If you traveled the interstate highways in the 1960s, chances are you recognized Stuckey’s trademark blue teal roof. Founded in Eastman, Georgia, in 1931, Stuckey’s began as a roadside stand run by husband and wife Ethel and W.S. Stuckey, Sr. In those early days, they only sold their famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll. After World War II, the nation was on the road. This proved to be the perfect opportunity for Stuckey’s to grow its sales and brand name along interstate highways. These stores were landmarks and offered gas, local souvenirs, cold drinks, hot snacks, stripped blankets, and pecan candy – all under the high pitched teal blue roof.
All of this recognition paid off. By 1964, Stuckey’s had over 160 stores in operation. The company merged with Pet, Inc., a St. Louis-based company best known for its evaporated milk. Stuckey’s management was thin, and Pet had the capital to open new stores, and it seemed like a natural tie-in. W.S. Stuckey, Sr. remained in charge of the Stuckey’s Division as a Vice President of Pet until his retirement in 1970. By the 1970s, the company had over 350 locations across the U.S.
Stuckey’s Rough Days
IC Industries acquired Pet in 1979. Unfortunately, the management team lost sight of what made the company’s roadside oasis special. W.S. Stuckey, Sr. died in 1977, and without the founder’s vision and energy, the venerable brand seemed doomed. By 1979, only a handful of Stuckey’s stores remained. IC Industries sold former store locations along the interstate for their real estate value.
However, this was not the end of the Stuckey story. In 1984, the Stuckey family reacquired the brand and began nursing the company back to health using a novel concept called Stuckey’s Express, developed by “Billy” Stuckey, Jr. The Stuckey’s Express Stop was a store within a store, offering confections to companies like 7-11 and Dairy Queen, as well as truck stops and even hardware stores. Today, Stuckey’s has almost 70 franchises across 17 states.
In November 2019, Ethel “Stephanie” Stuckey, Billy’s daughter, became President and CEO of Stuckey’s. Her main priorities include expanding the number of roadside stores and using e-commerce and business-to-business relationships to diversify Stuckey’s pecan products’ distribution. Stephanie is also developing a retro line of candy that will revive some of the company’s early products, along with vintage package designs.
Interview with Stephanie Stuckey
I first spoke with Stephanie in March of this year. After viewing Thumbwind, she pointed out an error in an article that highlighted Stuckey’s. This led to a short email exchange in which I asked if she would be willing to do a follow-up on her role as CEO of the famous confection maker. She agreed, and it was during our conversation, she painted a detailed picture of her vision for Stuckey’s future.
Hardy: Your career has been multifaceted. You’re a practicing attorney, you served seven terms in the Georgia state legislature, and you’ve held leadership roles both in the City of Atlanta government as well as the non-profit realm. What encouraged you to take on running the family business?
Stuckey: My father retired about eight years ago. During this time, we had a small staff that kept operations going. We were in a holding pattern. If I had not stepped in, an outside group would have likely seized control of the company. There is so much potential to revive the Stuckey’s brand, as I hear from customers every day thanking me for keeping Stuckey’s going. Stuckey’s reminds people of happy family road trips during their childhood. I believe we have a special place in peoples’ memories and American culture – it’s important to keep that connection with our past alive. Since taking over, the Stuckey’s team – including my father as Chairman of the Board – has been strategizing on introducing Stuckey’s to a whole new generation of customers while re-introducing ourselves to our existing customer base.
Hardy: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that you plan to visit all Stuckey’s locations in 2020. How is that going?
Stuckey: We have 69 locations. Soon, we’ll have 70 with our new store opening in Perry, Georgia, on I-75. I have been to about half of our locations and should see the others by years’ end. Florida is a huge cluster location for us. What I saw while visiting the state informed our decision to revamp the Stuckey’s brand featuring our classic blue roof, kitschy souvenir selection, and delicious pecan candies. Today only a handful of stores boast our traditional look and vibe – I think our customers want to see a return to that in a fresh re-branded way.
