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Gary Borders: Buc-ee's is big, but so is Texas

There has been a proliferation of monster convenience stores, where gas pumps stretch far as the eye can see. The merchandise includes deer feeders, barbecue smokers, an extensive clothing line, an overwhelming array of road snacks, 80 soda dispensers — and America’s cleanest bathrooms.

That would be Buc-ee's, a 60,000-square-foot emporium that just opened its 23rd Texas store in Terrell on the way to Dallas. We stopped there last Sunday — along with what appeared to be several thousand other curious customers — to get gas and use those famed restroom facilities.

The fame is genuine. The restrooms in the New Braunfels Buc-ee’s in 2012 were voted America’s best, beating out some five-star hotels and the Hollywood Bowl. I missed that election somewhere along the way. Owner Arch “Beaver” Alpin was quoted as saying maybe this would be New Braunfels’ new claim to fame, “the Taj Ma-Stall” of Texas.

You can’t make stuff like this up.

I know these are the nation’s cleanest bathrooms because there is a sign right outside the men’s room proclaiming such. One would be hard put to find a more fastidious facility, manned by around-the-clock attendants and with a hand sanitizer outside each of the 84 stalls. I have been in plenty of hospital bathrooms that were not as sanitary. And let us not even discuss restaurant and run-of-the-mill convenience store facilities.

Co-owner Alpin, in a Wall Street Journal article, insisted Buc-ee’s is not a truck stop. In fact, 18-wheelers are banned because they cause traffic problems, he said. So unlike other mega facilities, which by size pale in comparison, Buc-ee’s does not rely on road-weary truck drivers in need of a shower and a hot meal to survive. It relies on the rest of us eager to sample the utterly over-the-top ambiance of Buc-ee's, where a bronze statue of a beaver stands guard outside the entrance.

Since the Terrell store just opened, a giant blowup of Buc-ee swayed in the summer breeze to draw patrons. We waited a bit self-consciously so I could take a cellphone photo of my wife in front of the gargantuan Buc-ee, which would not be out of place in the Macy’s Day Parade. In the spirit of tourists anywhere, she points upward in the photo, eyes invisible because I had to tilt the phone so far up to capture his head. I guess Buc-ee is a male. I’m not sure how one tells when it comes to beavers.

For size comparison, a new Buc-ee’s is about 50 percent larger than the Walmart Neighborhood Markets that have sprung up around here, but they are only a third the size of a full-blown Supercenter. Still, when one considers Buc-ee’s is simply a travel stop, the sheer size does boggle the mind.

Buc-ee’s uses an extensive billboard marketing program, which is how I first became aware of the chain while driving to San Antonio a few years ago. Starting many miles out, the cartoon beaver wearing a red cap beckons with billboards that say, for example, “Only 262 miles to Buc-ee’s. You can hold it.” A few hours later: “Eat Here. Get Gas. Buc-ee’s. 59 miles.” And “It’s Potty Time. 9 miles.”

One can buy pretty much anything with the Buc-ee’s logo on it, from pickled jalapeños to 17 fudge flavors, to Beaver Nuggets (whatever those are), T-shirts, caps, key chains, stuffed animals and bumper stickers. There is little dispute that Alpin and his partner are geniuses at tapping into the Texas mystique of everything being bigger and better in Texas.

I do not have much interest in all the stuff that Buc-ee’s offers and will not be wearing a Buc-ee’s “Saving the World From Ordinary” T-shirt. But those immaculate bathrooms are hard to resist.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.