The Buc-ee's in Leeds, Alabama. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Last month, we all learned that Buc-ee’s, the Texas company with the beaver logo, plans to come to Springfield. It would be Missouri’s first Buc-ee’s.

In response, many here in Springfield are singing hosannas and speaking reverently of Buc-ee’s Texas barbecue and of bathrooms so otherworldly pristine that, if desired, you could eat your Beaver Nuggets right off the porcelain. 

(Beaver Nuggets, caramelized corn puffs, are the Buc-ee’s signature snack.)

Some have criticized the estimated $8.5 million in tax incentives the city has offered the company. I address that in a separate news story; this is a column.

My first question in response to this big news was: 

“What’s a Buc-ee’s?”

Next thing you knew, I was on a plane headed to Leeds, Alabama, where a 56,000-square-foot Buc-ee’s opened Jan. 25, 2021. It’s the same size as the store planned for here.

Maybe, in Leeds, I thought, I could get a vision of Springfield’s Buc-ee-nized future.

Leeds has a population of 12,600 and is on Interstate 20. It’s 18 miles east of Birmingham.

This typically is what Buc-ee’s does; it places stores outside of major cities along an interstate.

MORE LIKE THIS

Buc-ee’s has 41 stores; the big ones are called travel centers: 35 are in Texas, two in Alabama, two in Florida and two in Georgia. 

I chose Leeds because it was the cheapest airfare.

Buc-ee’s is known for many things, including billboard advertising along interstates promoting those gleaming bathrooms. 

“Only 262 Miles to Buc-ee’s. You Can Hold It” 

“Top Two Reasons to Stop at Buc-ee’s: #1 and #2”

“Potty Like a Rock Star”

Once in Leeds, you can’t miss the towering sign off the interstate. The beaver-with-the-red-cap marks the spot.

But it takes a trained journalistic eye to notice how this gas station/convenience store is different from, say, the local Cenex.

It’s those 120 gas pumps. 

It’s quite a sight. They are arranged in three sections, with a dogleg to the left. 

(Springfield’s site should have at least 100 pumps.)

Many Buc-ee’s customers in Leeds told me that they never have to wait to fill up. I have to ask: Is that a problem? 

I can’t recall ever having much difficulty filling up – anywhere.

My guide was store General Manager Michael Bui. He’s 37 and has been with Buc-ee’s 14 years. In fact, he once worked at the company’s first store in Lake Jackson, Texas; it opened in 1982.

Michael Bui, 37, is the store’s general manager. You can place your food order on a touch-screen display. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Bui is knowledgeable, pleasant and he often stoops down to pick up tiny pieces of scrap paper that, I believe, are only visible to a long-time Buc-ee’s employee.

If Bui is an extension of Buc-ee’s, the company does not fear the media. He makes no attempt to keep me on a leash and doesn’t blink when I tell him I plan to interview customers — not in his presence — in and outside the store.

Spoiler alert: people love this place

After all, they were shopping at Buc-ee’s when I interviewed them.

Later, I even talked to people at a Chevron gas station across the street from Buc-ee’s. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Thousands of customers visit this Buc-ee’s daily. It was crowded when I was there on Thursday, Jan. 27.  

My Uber driver is a fan. She told me it was crazy crowded when it first opened and is still crazy crowded on weekends.

Yes, says Kelly Morrow, she is one of those people who holds her water for hundreds of miles in anticipation of the next Buc-ee’s toilet. 

She and her husband have traveled the globe, she says.

“Buc-ee’s is my favorite place in the world.” 

I am not making this up.

At Buc-ee’s, it starts with clean bathrooms

Buc-ee’s bathrooms. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Why are people so enamored of Buc-ee’s? I ask Bui. What’s the attraction? 

Does Buc-ee’s slip something into municipal water supplies? Are there mind-control devices in the beaver caps?

The company has carved out a brand loyalty that rivals Apple’s. Its Facebook page has 416,530 people who like it at the time of writing.

Springfield City Manager Jason Gage has said Buc-ee’s has a “cult-like following.”

“Nothing else matters in this building except for the bathrooms,” Bui tells me. “Everything else in the store is just extra. There are not a lot of clean public bathrooms. At Buc-ee’s, you have a clean bathroom every single time.” 

OK, then. Let’s cut to the chase; jump right to the story of the lavatory; rush to the flush. 

The hallway to the bathroom is lined with artwork you can purchase. For $159.99, for example, you can have a painting of a grizzly bear and her cubs: “Evening Bear Walk.” 

The men’s room at the Leeds Buc-ee’s is a temple built to the God of Relief.

The urinals have privacy dividers extending from the wall.

The stalls have attractive wooden doors that reach down almost to the floor. Everything, it seems, has an automatic sensor.

The moment arrives for the big reveal. Bui starts to open a stall door, takes a peek, and quickly shuts it.

I overhear him talk into his shoulder; “We need to clean up stall eight or nine in the men’s room.”

Instead, he opens a door two stalls down, peeks in and then steps back like a real-estate agent opening the door to what he knows is the master bedroom of your dreams. 

I’m not saying I would want to eat my pulled-pork sandwich in there. 

But it’s nice and spacious. It has eight full rolls of toilet paper.   

Bui explained later that when he opened the first door, he spotted paper on the floor which is simply not tolerated at Buc-ee’s. 

He had, in his words, to make a “9-1-1 call.”

Words from a competitor across the street

The Buc-ee’s store is big; 56,000 square feet is almost the exact size of a football field.

Bui tells me that in times of natural disasters, Buc-ee’s supports its communities. He knows of Texas stores on the Gulf Coast that have temporarily sheltered people displaced by storms and hurricanes.

“You serve the community, as well,” he says. “During a hurricane, Buc-ee’s is the last place to close and the first to open. Generators keep the store open. People depend on us during natural disasters.”

I was surprised to see a 10-pump gas station right across the street. The Leeds Interstate Chevron was doing business at the intersection long before there was a Buc-ee’s.

One customer at the Chevron pumps, Stefon Shelton, of Leeds, tells me he is not inclined to make his first visit to Buc-ee’s.

“This is America and people over-hype stuff,” he says. “I feel like people generally over-react when it comes to consumerism.”

Buc-ee’s number of locations in context

A convenience-store trade organization called CPS each year lists companies by how many stores they have in the United States.  

Here is part of that 2021 list: 

1. 7-Eleven Inc.* — 9,519

2. Circle K — 7,142

3. Speedway LLC* — 3,854

4. Casey’s General Stores Inc. — 2,230

97. MFA Oil Company — 70

163. Buc-ee’s — 39

191. Rapid Robert’s Inc. — 32

*7-Eleven purchased Speedway in May of 2021 for a reported $21 billion.

I enter the station, identify myself, ask to speak to the manager and am led to Debbie, who declines to give me her last name and did not want her photo taken. Debbie would not be allowed to work at Buc-ee’s because she has dyed her hair a dazzling purple.

“When that place first opened, it was just like the circus,” she says. 

“Everybody wants to go to the circus, but not every day.”  

Buc-ee’s and its 120 gas pumps, she says, have had little impact on her business. 

“As far as I know, Buc-ee’s hasn’t put nobody out of business.”

She has witnessed Buc-ee’s employees tell big-rig drivers to leave.

Buc-ee’s makes it clear it is a “family destination” and not a “truck stop,” and that’s why 18-wheelers are not allowed at the Leeds store or at any other Buc-ee’s location.

“God forbid if a truck driver tries to go over there,” Debbie says. “They will chase them off with their little go-kart.”

She stares across the street at that big beaver logo.

“It’s like a Walmart and a gas station had a baby,” she says. “That’s what it looks like.” 

Buc-ee’s boxers and Buc-ee’s smokers

Parents often take photos of their children next to this truck. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Almost every item in a Buc-ee’s is branded.

“If we can stamp a beaver on anything, we will,” Bui says.

“We have everything from Buc-ee’s swimsuits. Buc-ee’s umbrellas. Buc-ee’s boxers. Buc-ee’s men’s and women’s apparel. Buc-ee’s candy bars.” 

Allow me to continue with … patio furniture, camping equipment, salsa, barbecue sauce, meat rubs, a wall of beef jerky (12 flavors), a wall of gummies, T-shirts, grills, smokers, cooking utensils, deer corn for hunters, bags of ice, wine, potato chips, candied jalapeños, gasoline, honey, pillows, throw blankets and much more.

A few other brands are sold: Oakley sunglasses and Columbia and Huk clothing.

