“Well, I work at a gas station,” says Jim Mills with a chuckle when asked to describe his job. Mills is new to the “travel center” game: six months ago, he became the culinary director of Buc-ee’s after a career in Houston-area hotels and restaurant groups. But the challenge of running the massive Texas food operations for the convenience-store empire proved tempting for the industry vet: “Because I’m a food guy. I’m a chef, so food is very emotional.” Especially when traveling. “When we eat with pleasure, [when] we have an emotional connection with it, then that’s perfect.”
Mills isn’t trying to reinvent Beaver Nuggets from scratch here; instead, he wants to tweak what Buc-ee’s is already doing. “Continuous improvement is the primary goal. There’s always room for improvement, but there’s not a lot of work that I have to do to make it good.” To that end, here are a few things that Mills thinks Buc-ee’s is doing particularly right when it comes to road snacks.
“We have fifteen kinds of jerky,” says Mills, including a turkey jerky and a jerky made from Japanese Akaushi beef. Some Buc-ee’s travel centers have jerky counters that are more than twenty feet long. “That’s part of our DNA, really good beef jerky. That’s a real Texas thing. A lot of it starts back to the roots of the company.”
Just the classics, made to order: “We make a lot of breakfast tacos. Brisket tacos, egg and bacon. We’re cooking the tortillas right there and building them.” Head to the Texas Round Up counter, the circular barbecue station; Mills notes that the salsa’s great too.
Although Buc-ee’s sells your typical bags of potato chips, go for the homemade stuff. “We fry potato chips in our stores,” says Mills. “We present them in cups right there in the Texas Round Up so people can buy a sandwich and pick up some potato chips.” Get there early for the freshest chips: “We put them out first thing in the morning.”
Buc-ee’s goes through a lot of fudge, and accordingly, there are many different kinds. Mills rattles off this list off the top of his head: “Red Velvet to Butterfinger to English Toffee, Salted Caramel, Birthday Cake, Chocolate Pecan, Chocolate Walnut, Chocolate Praline, Mint.” And that’s not even half of the offerings. Can’t decide? “We do free samples.”
Buc-ee’s roasts its nuts in-house (or, if you will, in–travel center): “We do pecans and peanuts and almonds.” Simple enough, but when the roasting smell fills an entire store, it’s hard to resist.
“We have a pretty robust baking program in our stores,” says Mills. “We make cinnamon rolls, kolaches, banana bread.” When asked for a favorite, he recommends the sausage kolaches (technically a klobasnek).
“Our barbecue is really good,” says Mills. “I put it up against some of the fancy-pants barbecue that’s in this part of the country.” This part of the country being Texas, that’s saying a lot. Brisket, sausage, turkey, pulled pork: all overseen by Buc-ee’s Randy Pauly, who does competition barbecue on the side. (Although Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn might disagree with Mills’s assessment, he’s a fan of both the sausage on a stick and the venison and pork dried sausage.)
If you’re going to have barbecue, you might as well save room for banana pudding. Calling it “luscious,” Mills notes that it’s a pretty traditional banana pudding: “A vanilla pudding that has sliced bananas and vanilla wafers in it.”
Signature Club Sandwich
Mills mentions Buc-ee’s Signature Club as a favorite multiple times. The sandwich contains turkey, ham, bacon, jalapeño Jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a spicy-sweet mayo on a sweet dough bun. The twist? Unlike a traditional club sandwich, it’s served hot.
And then there are Beaver Nuggets. “People know Beaver Nuggets,” Mills says with a laugh. He compares the snack to kettle corn, noting it comes in different flavors like caramel and toffee. “You get a bag of those, and you’ll be all set going down the road.”