Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 2, 2022

More profits inside than at the pump

Buc-ees flips the old model for travel stores with other brands taking notice

Although the Crossville location has 120 gas pumps, snacks and merchandise pay the bills. - Photograph provided

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, buying snacks for a road trip should always look like an unsupervised 9-year-old was given $100.” Wisdom from the internet

Perhaps nothing more clearly defines the undeniable allure of Buc-ee’s to children of all ages than the staggering number of snacks. A wall of beef jerky. Yards of homemade fudge. A bakery that features Texas kolaches (picture a giant pig in a blanket). Hot-roasted sugared nuts. Hand-cut fried potato chips. And rows and rows and rows of bagged snacks, including the exclusive Beaver Nuggets and all the gummies the world has ever known. Oh, and a broad expanse of fountain drinks, including Buc-ee’s proprietary flavors.

And do you need a cooler? Some new clothes? Gifts for the family back home? Toys to keep the children busy in the back seat?

Buc-ee’s, long a standard stopping spot on Texas highways, is expanding in the Southeast, with the newest travel center in Crossville. What started as a 3,000-square-foot convenience store in 1982 in Clute, Texas, has now expanded to a giant destination stop on multiple interstates.

Crossville’s store, the 50th in the Buc-ee’s family, is more than 54,000 square feet and has 120 gas pumps. To put that in perspective, retail food industry expert Progressive Grocer estimates the average grocery store size is 38,000 square feet.

Jeff Payne is what is known as a Beaver Head, a die-hard Buc-ee’s fan who considers the chain almost a destination in itself.

“Beaver Nuggets are on our list,” says Payne, the senior director of HR Technology at Kontoor Brands in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Lunch, I get the chopped brisket sandwich. For breakfast, I might get a brisket burrito. You can smell it when you walk in. And I always check out the merchandise. Once you know, you know. Until you’ve been to one you don’t really get it.”

At the Crossville Buc-ee’s, visitors are first hit with the massive amount of merchandise at the front of the store, most of it adorned with logos of the beaver mascot. Some of the T-shirts, pajama pants and hats pair the beaver with Tennessee themes like country music. The flatbed of an antique truck holds bushels of beaver stuffed animals.

Then you see the centerpiece of the store, a round pavilion that includes the homemade fudge, warm roasted nuts and the star of the show to many – the brisket. Every few minutes, the loudspeaker system in the store rings out with “Fresh hot brisket on the board!”

Where the brisket comes from, how many pounds is sold by the chain and how staff is trained on serving it is proprietary information, says Jeff Nadalo, the chain’s general counsel.

But Buc-ee’s operations district manager Michael Bui, interviewed by the CBS affiliate in Birmingham on National Brisket Day (May 28 if you’re celebrating), said the brisket is smoked for at least 12-14 hours and delivered from an off-site smokehouse to each store daily.

It’s mainly seasoned with just salt and pepper, which is the Texas style. Buc-ee’s also has its own pitmaster, Randy Pauly, overseeing the product.

When the brisket hits the board in the middle of the pavilion, an employee makes a bit of a show, chopping it up and saucing it before other staffers around the perimeter get the handoff to assemble it into sandwiches. There’s no denying that a draw for the brisket sandwich is that you can see it go from whole brisket to wrapped sandwich in a matter of minutes.

But it’s not the brisket or the Beaver Nuggets, kind of like a corn puff coated in sugar, or the merchandise that the company claims as its greatest draw. It’s the bathrooms.

“Potty Like A Rock Star”

– Buc-ee’s billboard on I-40, 43 miles from Crossville

Arch “Beaver” Aplin III had a vision, and it involved a lot of porcelain. The founder of Buc-ee’s reasoned people on the road would bypass the uncertainty of a random gas station bathroom for a guaranteed spotlessly clean one just a few more miles away.

And there’s some evidence to back up his assumption. A 2018 GasBuddy survey found 37% of motorists said one of their greatest driving fears was being uncertain of where to stop for a clean restroom.

“When we do road trips, the first thing is where are we going to stop to use the bathroom,” says super fan Payne. “Buc-ee’s was advertising the cleanest bathrooms. And we stopped.”

Buc-ee’s bathrooms are not fancy, but they have two things going for them many competitors don’t. One is they are, indeed, very clean. Buc-ee’s has a dedicated crew that does nothing but patrol and clean the restrooms.

The second is the doors and walls of each stall go all the way from the floor to the ceiling. Any woman who’s ever clutched her purse between her feet rather than placing it near the bottom of a bathroom opening understands the value of this.

The chain boasts about their bathrooms on their website and often mentions them in promotional materials. When asked about the new Crossville location, spokesman Nadalo replies: “Buc-ee’s has been looking throughout Tennessee for great locations with a strong workforce and supportive business environment so that Buc-ee’s can deliver its award-winning clean bathrooms, freshly prepared food and friendly service.”

Bathrooms may get butts on the seats, so to speak, but it’s the larger business model that keeps them in the store. Most convenience stores focus on making their money from gas sales and offer comparatively few items for sale inside, the Harvard Business School reports.

But Buc-ee’s flips that, a study reported, and concentrates on making the lion’s share of its profits from the Buc-ee’s branded snacks and the vast array of merchandise.

