Buc-ee’s is known for brisket, but it also — with respect — serves a decent pulled pork

As Buc-ee’s built its first South Carolina location in Florence a couple years ago, the man in charge of its barbecue took a pilgrimage to pay his respects at a whole hog temple.

Randy Pauly, barbecue director for Buc-ee’s, took a team to Skylight Inn in Ayden, known in Eastern North Carolina as Pete Jones Barbecue and known beyond as one of the very finest smokers of whole hog barbecue on the planet.

“Sam Jones is a good friend,” Pauly said of the fourth-generation Jones. “The Saturday before we opened in Florence, we drove to Sam’s place. … When I go to your town, I’m eating your barbecue.”

There’s very little that Skylight Inn and Buc-ee’s have in common. One has a gravel parking lot, one has nearly 700 lined parking spaces. One is all pork, one begins with brisket and goes from there.

But there is one thread that binds these unlikely ends of the barbecue spectrum: the chop.

There’s a rhythm in the air at both Buc-ee’s and Skylight, a seemingly never-ending thwack of steel on wood that lies at the heart of these restaurants.

Sliced brisket sandwiches at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.
Sliced brisket sandwiches at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.

The best-selling brisket sandwich

Pauly doesn’t pretend that Buc-ee’s and its future tons of barbecue in Mebane will have anything to do with North Carolina’s proudest tradition. Instead, he said Buc-ee’s would serve its own slice of Texas, its own methods and recipes.

“We are who we are, and we don’t want to be something else,” Pauly said. “I’m not going into your county and giving you what generations have done there. All I can do is what I do, and it’s not what you’re doing.”

The top-selling food item at Buc-ee’s is the chopped brisket sandwich. When a new brisket is brought out from its warmer, a team of Cowboy hat-wearing barbecue stewards perform the same call-and-response act. Someone shouts “Fresh brisket on the board!,” which is then yelled back by other employees like an echo in a canyon.

The moment is an invitation to see one of the main events at Buc-ee’s — a brisket chopped up and portioned out for sandwiches.

The second-place seller is the sliced brisket sandwich, the barbecue benchmark for Texas and increasingly the rest of the smoke-loving world. The barbecue menu also includes smoked turkey breast, pulled pork, sausage on a stick and a towering three-meat sandwich that includes brisket, sausage and turkey.

A Buc-ee’s employee prepares sliced brisket on a cutting board at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.
A Buc-ee’s employee prepares sliced brisket on a cutting board at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.

Buc-ee’s won’t run out

Pauly, a lifelong barbecue man, came to Buc-ee’s in 2017 with eight world championship trophies in tow. His family owned a sausage company, and he grew up in barbecue competitions at county fairs. He’s seen barbecue grow from a rustic tradition to one of the hottest trends in food.

“Now it’s trendy to stand in line,” Pauly said. “My grandfather wouldn’t stand in a line. And if you run out, you’re in trouble.”

It seems like Buc-ee’s could never run out of barbecue. No matter the size of the crowd, there’s always a foil-wrapped sandwich lit by a heat lamp.

Sliced brisket sandwiches are prepared at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.
Sliced brisket sandwiches are prepared at Buc-ee’s in Florence, SC.

Buc-ee’s brisket is smoked between 12 and 14 hours at a central facility in Texas, then shipped to the locations.

“People realize and appreciate the regionalization of barbecue today, the art of barbecue,” Pauly said. “A pork rib is not the same pork rib everywhere.”

Though it is sprawling and has many homes, Buc-ee’s doesn’t try to be everything to everywhere, Pauly said.

When Mebane opens, there won’t be a Lexington-style special or any attempt at red slaw. Pauly said Buc-ee’s doesn’t try to compete with the local flavor, but hopes to offer travelers a consistent bite when passing through.

“I don’t need to be your local guy,” Pauly said. “You love your local guy. But when your local guy isn’t open, come and see me.”