Items with either the Auburn University (in Auburn) or the University of Alabama (in Tuscaloosa) logos face-off in marketing competition.

Guns and ammunition are not sold at Buc-ee’s.

“We want to be a family destination,” Bui tells me. “We want to be an oasis for children. Imagine you’re driving along the interstate and you have four kids in the back of the car kicking the back of your seat.”

Yet alcohol and tobacco products are sold at Buc-ee’s.

The economic benefits of becoming a Buc-ee’s employee are displayed prominently throughout the store. Buc-ee’s pays over minimum wage.

The benefits are exactly what Stan Beard, Buc-ee’s director of real estate, said they would be here in Springfield when he spoke to the City Council.

  • hourly starting salary of $15 to $17 an hour
  • 401K benefits
  • three weeks vacation in first year
  • health benefits
  • $2 an hour shift differential for overnight

Yes, there will be many overnight shifts. Buc-ee’s is open 24/7 every day of the year.

One section of the store reminded me of Michael’s: it has various carved or printed words of inspiration, love and humor.

Food is a main draw at Buc-ee’s.

Anchoring the store is Sweet Street and Texas Round Up.

Sweets include homemade fudge, apple pie, roasted nuts, blueberry cheese cake, kolaches (Texas-style pig in a blanket), muffins, breads, cookies and cinnamon rolls.

Meats include smoked brisket, sausage, turkey and pulled pork. 

When meats are pulled from the smoker, they are placed on a cutting board. An employee with a large blade with a handle at each end cuts and chops amid a shout of:

“Fresh brisket is on the board!”

Surrounding employees sing out responsively:  “Fresh brisket is on the board!”

Fresh desserts such as fudge, apple pie and cheesecake are offered at “Sweet Street.” (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Customers do, in fact, draw near. 

Cold sandwiches, veggie-cups and salads also are sold.

“We do not serve gas-station food,” Bui says. “We serve quality food.” 

Customers can first sample the food, Bui says.

The soda section has 80 dispensers so, again, no waiting. 

A 44-ounce drink is 99 cents. If finishing that off doesn’t send you to that glorious restroom, I don’t know what will.

The self-serve coffee area is, of course, large.

Everything is carry-out. You pay for it all at the 25 cash registers at the two entrances/exits. 

This means there is no sit-down dining. Some customers buy food and tailgate in the parking lot, Bui says.

On this day it’s almost 60 degrees and the sun shines brightly on the beaver’s front teeth and people are doing just that.

For lunch, for $9, I have a pulled-pork sandwich with Buc-ee’s-made chips and a soft drink. It’s good.

No charging stations yet at this Buc-ee’s

Buc-ee’s in Leeds, Alabama has 120 gas pumps. The one in Springfield will have over 100. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

The parking lot is large, with almost 500 spaces.

These are not your typical parking spaces, Bui says. 

“They’re Texas-size,” he says. “There’s room for F-150s, so when the kids fling open the doors to get out they don’t hit the vehicle in the next space.”

I see Georgia, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma license plates.

The reason I don’t see any charging stations for electric vehicles is because there aren’t any such charging stations.

In Springfield, Buc-ee’s employee Beard was asked by Councilman Matt Simpson if the Springfield store would have charging stations.

Beard indirectly said yes. He said that Tesla has the first opportunity to install super chargers at Buc-ee’s travel centers and, thus far, has never declined to do so. 

But even if Tesla declined, Beard said, “we also have an arrangement to use our own.”

I mentioned to Bui that his store, which opened a year ago, had no charging stations for electric vehicles.

“That is coming soon,” he said.

A nearby grassy area is designated for pets to do their duty – sans sensors.

Bui shows me how clean the gas pumps are. He is with Tommy Carroll who is in training to be the general manager of a 53,000-square-foot Buc-ee’s that will open in April in Richmond, Kentucky.

As we walk the lot, Carroll and Bui both remind me of egrets stabbing for food as they bob to pick up small slivers of trash.

“I go to Walmart and I catch myself picking up pieces of paper and I don’t even work there,” Carroll tells me.

They go one way and I go another, where I see something I’ve never seen before.

I notice an employee who is not only emptying an outdoor trash can but also spraying its exterior with disinfectant.

I’m not saying I would eat off that trash can, either, but I’m willing to bet that the back-of-the-house kitchens at Buc-ee’s are awfully clean.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin