The Path to World Domination

About a century ago, in central Louisiana, in the town of Harrisonburg, the seat of Catahoula Parish, Arch and Mae Aplin opened a general mercantile store. The Aplins sold everything—dried goods and leather shoes, medicine and cotton shirts, cuts of beef and hammers and nails—and their store was successful, in large part because of its location.

Harrisonburg sits on the western bank of the Ouachita River, and back then the town was a hub for travelers. If you were heading east to Mississippi or west into the Louisiana Hill Country, you had to traverse the Ouachita, and the ferry that docked at the bottom of Main Street in Harrisonburg was one of the only ways to do that. The Aplins’ store stood on Main Street, just inland from the ferry. No one crossing the river in either direction could miss it.

But the Aplins didn’t just want customers of convenience. They took pride in their store. They called it Arch Aplin’s Biggest Little Store in Catahoula Parish, and they offered travelers products they couldn’t get anywhere else. The Aplins stocked turnip greens they’d harvested on their farm, and they sold syrup they’d made from their own sugarcane. Arch raised cattle and hogs, and he’d built a smokehouse on the family property to cure the meat he produced. It became famous throughout their corner of the Deep South.

“It was so good that the salesmen coming from Alexandria, Monroe, and Natchez, Mississippi, they’d put their order in for so many hams and so many pounds of sausage,” Arch and Mae’s son Arch Aplin Jr. remembered.

Arch Jr. was born in 1925, and he was more or less raised at the store. His mother nursed him in the back room when he was a baby. He worked there as a kid. And as a young man, when he’d returned home from the Pacific after World War II, he helped his parents run their business.

But Arch Jr. didn’t want that life. He went off to college, started work as a teacher and basketball coach, and soon moved with his wife, Lorita, to Lake Jackson, Texas, which had been built a decade earlier as a company town for Dow Chemical.

Arch Jr. had an entrepreneurial streak, like his parents, and he started to build houses. He was good at it, and soon he left teaching to work full-time constructing churches, post offices, apartments, and entire subdivisions.

In 1958 Lorita gave birth to Arch Aplin III. Like his father, Arch III was raised in his family’s businesses. On trips to visit his grandparents in Harrisonburg, Arch III would eagerly throw himself into pumping gas and the work of the general store, while forever pestering Arch and Mae to let him man the cash register. (They told him he was too young.) In Lake Jackson, he absorbed the home-building trade, spending his teenage summers working on his father’s construction crews. When Arch III went off to Texas A&M, he majored in construction sciences. He wanted to follow in his father’s path, but he wanted to do it bigger. “I thought I would build skyscrapers,” Arch III said.

But in 1982, two years after graduating from college, Arch III got another idea. He knew that there was an unused property next to a four-way stop sign on the border between Lake Jackson and the town of Clute. He thought he could talk its owner, a well-to-do Houston banker named A. G. McNeese Jr., into selling. He did. His plans for the property seemed modest: at 23 years old, Arch III decided he would not build a skyscraper but a kind of general mercantile store of his own.

Arch III wanted to make his store just a little special. Sure, he would offer the same beef jerky and chips and soda as everyone else, but he installed brass ceiling fans and wrapped the upper parts of the walls in rough cedar. His store would be a little more inviting too, a roomy 3,000 square feet instead of the industry-average 2,400.

On July 28, 1982, Arch III opened his store at 899 Oyster Creek Drive, right where it crossed Old Angleton Road. Early on, he decided he’d need a good name and a good logo, something he could build on. The logo wasn’t ready by the time the store opened, but he’d already commissioned it. It would be a cartoon riff on his nickname since childhood, Beaver.

The name of the store, too, drew inspiration from his life. When Beaver was a kid, one of his father’s colleagues called him Bucky Beaver, after a cartoon character featured in Ipana toothpaste ads. Beaver had also had a beloved hunting dog, a Lab that he named Buck. The nearby high school in Brazoswood had the Buccaneers as their mascot. It all added up.

“I think you’ll see it’s the nicest, prettiest store around. It’s very sharp looking,” Aplin told the Brazosport Facts on the store’s opening day. “I believe everyone who comes in will be in awe over the way it looks.” He made clear his ambitions were bigger than that one location. “If this one goes like we hope it will, you never can tell, we might have a chain of Buc-ee’s.”

If he dreamed that one day his creation might become a Texas icon, a temple of roadside convenience and everything’s-bigger abundance, and that it would even reach a point, in 2019, when it would outgrow Texas, he certainly didn’t share the thought at the time. He was just a kid from Lake Jackson following in his family’s footsteps.

On a rainy afternoon in early December last year, I met Beaver Aplin inside the Buc-ee’s location in Bastrop. He’d agreed to walk me around the store only if I promised I wouldn’t make him sound like he was bragging. Aplin, now sixty, is only five foot seven and slight, but inside a store full of casually dressed highway travelers and peppy uniformed employees, he cut an outsized figure. He wore a wide-brimmed hat and a dark windowpane blazer, and he kept his gray hair and beard a little long and shaggy, like Jeff Bridges or Kris Kristofferson. Tucked under both legs of Aplin’s jeans were big red-and-yellow Buc-ee’s beaver logos sewn onto the shins of his cowboy boots. The tip of his right index finger was wrapped in a Buc-ee’s bandage.

