Economy & Business


(Image: bryan…/Flickr)
Why does this gas station pay so well?

Among the peculiar features of 21st-century American life is the loyalty some people feel for particular chains of filling stations. The textbook case is the Cult of Wawa, whose worship is centered on a Philadelphia-area convenience-store chain and its mediocre sandwiches (I have spent a great deal of time among the Wawarians). In my home state of Texas, the locus of devotion is Buc-ee’s, a chain offering an aquatic-rodential theme and the promise of the cleanest roadside bathrooms across the fruited plain.

Ezra Pound detested billboards, complaining that every time a fine highway was built “some foetid spawn of the pit puts up a 30-foot wooden advertisement of synthetic citronade to defile man’s art in road-making and the natural pulchritude of the vegetation.” The natural pulchritude of the vegetation is less of a concern in Texas, not withstanding the best efforts of Lady Bird Johnson, and Buc-ee’s is an enthusiastic practitioner of the great American art of billboardery: “Restrooms you gotta pee to believe . . . Eat here, get gas . . . Only 262 miles to Buc-ee’s — you can hold it . . . ” and the simple Texas “Yee-Haw!”

Wawa has its hoagies, Buc-ee’s has kolaches.

Its customers may have a great and deep hunger for jalapeño cheese bread, but Buc-ee’s has a great and deep hunger for labor: lots of it, for which it is willing to pay goodly sums.

‘Restrooms you gotta pee to believe’

Over the weekend, I stopped to buy gas at a Buc-ee’s in Bastrop, Texas, and was greeted by (in addition to a man dressed as a giant aquatic rodent) an A-frame sign advertising Buc-ee’s version of the minimum wage: cashiers, $12 to $14 an hour; food-service and car-wash help, $13 to $15 an hour; team leaders, $14 to $17 an hour; assistant, $17 an hour and up. Each job came with three weeks paid time off each year, which employees are welcome to use, roll over, or exchange for cash. If you want 40 hours a week, there’s 40 hours a week to be had; if you want more than 40 hours a week, that can happen, too.

Everyone’s needs vary, of course, and I am not among those who believe that a two-income household is ideal for every situation. But I also believe that you can raise a family decently on $70,000 a year in Bastrop, where you can buy a perfectly serviceable house for less than $100,000 and where a nice, new one keeps you under the usual 2.5-times-your-income rule. Assuming a couple of raises and a bit of overtime, a married couple both working at a gas station could bring home something close to a six-figure income between them.

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When I mentioned my surprise at what it pays to work at a gas station in Bastrop, I got two reactions, both predictable. One was from a purported conservative who sniffed that this pay scale was absurd for such low-skilled work, and that that was why a gallon of gas at Buc-ee’s cost a dime more than it did across the street. (For the record, this was not true of the Buc-ee’s in Bastrop.) And so I found myself having to accommodate the shock of a so-called conservative who has trouble mentally processing the fact that in a free market, consumers can choose between lots of price points offering different levels of service and amenities. (Given how purchasing decisions are actually made, I think they’re on to a pretty solid strategy here: A single man traveling alone may go to the funky service station across the street to save 80 cents — Hello, Dad! — but a man traveling with a wife and children is going to stop at the place that is famous for having the cleanest bathrooms in the business, even if it costs him an extra buck-and-a-half for a tank of high-test. Or he’s never going to hear the end of it.) There’s a reason that we have first class, business class, steerage, and Spirit Airlines: Some people are willing to pay more for better, and some people hate themselves and don’t care if their flight from Vegas to Houston runs a few hours late or never actually even takes off.

(Voice of experience, there.)

#share#The left-wing response to Buc-eenomics is just as predictable and just as dumb: If Buc-ee’s can afford to pay gas-station attendants $17 an hour, then why can’t we mandate a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage? Put another way: If it’s a good idea for one specific business in one specific market at one specific time, why not everywhere? You get the same thing with Walmart vs. Costco: They’re superficially similar businesses, so how come the mean meanies in Arkansas can’t pay like the nice, nice men from Washington State do? The answer, of course, is that every situation is different, and every business is a social-science experiment, trying out different approaches to solving social problems, which is what entrepreneurs and successful firms actually do. If it weren’t for the self-interest of big, nasty corporations, it wouldn’t be a question of clean bathrooms vs. less clean ones: You’d be out there on the side of the road watering Mrs. Johnson’s beloved bluebonnets.

Kolaches don’t stuff themselves.

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It’s a funny old world. Some people make a ton of money working as waiters, and some people don’t. Some people look at a $17-an-hour job at the Taj Mahal of gas stations and see an opportunity that maybe isn’t the job of a lifetime but is a pretty good job for right now; others will complain that they aren’t allowed to have mobile phones while on the clock (I endorse this managerial innovation) and insist that their manager has it in for them. You all know that guy whose manager has it in for him, just like his last one did, and the one before that: You could put that guy in a filling station or in a Wall Street investment bank, and you’d get the same results.

My own experience in the gas-station industry was working the overnight shift at a 7-Eleven in Lubbock, Texas, which is exactly as bustling at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday as you would expect. I learned how to clean a Slurpee machine and read a lot of Russian novels. It wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had.

Here’s a fun fact: The median salary for a women’s-studies professor is more than a hundred grand a year. The average hourly earnings for a graduate with a women’s-studies degree? Eleven bucks an hour, well less than you’d make working the car wash at Buc-ee’s.

Here endeth the lesson.

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