There are a dozen sit-down toilet stalls in the New Braunfels Buc-ee’s men’s room. On a recent Sunday, all of them were occupied, door locks slid to red, even as a good number of urinals—and there are 33 to choose from—went unmanned. The convenience store’s facilities are different from almost every other men’s room in America—not because they’re huge, and not because they’re busy (although both those things are true), but because elsewhere, stalls are usually a last resort. At Buc-ee’s, which prides itself on restroom cleanliness, men use the stalls because they can.
“The Top Two Reasons to Stop at Buc-ee’s: Number 1 and Number 2,” reads one of the company’s many roadside billboards. While there’s no shortage of relief options along Interstate 35 between Dallas and San Antonio, the New Braunfels Buc-ee’s is the reigning champion of the annual “America’s Best Restroom” contest, held by bathroom and service supplier Cintas.
As another sign boasts, these are “Rest-rooms You Have to Pee to Believe.” The men’s urinal area has 28 privacy-walled white Kohlers, and there are 5 more in the stall area. Each urinal is numbered for clean-up purposes (“We need a quick mop under number seventeen!”) and, like each stall, has its own Purell dispenser. All told, the men’s room has eight sparkling sinks, twelve always-humming automated EnMotion towel dispensers, and nine Buc-ee’s beaver–logoed pink-gel-soap dispensers (not to mention six additional public Purells). The floor-to-ceiling stall dividers eliminate the kind of, er, crawl space present at airports, and with four double-rolled dispensers of toilet paper beside each toilet, you’d never have to pass a roll between them anyway.
“People will hold it so they can go here,” said 21-year-old Texas State University student Scott Sommerlatte, one of the five maintenance “associates” in red shirts and khaki pants who man the restroom 24/7.
Though hopefully they haven’t been holding it for too long, because the 68,000-square-foot Buc-ee’s off exit 191 is the AT&T Stadium of convenience stores. The parking lot has nine hundred spaces, none of them “compact car only.” It takes at least 130 steps to get from the entrance to the bathroom door and another 40 or so from the bathroom threshold to reach an actual urinal.
And there are countless obstacles along the way. Weary road-trippers snap up logo merchandise, soda from the more than eighty fountains, free samples of 31 kinds of jerky, and the store’s best-selling Beaver Nuggets: corn puffs à la Cheetos, sweetened à la caramel corn. There are also Texas-shaped waffle irons, college football caps, “Have a Willie Nice Day” T-shirts, and even Texas Originals Bar-B.Q. Pits smokers for $1,205.63. (“That’s a good price,” the guy next to me said as he took a picture.)
But really, it’s all about the bathrooms. Buc-ee’s won the most votes for the Cintas online contest, beating a hip Arizona restaurant and the Hollywood Bowl, among others. That’s because Texans, who love their Texas brands (see also Whataburger, H-E-B), enthusiastically threw their support behind the privately owned 21-location company, which started in Lake Jackson in 1982. But it also won because cleanliness counts more than gimmickry. At Buc-ee’s, there isn’t a time-and-date log keeping track of when the restroom was last cleaned, because at Buc-ee’s, the restroom is always being cleaned. “There is literally someone in there all the time,” said Arch “Beaver” Aplin, the company’s co-owner, whose nickname was the inspiration for its bucktoothed cartoon mascot.
“As long as you’re always checking them, they stay pretty clean,” said Tim Morales, another 21-year-old, who has already worked his way up from maintenance associate to team leader. That is, it only becomes a dirty job if you don’t do it often enough. The biggest challenge is trying to get in there on a crowded day between the—sorry—flow of customers. Most of the time, though, the restroom is underpopulated. Having this big a bathroom and cleaning it is a loss leader. “You kind of linger around and clean sinks, waiting,” said Morales.
The typical reaction from first-time customers, Sommerlatte said, is widened eyes “and maybe a couple of cuss words.”
“Expletives, yeah,” agreed store manager Chris Kennedy.
One that starts with “holy” comes to mind. Or, more tamely, “What the heck?!,” which a kid in glasses and a burnt-orange UT shirt blurted out as he rounded the corner and took in the full scope of the men’s room, before immediately turning around. Guess he didn’t have to go. Or maybe he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to find his way back out.