July 2021

Gas Station Gourmet

Roadside Revival

Back under family ownership, Stuckey’s is striving for a turnaround.
Al Hebert

During the Great Depression, W.S. Stuckey Sr. dropped out of school to pick cotton in Georgia, and as he toiled, he landed on an idea to buy pecans from local farmers and sell them at a roadside stand, along with candy—divinity, pralines and pecan rolls—made by his wife, Ethel.

That pop-up effort eventually grew into what would later become a chain of convenience stores/travel centers known as Stuckey’s. By the early 1940s, he had three stores. During World War II, though, sugar rationing led to all but the original store in Eastman, Georgia, shutting down.

How often do you get the chance to buy back your family brand?

Stuckey’s survived those war years by providing candy for the troops as part of their ration kits. When GIs returned home after the war, they remembered Stuckey’s and stopped at the stores as they vacationed with their families. America’s economy was on a rebound, and so was Stuckey’s.

Stephanie Stuckey, granddaughter of W.S. Stuckey Sr. and CEO of Stuckey’s, said, “People started road tripping, and Holiday Inn and Howard Johnsons took off.” And when the interstate system was built, Stuckey’s adapted to the change and moved the locations to highway exits, becoming an early convenience store pioneer.

“My grandpa came up with this elegant blue roof design. Land was affordable on the interstate. We became synonymous with the road trip when road trips became possible. We were part of the overall experience going on vacations in those woodie station wagons, visiting places like Weeki Wachi and Cypress Gardens,” she said.

If you’re of a certain age, Stuckey’s was a must-stop on vacation. Billboards along the interstate created anticipation for the next location. Browsing was often as much fun as the vacation destination. By the mid-1970s there were 368 Stuckey’s in almost 40 states. “In the beginning, we had no competition,” said Stuckey.

When Did Stuckey’s Get Stuck?

Stuckey Sr. sold the company to Pet Dairy Corp. in 1964. He stayed on and ran the stores for 10 years until 1974 when he was forced out. His granddaughter explained that in the 1970s, “Pet was sold. There was the Arab oil embargo, and people weren’t driving; they began to fly more. The American road trip became a thing of yesteryear.”

W.S. Stuckey Jr. bought the company back in the 1980s and later sold it to his daughter. The remaining Stuckey’s stores are franchises. The company still sells pecan-based snacks and candies.

By 1985 Stuckey’s was in trouble. W.S. Stuckey Jr. bought the company back, but by 2012, Stuckey Jr. and his business partners were ready to retire and sold their main business, Interstate Dairy Queen, to Warren Buffet. “Dad and his business partners left a skeleton crew running Stuckey’s. All the principals were gone. Since 2014 it was on a downward slope and started losing money in 2015,” Stuckey explained.

“That’s when I came in. In 2020, my dad’s former business partners offered to sell me their shares of Stuckey’s. After six months of proving that I could run the company and restoring it to profitability, my dad sold me his shares. I became the sole owner but quickly found a co-partner, RG Lamar, who serves as president and helps me with operations,” she said.

Modern Era

All of the remaining Stuckey’s stores are franchises. Although the company no longer owns the stores, they still sell pecan-based snacks and candies that brought customers in for decades.

“That’s the key to our revival: bringing back the road trip and selling our branded pecan snacks and candies that we now make ourselves in our newly acquired manufacturing plant. C-stores are a core business category for us, so we view other interstate retail operations as potential customers, not competition,” Stuckey said. “Eighty percent of our revenue comes from the sale of products, but we still qualify as a c-store company, although we’re unique in this space, as we also have manufacturing and distribution capacity,” she said.

“How often do you get the chance to buy back your family brand? I consider myself blessed to be given this opportunity,” Stuckey said, adding, “Stuckey’s was always a safe place to stop. ‘Every traveler is your friend’ was my grandfather’s motto, and I strive to honor his legacy every day.”

Building Community

It’s hard not to see Stephanie Stuckey on social media. She pops up everywhere, and she has a mission. “My goal is not to just revive Stuckey’s but revive the road trip. We can recapture that in a way that’s not stuck in the past but honors what’s special about it,” she explained. Her plan is to create a community passionate about road trips via storytelling.

“We’re a scrappy comeback brand with limited resources. I’m trying to connect with others who want to be part of our comeback story. I have certain themes, hospitality, road trips, family and nostalgia that I try to always touch upon,” Stuckey said.

Stuckey feels that selling pecan log rolls is a way to bring people together.

“Look at In-N-Out Burger. Their customers are rabid devotees. They’re not just buying hamburgers; they’re buying into a culture. I want the same experience for Stuckey’s. That’s my long-term vision. To be part of a community of road trippers who share our love for the unique experience of exploring the back roads of America.”

Al Hebert

Al Hebert is the Gas Station Gourmet and showcases America’s culinary treasure—gas station cuisine. He shares these stories and on occasion, a recipe or two at www.GasStationGourmet.com. He is a NACS Magazine contributor, bringing foodservice ideas to readers.