The Bastrop Buc-ee’s opened in 2012, and it has more or less the same relationship to the first Buc-ee’s store that a Boeing 747 has to the biplane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. The store occupies 56,000 square feet and has aisles wide enough to drive a golf cart through. It has 71 toilets and urinals and a team of custodians whose entire job is to clean the bathrooms 24 hours a day. It has 96 gas pumps under two canopies selling Buc-ee’s-branded fuel. There are 655 parking spaces that fan out from the store on three sides, and they’re extra roomy, 10 feet by 20 feet instead of the standard 9 by 18, so as to better accommodate Texans’ trucks.

It might all seem “a touch overkill,” Aplin allowed. “But I don’t ever want to be over capacity. We like to make it spacious, give everybody their own space and their own shopping experience. It’s one of the reasons it gets so big, because if you try to enhance the space everywhere, it just grows, and then the next thing you know . . .” He trailed off.

“The selection is almost overwhelming, which is good,” Aplin says.

Photograph by Jeff Wilson

As we walked the floor, it became clear just how many times “the next thing you know” has happened at Buc-ee’s. We stared up at a towering wall of gummy candies, taffies, candy corn, and cherry sours. (“The selection is almost overwhelming, which is good,” Aplin said.) He led me to a corner of the store stocked with cooking gear—Buc-ee’s spatulas, Lodge cast-iron pans, open-fire cookbooks, a $1,000 offset smoker. (“I just think it’s cool. I think it’s Texas. It’s chuck wagon. It’s cooking the cowboy way.”) He wended his way past the shelves of hot sauce and mayhaw jelly, Buc-ee’s barbecue spice rub and Buc-ee’s raw wildflower honey. (“This comes from a young man in Lake Jackson. He’s quite a beekeeper.”) He marveled at the refrigerated deli counter with hunks of jerky (thirteen varieties), dried sausage links, and spicy venison sticks. He stopped in front of an easy-to-miss refrigerator stocked with an assortment of prepared dishes, among them crawfish fettuccine, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, and chicken cordon bleu.

By the time Aplin made it to the barbecue station, a circular island Buc-ee’s calls the Texas Round Up, he couldn’t resist a sample. Two employees were methodically slicing brisket and placing portions onto hamburger buns, but Aplin decided to grab a bag of freshly made potato chips instead. They were still warm from the fryer, crisp and browned with just a little chewiness on the inside—perfection. “We’re slicing the potatoes, cooking them right here,” Aplin said.

At that point, aromas became our guide. “They’re roasting the nuts right here, right now,” Aplin told me, pointing to a nearby station. “It’s fresh, it’s wonderful, they bag it.”

The woman roasting the nuts smiled at Aplin. “You sell a million times more when you’re roasting than when you’re not,” she said. Aplin played it cool. She didn’t seem to recognize him as the direct beneficiary of all those extra sales.

The nut roaster also made the store’s fudge, and Aplin asked for a couple of samples. She handed them over with a smile. She said she’d made 23 pans that morning.

“I love my job,” she said.

“I love that you love what you do,” Aplin replied.

The interaction wasn’t staged, but it was by design. Buc-ee’s pays its employees well above market rate; cashiers start at $14 per hour in most locations and get three weeks’ paid vacation and a 401(k) plan, in an industry where it’s common for cashiers to make minimum wage, about half as much. Aplin expects smiles and attentive service in exchange. There’s no sitting on the job and no using cellphones. Like cast members in an elaborate theatrical production, employees also must adhere to certain wardrobe and grooming standards. They are not allowed to display visible tattoos or body piercings. Men are prohibited from having long hair; nobody can have unnaturally colored hair. There are no open-toed shoes, no torn or faded clothing.

Buc-ee’s employees who buy into this don’t just love their jobs, they tend to become evangelists. And as Aplin walked through the store, he met up with one of them, Mallory Bevers, the Bastrop store’s 26-year-old gift manager. Back in high school, Bevers said, everyone she knew had to have a Buc-ee’s T-shirt. They needed to stop at Buc-ee’s on trips. Buc-ee’s was cool. She still pinched herself that she was now working there. “It’s just so crazy looking back on that, and now I have the Buc-ee’s name tag,” she said.

Bevers is responsible for the store’s most eclectic department. In the gift section, you can find everything from a slinky leopard-print kimono to twelve-inch stuffed beavers to designer totes to a vast grab-bag category of all things Texana: dueling UT and A&M gear, cowhide rugs and cowhide koozies. “Anything that has the Duke, Willie, or Nolan Ryan on it is a big seller here,” Bevers said.

Bevers had known that Buc-ee’s was big before she went to work there, but she’d come to appreciate just how widespread the store’s cult following had become.

“We’ll have people come from out of state and say, ‘I was told that we couldn’t go to Texas without stopping here.’ ”

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