Buc-ee’s May Have Been Built On Texas Iconography, But 7-Eleven Is Far More Emblematic Of Lived Texas Existence When You Boil This Dumb Argument Down.
If you’ve ever driven across the continental U.S. — or, god forbid, been on tour with a band — then you’ve likely developed some opinions on gas stations.
There’s the classic Pennsylvania question of Sheetz versus Wawa (Sheetz all the way), the eternal debate between which chain truck stop is best (nothing really beats a newer Pilot) and the always-amusing fact that a Midwesterner in need of gas has their choice between a QuikTrip and a Kwik Trip.
But when you enter the state of Texas, the argument quiets to a lull and the shadow of The Beaver looms large. When folks from around the world arrive at their road-trip destinations within the Lone Star State, they often do so with a new uniform of branded T-shirts and hats, a sparkle in their eye and a 44-ounce Styrofoam cup of Mountain Dew in their sweaty palms. They went to Buc-ee’s — and, oh my god, they wanna tell you about it.
But, I have to ask: Amongst the fervor of gas station conversations, why does nobody ever bring up the originator of the concept, the first star of convenience stores, the great 7-Eleven? Seems silly to even discuss it, maybe. Everywhere has a 7-Eleven. It’s practically a non-concept due to sheer ubiquity.
And, yet, it’s for that very reason why I’d like to discuss how 7-Eleven is truly emblematic of Lived Texas Existence, whereas Buc-ee’s is simply Texan iconography palatably packaged for consumption.
* * * * *
There are myriad articles, videos, research papers and general collective thoughts about the history of 7-Eleven.
Company Man, a YouTube channel I watch far too often, made a stellar video explaining the chain’s origin story, but in short: The brand was founded in Oak Cliff in 1927 as the Southland Ice Company after an employee had the brilliant idea to sell some groceries at the ice store, and then they eventually start selling gasoline soon thereafter. Suddenly, boom, the modern concept of a convenience store was created. In the ’60s, 7-Eleven — originally named because it was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. — then became the first convenience store to stay open 24/7. (Imagine getting that shift.) Around that same time, the brand also first expanded outside of Texas, beginning the franchise concept that shot it into spectacular universality. In all, somewhere around 85 to 90 percent of all 7-Elevens are franchise locations, depending on the year and source you find.
All of this corporate mythology gets trotted out for roughly every press release, eagerly reminding everyone of humble beginnings and progress, via new, innovative ideas in the realm of “selling people stuff.” Novel idea, I know.
Buc-ee’s. meanwhile, is a little less eager to trot out its history, instead simply leaning on a commitment to a “clean, friendly, and in stock experience” in the about page on the company website, before directly pivoting to its own signature brand of grandiosity, clean bathrooms and sheer square footage. Thankfully, several articles go into greater depth about the origins of The Beaver — well, aside from not bringing up how its logo is really just just the Ipana toothpaste mascot. In short here’s what transpired: In 1982, Arch Aplin III, following in his family’s footsteps, opened a convenience store in Lake Jackson. Three years later, he partnered with Don Wasek, who owned a convenience store in Brazoria. These two men remain to this day 50 percent shareholders in Buc-ee’s, Ltd., a private company headquartered in Texas City.
In almost direct contrast to 7-Eleven’s story of growth, Buc-ees has never entertained the idea of franchising, instead making the “shrewd” decision to just open gas stations themselves, wholly owning each new location across the state and, as they expand, the country. Although anyone who’s visited the Houston area has surely seen a regular-sized location, the true star of The Beaver Show is its Travel Centers — gargantuan gas stations designed exclusively for the private traveler (no semis allowed!) that are frequently larger than the average grocery store, feature hundreds of gas pumps and boast a mind-melting array of private stock goods to buy — from kitschy signs to barbecue sandwiches and, of course, Beaver Nuggets.
* * * * *
It’s within this divide of business structure — franchise versus private expansion — that the differences between the two brands appear.
