Collier’s Weekly: I’ve Seen the Delightful Future of Gas Stations

A trip to Texas and frequent stops at Buc-ee’s has me craving roadside joy.
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I thought I was satisfied with what gas stations could be.

Between the comforting variety of Sheetz, the faithful presence of GetGo and (on excursions east) occasional dalliances with Wawa, I thought I was more than set with roadside respites. Hearty sandwich options, a good variety of snacks and clean bathrooms — through in access to gasoline, and what more can a motorist need?

Two weeks ago, things changed.

That’s when I first set foot in Buc-ee’s. And there, on the outskirts of Katy, Texas, I discovered what I had been missing — and what the future could hold, if our regional refueling chains decide to dream big.

For those who have not had the pleasure, Buc-ee’s is a chain of mammoth gas stations mostly found in Texas (only 10 can be found outside the Lone Star state; the nearest is in Richmond, Kentucky). From a distance, Buc-ee’s — marked by a smiling cartoon beaver, the amiable Mickey Mouse of this corporation — looks like a big gas station; you’ll note the Texas-sized number of pumps, but the layout is fundamentally the same.

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Then you’ll approach. Perhaps you’ll first notice that the building is oddly large — about the size of a Dick’s Sporting Goods rather than a gas station. Maybe you’ll notice the smiling bronze beaver statue greeting guests. Or maybe you’ll notice that a decent number of the customers are actually wearing Buc-ee’s-branded merchandise to do their shopping. This, you will realize, is much more than a mere convenience store (although the location in New Braunfels does hold the record for the world’s largest convenience store — 68,000 square feet — and its restrooms have been called the best in America).

Inside, Buc-ee’s offers a sensory overload akin to walking into a casino or arcade: There is a lot going on, and it’s all interesting. In one area, the store turns into an expansive gift shop, the kind of place you’d buy a quaint sign or scented calendar. An equal amount of space is given over to all that Buc-ee’s merchandise, with merch ranging from tasteful pullovers (I’m wearing one right now) to children’s toys and storybooks; new items drop on a monthly basis, so you’ll never be caught without, say, a Buc-ee’s themed Valentine’s tee. Still another section includes a selection of outdoor gear, if you’re stocking up en route to camping or rafting.

That’s without addressing the remarkable variety of food and drink. Everything you’d expect at a roadside stop is here — snacks, sandwiches and to-go meals. Beyond that, though, you’ll find a towering wall of beef jerky, fresh fudge, a constant supply of roasted nuts, indulgent desserts and a sea of Tex-Mex tacos and burritos, hot and ready to go.

Oh, right — and the barbecue.

In the larger Buc-ee’s locations, there is a full barbecue roaring at all times. You can get a brisket-and-egg taco first thing in the morning, a hot pulled-pork sandwich in the evening and pretty much anything worth eating to go.

We haven’t even addressed the Beaver Nuggets. There’s simply too much to cover at a store this big.

Yes, this is all very effective marketing, and it’ll hit you in the wallet; this is the first time I can recall that my total for purchases inside a gas station dwarfed the price I paid at the pump. But here’s the thing: Buc-ee’s is fun. The merchandise is whimsical, the variety of food and drink is delightful, the vibe is cheery. You might be lucky enough to see a foam-headed Beaver mascot wandering around — a delight for you and your social-media followers.

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And, in my experience, the staff is happy — the product, I’d say, of Buc-ee’s generous wages, which are prominently posted in detail on now-hiring signs outside. (If you work your way up to a Buc-ee’s general manager, you’ll find yourself making more than most lawyers.) I should also note that the locations I visited all had ample electric-vehicle charging stations and flex-fuel pumps, a nod to the fact that an inevitable shift in what powers our cars is coming soon.

On Texas highways, you’ll see signs announcing an impending Buc-ee’s beginning 100 miles away — a convenience-store pun (“Potty Like a Rock Star”) and a notice that there’s a location, say, 87 miles ahead. It’s a promise of a break that’s not merely a chance to stretch, but a chance to liven up the journey.

If our northern chains wish to earn a similar place in our hearts, that’s the way to do it. We may not need 120 pumps or 68,000 square feet of retail, but we could benefit from an experience that makes us actually want to stop for gas — especially if we know that the employees at the shop are well taken care of and will thus be glad to see us. If the equivalent of a Buc-ee’s sat every 100 miles on I-80, I wouldn’t be desperate to find alternate routes that don’t involve that drab superhighway.

What I’m saying, GetGo, is that you’re gonna need a cartoon beaver. Or something a little more Pennsylvanian — a friendly elk? A smiling deer? Workshop it. Then print it on holiday-themed T-shirts and see what happens.

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner