Will expansion export its charm or steal its soul?

By Tim Nelson
Updated: February 14, 2019
Larry D. Moore

Ask any Texan about Buc-ee’s, a chain of gargantuan rest stops that appear like an oasis on roadways stretching from San Antonio to Houston to Dallas, and they’ll regale you with tales of its splendor. The endless aisles filled with every conceivable product you’d need during a road trip. The brisket and chips prepared on-site. Hell, even the sheer number of gas pumps and bathrooms inspire awe. In short, Buc-ee’s is as much (if not more) of an attraction than a waypoint, one that clearly asserts that everything is bigger in Texas.

Though it’s a source of Texan pride that the average Buc-ee’s makes Wawa look like a roadside shack, founder Arch Aplin III has decided he can no longer contain his ambitions to building 70,000 square foot rest stops in the Lone Star State. Baldwin County, Alabama became host to the first Buc-ee’s outside of Texas, located infinitely closer to the Florida panhandle than its closest Texan counterpart. And that’s just the beginning: work should begin soon on three locations spread throughout Florida.

Aplin III (whose childhood nickname of “Beaver” inspired Buc-ee’s now-iconic mascot) believes that the desire for a 50,000+ square foot space with clean bathrooms, cheap gas, and a cornucopia of shopping options is universal. “I theorize that the people traveling in Texas are very similar to the people traveling in Florida or Alabama,” he told Texas Monthly. “They’re looking for basically the same thing.”

Exporting a Texan favorite to the rest of the southeast hasn’t been without its difficulties. Plans for a Baton Rouge outpost were initiated but ultimately scrapped by late 2016, with a Buc-ee’s project engineer simply stating at the time that “the stars did not align in Louisiana.” That’s not to mention the risk of a fiercely-loved Texas institution losing its charm as it expands from Big XII country into SEC territory. Given the idiosyncrasies of southern barbecue, will the brisket at a Buc-ee’s “Texas Round Up” station resonate with consumers as Alpin’s chain inches towards Nashville and Charlotte, or will the need to appeal to a wider swath of the south rob his enterprise of its soul?

So far, the fact that Buc-ee’s devotees camped out to be among the first Alabamians to get their hands on a stuffed Buc-ee’s mascot and sample their signature Beaver Nuggets seems to suggest that the appeal of a place where one can fuel up on the cheap while finding almost anything else they’d need can’t be confined to Texas. But it’s impossible to predict how perceptions of a business that’s so evocative of a specific place and culture could change as it divorces itself from that initial context. Would Californians (and visitors to California) care as much about In-N-Out if the company answered prayers for nationwide expansion, for example?

Who knows, but the story of Buc-ee’s expansion will provide interesting insights about the point at which a source of localized charm becomes a soulless corporation—or perhaps how that process can be circumvented entirely. Maybe all it takes is a smiling beaver and a good bathroom.

 

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