“It’s fairly unique as a retailer right now, although there are a couple others – Wally’s has a similar format in Illinois and Missouri,” says Greg Lindenberg, an editor for convenience store trade publication CSP. “And in a lot of ways, they borrow from existing places like Iowa 80 Truckstop and other larger travel center retailers like Pilot and TravelCenters of America (although Buc-ee’s doesn’t allow semi-trucks). These places feature things like museums, bowling alleys, churches, restaurants and other attractions.”

Fudge makin’, kolache bakin’

– Buc-ee’s billboard on I-40, 27 miles from Crossville

There’s a whole lot of fudge making and kolache baking going on in Crossville these days.

Just like the Goldilocks story, Buc-ee’s locations have to be not too big (major cities), not too small (very rural areas), but just right. Crossville fit that profile perfectly.

“They don’t locate in large metro areas,” says Ethan Hadley, president of the Crossville-Cumberland Chamber of Commerce. “They locate between large metro areas. But I would argue we have been a destination for certain sectors of people for quite some time.

“Buc-ee’s augments an already formidable and dynamic economy that’s largely driven by tourism. It’s coming to a place that has a large number of attractions. We’re the fourth-largest county by land area in the state of Tennessee.”

Hadley says Buc-ee’s set a corporate record for the number of employees hired in one day, about 220. “Buc-ee’s does a very good job with their onboarding,” he says, “so when it came to the grand opening, you were being greeted consistently and helped consistently by a well-prepared staff. And that raises the bar for other hospitality driven industries.”

Buc-ee’s exceeds the industry standard for pay and benefits. Texas Monthly reports that a cashier’s starting salary is about double what the same job pays in the rest of the industry.

“New Buc-ee’s travel centers provide more than 200 well-paid jobs with three weeks of vacation, a 6% matching 401(k) plan (available after one year of employment), health and dental insurance and other benefits,” Nadalo says.

The chain expects much in return. First is the level of service Hadley experienced in the Crossville store on opening day – smiles and attention to detail. Buc-ee’s also requires specific uniforms and no visible tattoos, Texas Monthly reports.

Employees are not allowed to use cellphones. In fact, there aren’t any phones in the store that customers can call.

“This is not a decision we made lightly,” Buc-ee’s website states. “We previously had phones in the stores which were answered by the cashiers. When cashiers were on the phone instead of waiting on customers, this made the customers angry, so we thought it would be better to direct comments to the website.”

Those decisions ultimately are made or blessed by two men – owners Aplin and Don Wasek. Buc-ee’s is privately held. There are no investors or board of directors. In 2017, Forbes estimated its annual revenue at $275 million.

When Buc-ee’s picked its site in Crossville, it hit all the marks. Crossville has a vibrant business community, the city is the size Buc-ee’s likes and the site itself was right on the interstate and ripe for development. It had seen better days. “Those properties there were not our best foot forward for the community,” says Hadley.

Some of the businesses were abandoned, and others needed a bit of convincing to move but were willing to listen. One was Hilltoppers, a nonprofit that provides support and services to adults with intellectual and other specific disabilities.

“The Buc-ee’s folks approached us in 2018 or 2019,” says Jeanene Houston, the executive director. “The city asked if we would sell to a group out of Texas that were in the convenience store business. They didn’t say who.

“They set up a meeting and, because we were very happy, we weren’t interested in the beginning. As negotiations happened, we got more interested because, when all was said and done, they bought our property, and the income from the sale allowed us to build a new building. And the city, as an incentive, gave us the land where the new building was built.

“We’re very happy it happened,” she says. “They really upgraded that whole area that had become a little unsafe. The whole community has gotten benefits from Buc-ee’s being there with the new jobs and the new look and, hopefully, many more new businesses will come along because they’re there.”

Brisket, beavers, bathrooms

– Buc-ee’s billboard on 1-40, 3 miles from Crossville

The second you get off Interstate 40 Exit 407 toward Sevierville, you know exactly where the largest Buc-ee’s in the world will be. A giant tract of land right off the interstate and Winfield Dunn Parkway is cleared and ready for construction.

Slated to open next year, the 74,000-square-foot Buc-ee’s will be the first occupant of The 407: Gateway to Adventure, a development that will eventually include restaurants, hotels, retailers and specialty attractions such as the European theme park Puy du Fou. The location will only briefly hold the “world’s biggest” title because a new Buc-ee’s in Luling, Texas, will outdo it by just 1,000 square feet when it opens in a few years.

But for now, Tennessee will be No. 1.

“We anticipate it will draw a huge amount of traffic,” says Amanda Marr, marketing director for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. “It is an attraction. It’s going to be one more thing that people get excited about enjoying, not only for the guests coming for vacation but also for folks just passing through. It’s definitely going to add a lot to what our community has to offer.”

Marr echoes Payne’s Buc-ee’s enthusiasm. She’s visited the one in Florence, South Carolina, on her way to the beach. “It was such a cool experience,” she says. “Once you eat the food and shop around you really get it.”

Sevierville, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge already are home to a plethora of tourist attractions that have traffic routinely backed up in the summer months. When the Buc-ee’s opens, expect more of the same. Crossville knows all about it.

“Taylor and I went the weekend it opened, and we were both highly overwhelmed with both the amount of people (we couldn’t find one parking spot!) and the insanity of the store itself – why is there a HomeGoods meets a Texas BBQ-style gas station/convenience store vibe in there?” says Paige Carter of Nashville, who visited with her boyfriend. “That said, it’s definitely worth it if you don’t mind dodging people to buy a brisket sandwich.”

Or as CSP editor Lindenberg says, “You can call them ‘Stuckey’s on Steroids.’”