By maintaining direct control over the company, the two founders of Buc-ee’s can assert a direct, unified vision of their brand across every location. From focusing on private-branded goods (that come with a higher margin) to not even advertising gas prices on their signs (leaving you to infer that it’s cheaper than anywhere else, which it frequently is), everything funnels into a singular idea of what Buc-ee’s represents. Aplin, who goes by “Beaver” as a nickname, is directly involved with the design of the key piece of Buc-ee’s marketing: their infamously clean and ample bathrooms. Careful attention is paid to bottlenecks within stores, resulting in wide aisles full of snacks and knick-knacks that lead intuitively toward the weary traveler’s main goal. Buc-ee’s even partnered with the company Modus Systems to install their Tooshlights system at various locations, thus providing a parking garage-style light above each stall (connected to a wireless Smart Lock) that allows guests to instantly know which stalls are open for use. The term “Smart Restroom” should send chills down anyone’s spine, but that’s what happens when you aim to “revolutionize the human/building interface,” as Modus puts it.
Aside from the Freudian obsession with bodily functions, Buc-ee’s has also doubled down on iconography as a crucial aspect of becoming a capital-d Destination instead of a mere stop on the interstate. From the Texas Round-Up barbecue island placed dead center in the store to the various bumper sticker recreations of the signs you see on the highway (one of many pieces of branded kitsch you can bring home to the family), the act of entering a Buc-ee’s store reveals a specific slice of Texan identity: deer corn, outdoor gear, flags, brisket and so on, with The Beaver blended in amongst it all. In an interview with Forbes, Aplin even cops to hiding his own Buc-ee’s-branded cowboy boots underneath a pair of chinos in his daily attire. (He is also, of course, more than happy to prop them up on a hewn log to show them off for the camera immediately upon being asked to do so for a magazine feature.)
Meanwhile, 7-Eleven markets the dream of entrepreneurship to anyone with the cash, selling a turnkey franchise to anyone who has the liquid capital to do so and even offering 65 percent financing and lines of credit to help manage inventory. Stores can even choose 15 percent (wow!) of their own inventory, allowing a franchise owner to narrowly cater to their local community. Hence, you can find Utz Crab Chips in a Baltimore location, Japanese candy in Seattle or Topo Chico in the DFW Airport.
Even the later history of the brand is one of varied ownership across different cultures. After taking on tons of junk bonds in 1987 to go private, and narrowly avoiding a takeover prior to the stock market crash of 1987, 7-Eleven’s parent company Southland Corp. crafted a prepackaged bankruptcy that sold 70 percent of the company to its longtime affiliate in Japan, Ito-Yokado. At the time, 7-Eleven had roughly 13,000 stores across all company-owned, franchised and affiliated locations. But Ito-Yokado wasted little time before modernizing the U.S.-branches with what they had learned from their comparatively successful Japanese operations, including such at-the-time revolutionary concepts such as a digital point-of-sale inventory system. In 2005, Ito-Yokado formed Seven & I Holdings Co. as a parent company to both I-Y and 7-Eleven, and the company history to follow has been one of even further expansion and corporate acquisition in the United States — not to mention the vast amount of international growth, which has resulted in over 71,000 stores in 17 countries as of late 2020.
* * * * *
This division of perspective is where the line can also be drawn with each brand’s relationship to Texan identity.
7-Eleven represents the Texas of AT&T and Beyonce, Chili’s and George Strait, GameStop and Ornette Coleman — monoliths of their respective fields (be those fields banal corporate hierarchy or brilliant art) that grew past their Texan roots, transcending mere regional identity to become ever-present touchstones of culture itself. 7-Eleven’s ability to adapt and grow, even through times of economic turndown, is a story of enormous corporate stature, and a concurrent tale of pushing liability downwards to the individual franchise owner. By not only pioneering the concept, but also becoming absolutely ubiquitous over time, 7-Eleven entered the global consciousness to symbolize the distilled idea of what a convenience store Is (sometimes to a terrifyingly Baudrillardian degree).
The branding of 7-Eleven has always been closely associated with its corporate mythology too, because that origin story cements 7-Eleven as First. It came up with the idea, set the tone of all to follow and continues to this day as a titan of the industry. Sure, there may be a Buc-ee’s in Denton — standing alone on the corner of Buc-ee’s Blvd and Nugget Way — but there are three 7-Elevens on my drive there, and five more that exist elsewhere in town. (I shudder to think how many 7-Elevens I would pass on my 45-minute drive to their corporate headquarters in Dallas.)
