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Would Buc-ee’s ever come to Tampa Bay?

The “part gas station, part Walmart” chain from Texas got a green light to build in Central Florida — but experts say it might be tough to get closer to the metro area.
 
The beaver statue outside the Buc-ee's in Athens, which opened Nov. 21, 2022.
The beaver statue outside the Buc-ee's in Athens, which opened Nov. 21, 2022. [ PAUL GATTIS | al.com ]
Published March 8, 2023|Updated Aug. 25, 2023

Buc-ee’s is growing in Florida with plans for a Central Florida location.

Earlier this year, Marion County officials gave the cult-favorite gas station Buc-ee’s a green light to rezone 32 acres in Ocala off Interstate 75 to build its third location in the state. The gas station would have 120 fueling pumps and an 80,000-square-foot store. And as of August, Buc-ee’s is working on a fourth location along the Treasure Coast, TCPalm reported.

Now that the chain is investing in Central Florida, could Tampa Bay be next?

Buc-ee’s declined to comment on its expansion plans in Florida but the Tampa Bay Times spoke with local retail experts about the Texas-based chain’s strategy and why it could be harder for them the further south they expand into the Sunshine State.

What is Buc-ee’s?

Everything is bigger in Texas, including its gas stations.

Buc-ees’s was founded in 1982 and is headquartered at Lake Jackson outside of Houston. The gas station that’s attracted a wide fan base is known for its large selection of products in store, plenty of open gasoline pumps, electric charging stations, clean bathrooms and its beaver mascot.

“It’s part gas station, part Walmart, part tourist shop,” said David Conn, Tampa executive vice president and retail broker at commercial real estate firm CBRE who’s worked on expanding Wawa gas stations across Florida. “It’s certainly unique.”

Visitors can grab an array of food — much of which is Buc-ee’s branded — such as jerky, fudge, “beaver nuggets” (which is a corn puff snack), BBQ brisket sandwiches and typical convenience store snacks. The store also sells sweatpants, T-shirts and sweaters featuring the Buc-ee’s beaver and touristy gift shop goods.

“The uniqueness of the whole operation attracts people who are cruising down the highways,” Conn said. “I don’t think they’re getting local residents to pop into Buc-ee’s on a daily basis.”

The Buc-ee's that opened in Athens on Nov. 21, 2022, has 120 gas spots.
The Buc-ee's that opened in Athens on Nov. 21, 2022, has 120 gas spots. [ PAUL GATTIS | al.com ]

The Texan chain’s strategy in Florida

Buc-ee’s has 34 stores across Texas and 10 in other states, according to the chain’s website. Two of them have been operating in Florida since 2021: St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.

“Picking St. Augustine for our first Florida location made sense for many reasons, but its proximity to our other locations across the South was our initial motivator,” said Stan Beard, Buc-ee’s director of real estate, in a statement before its Sunshine State debut.

Buc-ee’s started north targeting Interstate 95, which captures most of the population driving in and out of Florida from Miami and the rest of the state’s east coast, said Paul Rutledge, Tampa senior vice president of retail at commercial real estate firm JLL. About 75,000 to 100,000 cars drive through that stretch every day, he said.

“If you capture your customer on I-95 North in St. Augustine or I-75 in Ocala, you get 100% of the population going from South Florida or Orlando, Orange County, Seminole, Hillsborough and St Pete,” Rutledge said. “So you have a road flow that is dynamic by multiples, because you’re going various places and going past these locations.”

A sign of Buc-ee's in Athens, AL. The one in Ocala is set to be 125 feet tall, according to Marion County records.
A sign of Buc-ee's in Athens, AL. The one in Ocala is set to be 125 feet tall, according to Marion County records. [ PAUL GATTIS | al.com ]

Struggles with getting closer to Tampa Bay

If the chain were to move further south, Rutledge said it would be more difficult for Buc-ee’s to get close to metropolitan areas like Orlando and Tampa because of the lack of land, more competition from chains like Wawa and RaceTrac and there’s less drivers traveling long distances.

“If I were eyeing a 100% location for travel, it’s the intersection of I-4 and I-75,” Rutledge said. " I think a location down south in Sarasota, heading into Fort Myers or Naples is another prospect of location.”

If Buc-ee’s came to Tampa Bay, Rutledge said the chain might have to adapt and build with a smaller footprint.

Conn at CBRE said it’s not in Buc-ee’s nature to build smaller; their whole brand revolves around bigger as being better.

They want to be near an interstate so I don’t know if they can ever be around Tampa Bay,” Conn said. “There aren’t many sites big enough for them. I-275 is fairly developed. They would have to be probably pretty far north of Tampa Bay.”

Buc-ee’s tends to avoid major cities, said Doug Hughes, director of the school of marketing and innovation at University of South Florida and once a Texas resident. The gas station chain is usually situated between metropolitans where there’s more space and less competition.

“It’s where people will be looking to get off the road and make a stop,” Hughes said. “I’m sure they probably have a winning formula there.”

A large part of Buc-ee’s appeal is how the brand has made itself a roadside destination, Hughes said.

Buc-ee’s focused on building its reputation in its home state for 37 years before expanding out of state in 2019. Hughes said that it’s always a risk for brands to enter new locations but Buc-ee’s so far seems to be successful in Florida. People are visiting it for the novelty, he said, and when they enjoy the experience then word of mouth spreads.

“Brands are powerful and they elicit certain feelings of people and that takes a while,” Hughes said. “Once they’ve done that, it becomes kind of a rite of passage if you’re traveling to stop at Buc-ee’s and I imagine over time it will be that way in other markets as well.”