say that about.
4. Buc-ee’s courts influencers by encouraging them to take photos and post them online.
One of the billboards I saw for Buc-ee’s encourages customers to “do it for the ‘gram.” And they really mean that! They want people taking pictures of their store, so that others will say “what is this place?”
They even have a statue of a beaver outside of the location in Calhoun, Georgia, which stands about four-and-a-half feet tall. You’re encouraged to take a photo with the statue, because they know you’re going to share it online. Basically, it’s influencer bait.
The ability of influencers to drive sales is starting to wane, but their ability to generate attention cheaply is still unmatched. After all, how many other gas stations sell adult-sized onesies bearing their logos, which other people wear and post online? Buc-ee’s doesn’t just use billboards – it convinces people with a lot of online followers to become billboards.
5. The Buc-ee’s experience is so distinct that people can’t help but talk about it.
This is distinctly different from simple influencer marketing. A lot of businesses are catching onto the idea of giving people with a few hundred thousand followers access to their company’s goods and services. In doing so, they expect their marketing messages to trickle down to the influencer’s audience.
And yes, this does work, at least at generating awareness. But Buc-ee’s is smart – they know that no amount of influencer marketing is going to replace making an experience worth talking about. After all, the best marketing is the one served up to you by a friend who genuinely cares about your interests.
This is why I think that even if Buc-ee’s began its expansion in the early 2000s before the age of social media, word would still get around. You can’t just open a warehouse-sized convenience store, advertise it on billboards every 10 minutes on the interstate, and expect people not to talk about it.
The entire franchise’s business model of rapid growth is built around this basic method:
- Draw as much attention as possible. (Points 2 & 4)
- Actually do something interesting and worthwhile. (Points 1 & 3)
- Sit and wait, knowing that people are going to talk about you. (Point 5)
“If you know, you know,” says the billboard. Buc-ee’s is a ridiculous idea run by people who know that it’s ridiculous and who take that ridiculousness seriously.
Should I stop by Buc-ee’s when I’m on the road?
You should! You don’t have to buy anything or take photos. But when you’re traveling along the road, looking for a place to stop, and Buc-ee’s is an option, do it. It’s worth it for the marketing education alone, if nothing else.
You might love the snacks. You might hate the crowds. But either way, it’s the kind of thing you have to experience to really know.
And, hey, if nothing else, I can tell you this – their coffee is pretty good.