Buc-ee’s is a petrol station found in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas that has become a phenomenon across the South
Twelve years ago, the largest petrol station in British history opened close to Cobham, Surrey on the M25. The vast forecourt was blessed with 36 pumps – a number described as “staggering” by press assembled to witness its first customers fill up – while huge fuel tanks capable of holding 1.3million litres of petrol were buried in the ground, half that of an Olympic swimming pool.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit a petrol station which renders the mammoth services and its number of pumps little more than a rounding error.
For the past 20 years Buc-ee’s has built its reputation as the go-to service station in America. What started out as a convenience store in Texas has grown into a cult phenomenon that first spread across the South and now the country at large.
Spend any time in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee or Texas and there’s a good chance you’ll see the eponymous cartoon beaver mascot looking down at you from a billboard at the side of the road, tempting you to see what the fuss is all about.
The biggest draw is that Buc-ee’s are big. Really big. The largest two petrol stations in the world are Buc-ee’s. One of them also opened in 2012 in New Braunfels, Texas and stretches out across. 6,200 sq/m, and has 120 pumps, 83 toilets and 31 cash registers. That is three times more pumps than the UK’s biggest offering to the world of massive petrol stations.
I was lucky enough to visit the Buc-ee’s in Athens last year, which comes in at a fractionally less massive 116 pumps. To my British sensibilities, it was bigger than I ever thought a petrol station could be, stretching out across several football fields worth of land off an enormous freeway. Massive trucks glinted in the fierce Alabama sun, one sporting an ‘America1’ license plate on which a coiled rattlesnake formed the ‘A’. Beneath it ominously warned ‘Don’t tread on me’.
I was there on the insistence of two kind dog walkers from Atlanta who befriended me during a spell at the space camp in Huntsville. Having taken me for a midnight trip to Waffle House, they said the 30-mile drive to what they promised was a Southern institution was an essential part of experiencing true Americana.
They are not alone in thinking Buc-ee’s is a big deal. When the Athens station opened in November 2022 a line of hundreds of people formed at 6am to be the first inside. Several wore branded beaver onesies and whooped as they made it over the threshold to be welcomed by pumped up members of staff.
When I walked in I was slightly taken aback to be met with a cheerful ‘welcome to Buc-ee’s’ from a smiling worker. While this kind of enthusiasm wasn’t so strange having spent a few days in the States, it rings more sincerely in Buc-ee’s. The company is solely owned by two men who have insisted on paying their staff well. Wages begin at $16 an hour and can rise to $225K a year for general managers. Toilet cleaners make $144 for an eight hour shift.
Such good workers rights in a country not known for them is a key part of the brand’s image. As are the toilets. “You’ve got to check out the restrooms,” multiple people told me when I explained where I was going. I did and left thinking the same thought I had for much of my trip – “Wasn’t that big.”
The actual shop is similarly massive. Great libraries of magazines run alongside a food hall’s worth of options, including freshly cooked brisket perfected by Buc-ee’s director of bar-b-que Randy Pauly – previously crowned the best bbq-er in the world several times.
A large part of the shop is dedicated to Buc-ee’s merchandise sporting the cheerful beaver’s face. You can buy Buc-ee’s onesies, Buc-ee’s hoodies, Buc-ee’s cat outfits, Buc-ee’s knitted wine bottle cover. I left with a Buc-ee’s travel pillow and an understated t-shirt showing a gun-toting beaver riding a motorbike with the slogan ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you above the sound of freedom ringing’.
Like everything I saw in America, Buc-ee’s was at once magnificent in its scale, ambition and joyful disregard for the environment, and also slightly horrifying for the same reason.
When asked what the petrol station’s secret is, spokesperson Jeff Nedalo simply said: “Buc-ee’s award-winning clean restrooms, freshly prepared brisket, friendly staff, and cheap gas are what set Buc-ee’s apart.”