In terms of sheer mindless convenience, one company has the concept of immediacy cornered: 7-Eleven is, at its core, the Texas of endless strip malls, of the Triple Subway in Carrollton and of, without a doubt, the thing Texas is best at — mindless, rapid sprawl, development for development’s sake, in every existing direction at once.
Come here, friend, open a franchise or two, and we’ll provide you with the location, the store, the goods you sell. All we ask in return is for you to abide by our strict contract — and, of course, our cut of the profits.
Buc-ee’s, on the other hand, represents the conceptually ideal Texas as envisioned by our elected leaders, where the lauded Small Business Owner can slowly expand A Good Idea to become a behemoth of today’s world. In fact, Buc-ee’s is seemingly Greg Abbot’s theoretical ideal small business: a multi-million dollar business owned by two white guys from Houston. They expanded their business not through franchising, but instead by taking out massive low-interest loans in order to continue developing their increasingly colossal destination attractions. They’ll even chip in on highway improvements — an effortless example of a R-TX public-private partnership.
Although the brand doesn’t advertise gas prices, Buc-ee’s does advertise job information on boards located throughout its stores, touting their wages, extensive PTO, 401K and benefits, all while conveniently leaving out how the company simply loves to utilize Texas’ incredibly “pro-business” Right To Work laws, thus affording the company the ability to fire any given employee for any reason, at any time. Simultaneously, the company requires new hires to sign arcane retention agreements that penalize the employee for leaving before a determined amount of time, allowing Buc-ee’s to sue the employee for a portion of wages paid during that period (to varying degrees of success).
Even their stated focus on the affluent individual consumer smacks of Texas’s fixation on the increasingly atomized individual. You’ll never see a bus full of travelers at a Buc-ee’s — just individuals and families. Largely, the whole goal of the store’s layout and design is for you to never have to consider another human being. Endless gas pumps, soda fountains and toilets mean you are the lone consumer, exhibiting the only power the ideal, theoretical Texan has: the ability to shit, purchase and then to return to your truck-nutted F-250 in order to promptly tailgate me while going southbound on I-35E.
Sounds great, right?
Well, somehow, communities are not always wholly onboard with The Beaver’s vision. There’s the tale of the failed Buc-ee’s in Efland, North Carolina, regaled in Texas Monthly’s stellar coverage, or Corinth’s 3-2 rejection of The Beaver. But even in towns that ended up with a Buc-ee’s after opposition, the story remains fairly similar: A private company offers a rigid proposal that’s frequently kept fairly hush-hush, and it either gets what it wants (read: commonly massive tax incentives and ample land sometimes provided through self-deals) or balks and walks away. Therein lies the true power of a private company with a singular vision.
This is not to say 7-Eleven is free of sin in these regards. In fact, the ways in which 7-Eleven exploits matters are even more emblematic of Texan political reality, really. With regards to labor abuses, turn over any rock and you’ll find bugs. Even throughout The Pandemic, 7-Eleven made struggling franchisees jump through a series of difficult hoops by touting contractual obligations — something that the franchisees are really, really not happy about.
7-Eleven has also steadily revealed itself to be less of a business partner to its franchise stores, and much more of a landlord. And, like many folks interested in law and real estate, 7-Eleven has dabbled in some political action as well. Those who remember the 2000s may recall a moment when 7-Eleven decided to drop its primary oil supplier Citgo (a Houston-based subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., Venezuela’s state-owned oil company) after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez plugged a Noam Chomsky book and referred to then-President George W. Bush by a name that would now be commonly referred to as “mild Twitter language.” Oil industry experts said at the time that the decision had “nothing to do with Chavez,” and that the company was simply looking for a cheaper gas supplier. (It’s worth noting that Southland Corp., 7-Eleven’s previous parent company, sold Citgo to PDVSA in the first place, an incredible instance of playing both ends of a deal.)
Aside from that instance of cheap political convenience, 7-Eleven, like any sensible American corporation, loves to utilize its 1st Amendment rights. In 2020 alone, the company’s PAC made donations to such regional ghouls as Beth Van Dyne and John Cornyn, along with noted losers David Perdue and Kelly Loefller. The brand’s political action goes past simple coffer-stuffing too, given that its parent company also manages a roster of lobbyists to advocate on the company’s behalf — another perfectly normal right afforded to any hardworking multinational corporation. These faceless, quiet money machinations are the true lifeblood of Texan politics, providing us such joys as The Tea Party (which brought us everyone’s least favorite Texan) and PragerU (funded by two Texan fracking magnates), among many others.
