In Texas, high-end convenience stores aren’t just a pit stop—they’re a culture. I speak, of course, of Buc-ee’s, a Texan chain of gargantuan proportions. At Buc-ee’s, weary travelers can fuel up, choose from a selection of exotic jerkies, urinate in a spanking-clean bathroom, and buy a damn picnic basket while they’re at it. But now, luxury convenience store chains are expanding across the country, giving road trippers access to their Americana appeal. The trend points to a larger movement: a shift away from tooth-grittingly efficient travel in favor of the unhurried joy of the Great American Road Trip.
Earlier this year, Buc-ee’s announced plans to open a dozen new stores through 2026, expanding its territory to include Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Colorado, and Mississippi. Meanwhile, similar chains are opening outside of the Buc-ee’s footprint. Take Wally’s, an enormous convenience store headquartered in Pontiac, Illinois. Wally’s recently opened a second location in Fenton, Missouri, and is currently evaluating further expansion plans. A form on the store’s website invites the public to “submit a site for consideration,” noting that any potential sites will need immediate and direct interstate access.
A few weeks ago, I reported on the newest MTN DEW flavor: Purple Thunder, an exclusive partnership with Circle K convenience stores. At the time, I mused that Purple Thunder’s Circle K exclusivity could tank the flavor’s potential for Baja Blast-level popularity—but what if the Circle K partnership is the drink’s ticket to success?
MTN DEW certainly isn’t the only brand investing in convenience store partnerships. East Coast chain Sheetz is working with a number of breweries on a proprietary beer line, as is Sheetz competitor Wawa. Meanwhile, Wawa is investing in hearty dinnertime fare in an effort to attract customers outside of the grab-and-go Tasty Cakes demographic. This follows a years-long effort by Casey’s General Store to promote its made-from-scratch pizzas which are, unequivocally, the shit.
Consider this evidence alongside the fact that airline ticket prices are up by an average of 25%, outpacing inflation by a long shot. Yes, gas prices are also surging, but road tripping remains far more affordable than flying. (I drove nine hours to my Missouri hometown last week and spent about $85 on gas round-trip. Compare that with the current airfare from Chicago, which runs about $650 for an economy ticket, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a deal.)
This all tells me one thing: the Great American Road Trip is back. Personally, I’m desperate for some slow, leisurely time with family and friends after more than two years of isolation. And even as pandemic restrictions loosen, I’d rather meander down the open road with my chosen few than cram myself into an airplane full of unmasked passengers.
The investment in high-end convenience stores also serves a broader swath of American travelers. It’s a lot cheaper to venture to Pontiac, Illinois, than to hop on a flight to San Francisco—but I’d argue that stumbling on a cool roadside destination is just as joyful as slamming a champagne in a first class seat. As brands continue to cater to savvy road trippers, they’re furthering the idea that you can find something special without having to spend too much or travel too far. A delightful surprise could be just down the road.