My father deserves a lot of credit for resurrecting Stuckey’s at a challenging time, as well as creating the concept of Stuckey’s Express. This allowed our candies and confections to be available in other stores with a branded display. Many Stuckey’s Express displays were located inside of the travel plaza Dairy Queen stores. During my visits, I found that we were struggling to keep the brand consistent. Not all stores have the same vision. We are striving to return to where we were with standalone stores. We look to improve relations with our current franchisees and improve the worth of Stuckey’s brand.
Stuckey’s Confections and Novelty Souveniers
Hardy: Stuckey’s has long been viewed as a pecan candy and confection maker. Are there plans to offer other food types, such as beverages or meat snacks?
Stuckey: Pecans are still the base of our candy and snack lines. That’s why we are looking to add new pecan flavors. Going forward, our packaging will have a vintage look and act as an ode to Stuckey’s past.
Hardy: What is the story behind Stuckey’s association with Falsa blankets and Baja Jackets?
Stuckey: One of the fun things about visiting a Stuckey’s store as a kid was the opportunity to play with the souvenirs and toys. Our stores still have the rubber alligators, coonskin hats, toy bows, and arrows, and remember the dunking bird? We have that! These inexpensive items sell well and bring back memories for parents or grandparents about their road trips 50 years ago.
Amazing Secrets of the Iconic Brand
Hardy: What is a secret about Stuckey’s that you wish more folks knew about?
Stuckey: One of the many aspects of Stuckey’s history that makes me proud is the way my grandfather handled race relations during the Jim Crow era in the deep South. From time to time, I’ve been approached by African Americans in their 60s and 70s who thank me for my grandfather’s compassion towards them and his fight to ensure the stores were open to all visitors.
Stuckey’s locations were listed in the Green Book, an annual travel guide that helped blacks safely travel across the U.S. during segregation. The 2018 movie of the same name showed what traveling as an African American was like at that time. Stuckey’s was a location featured in the film.
Another interesting fact is that my grandfather, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey Sr., was scrappy and street smart. He came from nothing and founded this company with my grandmother in 1937, during the Great Depression. During World War II, he had to be resourceful to find enough sugar for his candies and confections. He discovered that he could keep operating if he made candies for the soldiers, so that is what he did. During the war, he gave bus drivers ration stamps to be encouraged to stop by his store. By the end of the war, he was down to his last store, but the company survived.
My grandfather was also an expert at choosing real estate locations for his stores. He always liked to place new stores up on hills or rises to be seen miles away. My grandfather also looked to place stores on the northbound side of the highway. He figured that families didn’t want to stop on their way south to Florida but would stop as they headed north toward home. Finally, this speaks to his incredible insight; store sites were picked based on the average time someone would typically need a bathroom break from driving.
To Grow, Go Back to Basics But Look Forward
Hardy: You want to expand. You even mentioned building company-owned stores. What is your outlook toward expansion? Are you looking at coming back to Michigan?
Stuckey: We are looking to expand in four major ways. First, if there is an old Stuckey store for sale, I am looking for it. Our family would like to re-acquire sites my grandfather selected many years ago, especially those on the interstate highway system. The second way we’d like to expand is through online sales. We have a growing number of sales that come through our Stuckey’s website and Amazon.
The third expansion focal area is returning to producing our own candy in our own plant. Our original candy plant was sold, and much of today’s candy is outsourced. We are looking to acquire a facility to make candy in-house again. Finally, we’re focused on business-to-business. Stuckey’s Express taught us that offering our product at other stores provides us with growth opportunities and brand awareness in the areas in which we do not have stores. We will continue to establish relationships with stores like ACE Hardware and Hallmark to place our candies and confections.
Stephanie Stuckey is the president and chief operating officer of Stuckey’s Corporation. She has previously practiced law in a variety of public interest and private firm settings. Stuckey represented parts of DeKalb County and the City of Atlanta for 14 years in the Georgia General Assembly.
Stuckey earned her bachelor’s degree and Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia. Her professional and community honors include being named one of 2018’s “100 Most Influential Georgians” by Georgia Trend magazine and one of the “Environmental Leader 75” by Environmental Leader magazine.
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