Such is life when you’re sitting on top of the convenience store market as the No. 12 largest global retailer.
* * * * *
As I unfurled the history and ideology of these two gas station chains through a series of hyperlinks, I perpetually found myself faced with the question: Why must we have these conversations?
No, I don’t mean someone writing thousands of words for a handful of clicks. I mean why do we, as humans, choose to associate identity so closely with Brands? Everyone’s been there, stuck in a conversation where sides are drawn between two contrasting corporations. It’s part of life at this point. (God forbid someone brings up In-n-Out around a particularly noble Texan.)
Marketing types have attributed the ability for a company to develop Brand Loyalty to many different factors, whether that’s developing a Brand Personality or increasing Involvement, but that all sounds about as made up as economics to me. I suppose, to some extent, Influencer Culture has infected us all, with social media constantly driving our urge to Express An Opinion At All Times.
In a more dour direction, the simple truth of the matter is that our greatest ability to assert any control over our day-to-day lives is through spending money. It makes sense that we’d attach some personal identity over the ways we choose to do so. (As you might expect: Many have thoughts on this.)
Though the mechanics of these two convenience titans may diverge, it’s still fairly clear that they share much in common, whether it’s a particular political leaning, an innate ability to dunk on the working poor or simply the fact that they’re both just gas stations.
So what’s left to differentiate? Is one really more Texan than the other?
To simply state “[Brand] is truly Texan” is a futile effort due to precisely what makes Texan identity so unique. Texas is fucking huge, in every conceivable way. To state merely one thing as Quintessentially Texan misses the forest for the trees, whether they be oak, pine or mesquite. Texas is the blind suburban sprawl of 7-Eleven (and my adolescence) as much as it is the massive cattle ranches of yore. I’ll begrudgingly admit that Texas is cowboy boots and brisket — sure, maybe even served by The Beaver — but it’s also barbacoa and Big Red in San Antonio, expensive-ass “street tacos” from a place that didn’t exist six months ago in Austin and a huge plate of Chile Colorado in El Paso. Texan identity can’t be boiled down to one simple image because Texas is the most ample canvas of them all. It’s the people, those that help and those who don’t. Texas, whether we like it or not, is all of us, from someone who moved here yesterday to those with deep ties to the area. You can’t surmise one true interpretation of such a universal identity.
And yet, here we still are — you in your Buc-ee’s tee, me in my 7-Eleven long-sleeve — duking it out in the Parking Lot of Ideas.
The answer, I would suggest, actually does boil down to size.
Even going by the simplified metrics of Buc-ee’s and its core iconography — namely, that Everything Is Bigger In Texas — it’s clear that 7-Eleven is the larger chain of the two. Sure, it may not have the World’s Largest Gas Station in its portfolio, but there’s no doubt that 7-Eleven has more square footage across its 71,000 locations. You just don’t think about it when you only see a 2,500- to 4,000-square-foot store, is all.
Then there’s the fact that Buc-ee’s is at this point steadily increasing its expansion outside of Texas, shifting the company from an Only In Texas piece of destination novelty to something more akin to what it really is — just another truck stop (hold the trucks, add The Beaver). More important, Buc-ee’s is no longer even pretending to bear that Texas-only torch, instead opting for inching toward 7-Eleven’s global omnipresence, albeit at something of a snail’s pace.
Besides, ultimately, what’s more universal than the surreal anonymity experienced in a 7-Eleven at 3 a.m. when you’re buying a slice of pizza, a Red Bull and two packs of Parliament Lights? At that moment in the Line of Eternity, you are no one. Your Self dissolves.
Or has it?
On this National Free Slurpee Day — held annually on July 11 because 7/11, get it? — you won’t even be able to map out how many 7-Elevens are close to you, how many there are in your city and how many free Slurpees (a Band-Aid-esque colloquial term for frozen carbonated beverages at this point) you can fit in your gullet. Instead, you’ll need to enter a Personal Rewards Number in exchange for a small cup of that sugar water. Talk about Brand Loyalty.
But, in the end, what’s more Texan than disappointment?