The lobby is indicative of fine art. Depictions of Old West vistas adorn the walls. Polished porcelain and chrome accentuate gurgling waters. And that’s just the restrooms. You should see the rest of Buc-ee’s.
What’s this, you say? Have you not experienced Buc-ee’s of Baldwin County, with 52,000 square feet of floor space, 120 gasoline filling spots and restrooms cleaner than a church picnic?
Follow me, but be advised: First timers can be overwhelmed. Taking in the sights, aromas and crowds often evokes sensory overload and spontaneous smiles. Slow down. Relax. It’s time to smell the brisket.
Alabama’s first Buc-ee’s opened in January 2019 off Interstate Highway 10, exit 49, in Baldwin County. The store was the Texas-based company’s first venture outside the Lone Star State. It wasn’t lone for long.
The second Alabama Buc-ee’s opened in January 2021 in Leeds (Jefferson County). Other sites are in the works for Auburn and Athens.
Meanwhile, back on the coast: “We examined every conceivable factor,” says John Taylor, director of operations – north, discussing Baldwin County’s location. “Based on research, which included proximity to Gulf beaches and I-10 traffic, we determined central Baldwin County was a good spot. We were right.”
Due to company proprietary information, Taylor and the store’s general manager, Floyd Freeman, cannot reveal how many visitors Baldwin’s Buc-ee’s receives daily. But both look at each other, then look at me, and collectively smile. “It’s a lot.”
Many take selfie pictures with the statue of the store’s mascot beaver. In fact, so many pose with the bronzed rodent of renown, some company officials believe it is the most photographed statue in Alabama. On a pedestal 300 miles north, Vulcan shakes his fist in jealousy.
Now comes the fun part: walking in. “You can almost tell a new visitor just by looking at their expressions,” Taylor says. “Their eyes get really big and mouths open wide.” He laughs, “I’ve heard them say, ‘This is amazing.’” Indeed, it is.
Buc-ee’s has about 250 employees. Ninety are here on this Friday morning. My first question is, what is the busiest day?
“All seven,” Freeman answers. “It takes an army to keep Buc-ee’s operating 24/7. Behind the scenes, supply trucks roll in almost every hour of every day. We have a master plan devised for every day, and plan for the unknown and unexpected.”
Taking it all in
Pro tip 1: Before entering, know your Buc-ee’s. Here is the Baldwin County store’s layout.
Facing the entrance, the right side is gifts, clothing, home décor items, seasonal merchandise, jewelry, wedding presents, one-of-a-kind items and more. It is not what one expects from other interstate travel centers.
Shelves here are continuously restocked, refreshed and updated. Almost every customer visit is different, especially with seasonal items. The store even has a line of Christmas ornaments for a holly, jolly Buc-ee’s.
“You can buy really nice things here,” Freeman says. “We have items you would proudly display at home, wear or give as gifts. We have a lot of high-end items – not convenience store kind of stuff.”
On the left is affectionately and informally titled “Buc-ee’s World.” T-shirts, glassware, toys, swimsuits, coffee mugs, key chains, beaver dolls and anything with the company logo on it await. In this store area, toys are in abundance, many exclusive to Buc-ee’s. Kids love it.
It doesn’t take long to notice the mascot beaver is everywhere – on coffee mugs, T-shirts, stationery, even carved in chocolate. People often ask, “So, what’s the story with the beaver?”
First, it is more than a mascot. The Buc-ee’s beaver is like Mickey Mouse with an overbite. The store and critter have been inseparable since Day One.
Buc-ee’s is named after the company co-founder’s pet dog, Buck. As for the mascot, the co-founder is Arch Aplin III, also known by his childhood nickname, “Beaver.”
We move next to what many claim is Buc-ee’s star attraction – the food. “TRU (Texas Round Up) is where the action is,” notes Taylor, as beef-carving station employees work their magic. “Our barbecue sandwiches are a staple.”
“Brisket here!” shouts Alex, my new best friend who doesn’t know me. He slices, carves and crafts a slab of sizzling beef. Turkey, sausages, burritos, chicken and most everything else is prepared fresh, on shift.
Pro tip 2: Do not leave Baldwin County without Buc-ee’s Rhino Taco: sausage, beans, eggs, potatoes, cheese and green sauce, which at 6 a.m. defines breakfast.
Nearby is the great wall of jerky, proclaimed “World Famous.” Varieties are sold in bags or custom-cut at the nearby counter. A store favorite is the Bohemian Garlic. Delicious.
Today, a Buc-ee’s employee, Thomas, offers samples on request and answers questions for those who ponder jerky – and who among us hasn’t?
Also in the food arena is “Sweet Street,” and, yes, it is as good as it sounds.
Vats of cashews churn while coated with cinnamon. Chocolate is molded into bricks and pieces. Pecans roast to golden tans. As an added customer bonus, inhaling the aroma is free.
A confectionary favorite is in-house fudge. “Try this,” employee Jennifer says, offering a freshly made batch of chocolate perfection. Customers line up.
Of course, the Buc-ee’s experience is not complete without a bag of Beaver Nuggets – puffed corn bathed in honey/cinnamon and kissed by angels.
The typical roadside convenience store image of pork skins and coffee made fresh – two days before you got there – is shattered at Buc-ee’s. On the contrary, this fare is restaurant quality, but ordered to go. There is no in-house seating for dining. They don’t have room.
World famous … restrooms?
Buc-ee’s also has an attraction not usually seen in public venues: “World Famous Restrooms.” People visit the store’s washrooms even if they don’t need to. They want to see how clean it is and are not disappointed. It’s spotless.
Each restroom is staffed by employees, 24 hours a day, cleaning and polishing, all day.
Just as one begins the Buc-ee’s experience by having a picture made with the beaver statue outside, one ends the journey with a selfie at the old red truck, inside. “Actually it’s a metal shell, made in Texas and sent here,” Taylor says, with a smile. “It’s not really a truck, nor for sale, although we’ve had people try to buy it.”
The day is done. With arms laden with Buc-ee’s logo T-shirts, brisket sandwiches and beaver dolls, I approach the checkout counters. More than 30 people are in my line, yet it moves out in 15 minutes. These employees know their stuff and smile while doing it.
The parking lot capacity is 400 vehicles. It is often full. A steady stream of cars roll in, equaled by a steady stream exiting back to I-10. The continuous parade of patrons in and out never ends. For as Buc-ee’s website proclaims, “The Beaver Never Sleeps.” Indeed, the Buc stops here.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.