What’s the big deal about Buc-ee’s? We made the pilgrimage out of state to find out

Like the first moments of dawn, a beaver breaks on the horizon heading south on Interstate 95. As it draws closer and rises in the sky you can see the buck teeth, the up-turned brim of a cap, a cartoon face encircled by a warm yellow sun.

This is Buc-ee’s, the world’s largest convenience store, a Texas-born phenomenon with a cult-like following.

North Carolina will soon get its first Buc-ee’s, with plans in place for a 72,000-square-foot convenience store in Mebane with 120 gas pumps, nearly 700 parking spaces and dozens of toilets.

Like the gas station itself, landing the state’s first Buc-ee’s was no small feat, a saga years in the making that once included a different site in a different county, a public hearing well into the early morning hours and ultimately, finally, the blessing to bring the beaver to town.

So we took a drive to Florence, S.C., site of the closest Buc-ee’s to the Triangle, to sample the barbecue, peruse the merch, taste the fudge and flush a toilet or two.

There’s always been love in the convenience store space. The Big Gulps and Slurpees of 7-Eleven are part of pop culture, and fans revere Wawa for its sandwich artistry.

But Buc-ee’s is in a different category. It isn’t a piece of pop culture; it’s a subculture rocketing into the mainstream. There’s no reason to know this, but there’s a giant Buc-ee’s logo on the roof of the building, visible only by plane, drone or satellite.

An aerial view of the Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.
An aerial view of the Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.

The world’s largest convenience store

Buc-ee’s was founded as a conventional convenience store in 1982 by Arch “Beaver” Alpin III.

Today, there are 62 locations, mostly in Texas, but stretching from Colorado to Kentucky to Daytona Beach. Buc-ee’s didn’t venture outside of its home state until 2019, but it seems to be picking up steam. Last year it opened the world-record-holder for the largest convenience store, a 74,000-square-foot rest stop in Sevierville, Tennessee, the gateway to Dollywood. It’s this size that the Mebane location will be based on.

Standing beside a bronze statue of a beaver, Florence general manager Donald Bradshaw said his Buc-ee’s is curiously different from the ones he knew growing up in Texas.

“It’s a lot busier,” Bradshaw, who has worked for Buc-ee’s for 17 years, said. “I say that because I guess we’re new and the people have loved it and come out to see it. People haven’t experienced something like this. I grew up with it, so I guess you could say I’m spoiled.”

Cathy and Bob Stanton from Myrtle Beach, SC, picnic in the parking lot of Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.
Cathy and Bob Stanton from Myrtle Beach, SC, picnic in the parking lot of Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.

Amusement park meets gas station

It can be hard to talk about Buc-ee’s and try to connect the incongruous this and that with bits and pieces of things that already exist.

“Buc-ee’s is hard to explain, to say the least,” Bradshaw said. “What I would say is it’s like the Disney World of convenience stores. We have a cult following from what I’ve heard, and I can believe that based on how much it’s grown since I’ve started.”

It goes beyond Disney World. Buc-ee’s is like a Cracker Barrel mixed with a Walmart, with the snacks of Trader Joe’s, the merch of a Hard Rock Cafe, the food and trinkets of a state fair — all at a gas station.

There are moments at Buc-ee’s when a certain suspension of disbelief is needed. Your eyes will see things that don’t necessarily make sense, at least not at a gas station or a convenience store or inter-galactic refueling hub or whatever this beaverland is. People will run from their cars to that bronze beaver statue, crowd around it maybe for the first time, maybe the fiftieth, and take a selfie or beg strangers to snap a photo.

The beaver’s hands shine brighter than the rest of its body, Bradshaw notes, remaining gleaming from constant touches all day and night.

A Buc-ee’s sign along Interstate 95 in Florence, SC.
A Buc-ee’s sign along Interstate 95 in Florence, SC.

Buc-ee’s is a pilgrimage, it’s a stop along the way, it’s an in-between that’s become a destination.

The sheer size of Buc-ee’s, both literally and by the force of its hype, seems to have created a gravitational pull, steering cars off the interstate and into its embrace.

Maybe it’s the newness of Buc-ee’s within the Carolinas, but many travelers we met said they were stopping in for the first time, urged by a crazed friend or curiosity stoked by social media.

Rebekah Rassel and Rebecca Nosbusch took a selfie together before they stepped through the doors.

“We’re Buc-ee’s virgins, I guess,” Rassel said. “I’m a little overwhelmed and excited. We don’t want to get run over.”

Buc-ee’s bathrooms, so you can ‘potty like a rock star’

The first Buc-ee’s billboard you see once you cross into South Carolina says “Potty like a Rock Star.”

Notorious far and wide, gas station bathrooms are usually good arguments for holding it. But Buc-ee’s believes its bathrooms are the thing they do best, staffing a team of employees just for these thrones away from home.

The Buc-ee’s bathroom is closer to a Roman bathhouse than a roadside rest stop, with floor to ceiling tiles in two kinds of beige, walls between every urinal and rooms (not stalls) for every toilet.

Though the toilets are plentiful, bathroom lines can get long in the summer months and holidays. But waits are never at a standstill.

Beyond the business, Buc-ee’s has turned its bathroom hallways into art galleries, with scenes like charging horses with windswept manes, stoic cows and vibrantly painted buffalo against a black background. At the entrance to the bathroom is a steer skull encrusted with rhinestones, glittering orange among the beige.

“The bathrooms are really nice, which is a huge plus with kids,” said Tara Brocks of Swansboro. “As a mom, it was really nice to go in there and see a nice clean bathroom.”

This was the second stop at the Florence Buc-ee’s for the Brocks family, who were in the home stretch of a trip to Florida. They had already put on their newly purchased Buc-ee’s Valentine’s Day shirts, a rosy red tee with a beaver wearing heart-shaped glasses and the line, “Buc-ee’s will never break my heart.”

“I’ve always wanted matching shirts and they had them in our sizes, so I said we’re doing it,” Brocks said. “It definitely lived up to the hype.”

Eating at Buc-ee’s

Within the amusement park side of things, Buc-ee’s sells just about everything with a beaver logo on it. There are shirts and mugs and a truck filled with stuffed animals. There are pajama pants and neck pillows and blankets, toy trucks and crazy straws that make you look like you have a beaver mouth.

While it’s famous for its food, Buc-ee’s makes it clear it has no plans to be a restaurant. There are no tables inside or out. Two men ate off of a $1,500 smoker for sale out front. A retired couple drove from Myrtle Beach to have lunch at Buc-ee’s, setting up a table and chairs in the parking lot.

Buc-ee’s in Florence is laid out as a single very large building mirrored by the 100 gas pumps.

More often than not, every time you walk into the store, an employee will shout out, “Welcome to Buc-ee’s,” even if that employee is hidden behind a line of customers at a cash register.

Stuffed beavers for sale at the Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.
Stuffed beavers for sale at the Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.

Not unlike a Walmart, the store has two entrances, one opening into the food stations and snacks, the other into clothes and sporting goods. There are fire pits and backyard games, a half-dozen different styles of smokers and grills. There’s fishing gear and coolers and train sets and dolls and novelty street signs like “Bite My Bass.” The week before Valentine’s Day, a man eyed the jewelry case and asked an employee to take out a necklace.

The bathrooms and gear are nice and notable, but the centerpiece at Buc-ee’s is its food, built around a barbecue program helmed by world champion pitmaster Randy Pauly.

Fresh hot brisket on the board

Frequently, especially around lunchtime, you’ll hear the chant of “Fresh hot brisket on the board,” coming from the barbecue station, a horseshoe-shaped ring of pork, brisket, turkey, sausage and chicken with a butcher block in the middle. An employee in a cowboy hat will separate the lean and fatty brisket and then systematically chop it up with what looks like a two-handled machete, bringing it all together with a dark red barbecue sauce.

There’s a fudge counter with two dozen different options, a jerky bar, a pastry counter with thickly-iced cinnamon buns, savory kolaches and fruit danishes.

In a cooler you’ll find jambalaya-stuffed chickens ready to roast and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloins stuffed with cream cheese or sausage.

So much beaver merch

You can tell the time of year based on the Buc-ee’s merch inside, which in February includes pink Valentine’s mugs and purple and green tie-dye Mardi Gras shirts, and giant chain-link necklaces with a Buc-ee’s medallion.

When Mebane resident Shalini Sealey urged the town council to approve the Buc-ee’s, she mentioned the many matching shirts she and her husband have from the store for all the major holidays and seasons. Sealey created a Facebook group in support of the Mebane Buc-ee’s and made an online petition. After she spoke at the January meeting, Sealey said Buc-ee’s officials gave her a handwritten thank you note and a bag of Beaver Nuggets.

“When we heard it was possible for Buc-ee’s to come to Mebane we were so excited,” said Sealey, who has recently resorted to having a friend visit a Georgia Buc-ee’s and ship T-shirts and snacks. “We thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is in the bag.’ It’s so big and cool and the gas is cheap. Who’s going to hate it? It became a craze for us.”

Buc-ee’s is the world’s largest convenience store, a Texas-born phenomenon with a cult-like following.
Buc-ee’s is the world’s largest convenience store, a Texas-born phenomenon with a cult-like following.

Also at the Mebane meeting, Lori McAllister said she and her husband drove to the Florence Buc-ee’s in December for her birthday; the previous year they went to the Biltmore.

Karen Strather told the council that Buc-ee’s would grow the Mebane name, putting it in a class of towns known and celebrated for having the beloved gas station. Sean Harris skipped a day at Disney World to drive to the Daytona Beach Buc-ee’s and see the wonder for himself.

“I was completely floored,” he said. “I want some Beaver Nuggets. I’m definitely for Buc-ee’s, I’m all in on Buc-ee’s.”

But Buc-ee’s foray into North Carolina wasn’t met with enthusiasm by all. The company initially picked a site in Efland but backed out after receiving resistance from Orange County.

There also have also been critics in Mebane, who urged the town council to consider the traffic implications of Buc-ee’s in the short term and the climate impact in the long term.

Buc-ee’s when it’s as busy as the NC State Fair

We made an additional trip to the Florence Buc-ee’s on Good Friday, finding cars backed up on the off-ramp, wrapped around the building waiting for gas pumps and filling every one of the nearly 700 parking spots.

Inside the store, the bathroom line stretched past the cash registers and coffee bar, all the way to the packaged snacks and salsas. Crowds gathered six deep by the barbecue counter, and an employee offered samples of candied nuts but could barely be heard in the din. It was as busy as a basketball arena just before the tip, or the North Carolina State Fair at night.

And as busy as it was, all the sandwiches were stocked, the merch was piled high and checkout lines took less than a minute.

Brisket sandwiches are a popular item at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC. Buc-ee’s is the world’s largest convenience store, a Texas-born phenomenon with a cult-like following.
Brisket sandwiches are a popular item at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC. Buc-ee’s is the world’s largest convenience store, a Texas-born phenomenon with a cult-like following.

Outside, Hank and Gloria Harmon ate brisket sandwiches in folding chairs beside their RV, parked not exactly in a parking spot in the far corner of the lot. The married Wilmington natives stop at Buc-ee’s whenever they can, even making the two-hour day-trip for Christmas shopping.

“The experiences we’ve had, everybody is so polite. You’re greeted when you come in the door, everything is quality,” Hank Harmon said. “The food is delicious. The bathrooms are immaculate.”

The Harmons said they’ve never seen Buc-ee’s as busy as it was that day, and that during a shift change, incoming employees asked if they might be leaving so they could grab their parking spot.

“They need more parking,” Gloria Harmon said.

“One negative, they’re not truck friendly,” Hank Harmon added. “They don’t even like us being here (with an RV). A manager came out to talk to us. They don’t have enough parking.”

Tonya Burbank of Walnut Cove waited by her motorcycle while her riding partner went back inside for another brisket sandwich for the road.

“It’s too crowded for me, that’s why I’m out here,” she said. “They need some stoplights in there.”

Burbank and Randy Hill were riding back to Walnut Cove and in about three hours would pass through the site where the Mebane Buc-ee’s will be. Despite the packed parking lot and store, they said they’d still stop when they could.

“We passed through last Saturday; there were a little less people here then, but I think they stayed and more came,” Hill said. “Other than being crowded it was really nice. The food’s great. … It’s big as crap and it still ain’t big enough for the people that come here. But it’s great.”