Business

The Pralines, Pecan Log Rolls and Nostalgia Fueling the Stuckey’s Revival

In June 2020, having used her life savings to buy back the failing roadside franchise that bears her family name, Stephanie Stuckey was in a Marion, Ark., parking lot in tears. The Stuckey’s in front of her was beyond decrepit; it was disreputable. A storm had opened a hole in the signature teal tile roof, and the owners hadn’t bothered to repair it. Sobbing, she called her vice president and said, “I can’t even walk into this store.” Without missing a beat he replied, “Welcome to your empire.”

She wondered if she should have heeded the consultants who warned her off the purchase.

But using everything she owned as collateral and taking out a life insurance policy with the bank as beneficiary, Ms. Stuckey, a lawyer and former Democratic Georgia legislator who was then 53, pressed on. In six months, she said, she returned one of America’s first roadside franchise operations — the prototype for today’s convenience stops — to profitability (barely), with an unexpected boost from road trippers, who took to their cars during the pandemic to avoid Covid. That helped rekindle the tradition of the family trip.

The pandemic business bump underscored a connection. “Stuckey’s peaked when the road trip peaked, and we plummeted when the road trip plummeted,” she said. The question was: How do you make that pay?

These days, she puts 27,000 miles a year on her 2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid — a Craigslist find, its interior littered with wrappers from Smart Pop, Beer Nuts, Cheez-It crackers and, yes, Stuckey’s signature pecan log rolls. And that’s not counting the many air miles and rental car trips. She travels to kitschy attractions such as the toothy peanut monument in Plains, Ga., the Chat n Chew diner in Turbeville, S.C., and the Golden Cherry Motel in Opelika, Ala., extolling the joys of the road trip and parceling out the Stuckey’s story in social media blurbs.

The aim is to make the Stuckey’s name synonymous with the two-lane-highway road trip of the past, to leverage that nostalgia to re-energize the brand and rebuild the company one pecan log roll at a time.

Stuckey’s roadside souvenirs and snacks include its famous pecan log roll.Credit…Kristen Zeis for The New York Times

Stuckey’s is generally said to have started in 1937 when Williamson Sylvester Stuckey Sr., known as Sylvester, opened a pecan stand along Highway 23 in Eastman, Ga. It started long before that, according to his son, Williamson Sylvester Stuckey Jr., a businessman and former five-term congressman who went by Bill in his political career, Billy at home and Possum at Burning Tree, a golf club near Washington.

The elder Mr. Stuckey was a born entrepreneur, who sought a job clerking in town but was instead hired to scour the local farms to buy pecans that his boss then brokered to distributors.

He soon recognized the profit he was ceding to the distributor. “He got the idea of just opening up that little stand, and selling three- and five- and 10-pound bags of pecans,” said his son, 87, who is father to Ms. Stuckey. “For somebody raised in the Depression he was making some good money.”

Arguably it was the first Stuckey’s, and the first in a series of ideas that would become the roadside chain. “He could come up with 100 ideas a day and you had to figure out what was the good one,” Mr. Stuckey said. Noting that most customers were Northerners driving to Florida, “he realized tourists were the business,” he said. It was the dawning of the road trip.

Stuckey’s attracts locals, too. Antonette Wharton and her 7-year-old nephew, Jerimiah, are regular customers in Mappsville.Credit…Kristen Zeis for The New York Times

He also realized the value of expanding his product line. Company lore has it that the elder Mr. Stuckey, suddenly struck by the notion of adding pecan candies to his wares, ran home from the stand, a mile or more, hard leather shoes slapping the red Georgia clay, to interrupt his wife’s bridge game, announcing, “Ethel, we need to make candy.” The bridge ladies are said to have adjourned directly to the kitchen.

“The bridge club became the candy club,” Stephanie Stuckey said. The women, often a rotating roster drawn from Ethel Stuckey’s seven sisters and various neighbors, gathered to make pralines, divinity and, later, pecan log rolls for the stand.

The thing about lore, be it corporate or family, is that it is subject to embellishment. The Southern storytelling tradition practically demands it. And so it may be with this candy-coated brainstorm.

“I don’t think he had any idea about candy — he sold pecans,” Mr. Stuckey said. “I think it was my mother’s idea to make the candy. I give her credit for that.” He added that “they must have sold pretty damn good, because she kept making them,” and that “it got to the point he was probably selling more of the candy than the pecans.”

But the secret to Stuckey’s success wasn’t the pecan log roll. It was gasoline. Texaco, which sought to be the first nationwide brand of gasoline, teamed up with Stuckey’s, paying it a percentage of each gallon sold, in some years close to 4 percent.

“You can’t make that on candy,” Mr. Stuckey said. Each company fueled the other’s expansion. Free pecan log rolls with a fill-up were a lure to drivers.

The Mappsville store is one of about 70 in the chain, which once claimed 368 locations across America.Credit…Kristen Zeis for The New York Times

Stuckey’s was so ubiquitous that the author Mark Leyner, in his 1990 book, “My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist,” described a drive through the Midwest as: “Corn corn corn corn Stuckey’s. Corn corn corn corn Stuckey’s.” Once claiming 368 stores in more than 30 states, each loaded with candy, cheap toys and cheesy trinkets, Stuckey’s became an essential experience of the American family road trip.

Over his career, the elder Mr. Stuckey’s 100 ideas a day begot a billboard company, a timber business,a trucking business and a car dealership, among others. By the ’60s his interest in the Stuckey’s stores had waned.

“He was tired of fooling with it,” his son said. “We worked out a deal with Pet Milk.”

While it was a nice cash-out for the Stuckey family in 1964, the deal presaged the chain’s decline as a series of conglomerates acquired and then neglected it. The Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the oil crisis of 1979 drove gas prices up; the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 made airfare cheap. Road trips lost allure. Stores went under.

Mr. Stuckey, who, after leaving Congress, franchised Dairy Queens on interstates, enlisted partners to buy the chain’s remnants in 1985 and created co-branded DQ Stuckey’s stores. But Stuckey’s merely limped along.

“He said Stuckey’s couldn’t make it on its own. It lost its brand advantage,” Ms. Stuckey said. “This is where my father and I disagree.”

She saw an underappreciated asset. “I had a lifetime of people coming to me and telling me stories about Stuckey’s,” she said. “I thought, ‘How many businesses have that?’”

So she first bought out her father’s partners in Stuckey’s and then her father, completing the deal in November 2019. “If I didn’t buy it, it would fall out of family hands again.” Although some individual stores profited, the company was “six figures in debt,” Ms. Stuckey said.

The first steps were obvious, including selling candy online. Next was securing a pecan supply. Ms. Stuckey did that in 2020 through a partnership with Robert Gainer Lamar Jr., known as R.G., whose Front Porch brand pecans had gained favor with the keto diet crowd, and whose family has tended Stuckey orchards for generations. The pair joined operations, which allowed them to buy a shelling plant and a candy-making plant in Wrens, Ga., where the company now has its headquarters.

“Through the shelling plant we get the cost of pecans down, and by owning the candy plant we get the cost of candy down and control quality,” Mr. Lamar said.

Even as costs, quality control and logistics were brought in hand, a problem remained. With building new stores impractically expensive, how to connect with consumers?

Stuckey’s needed something that would resonate. Ted Wright, chief executive of Fizz, a word-of-mouth marketing agency near Atlanta, and a Stuckey’s board member, described it as the need “to be about something.”

“Corona,” and he was talking about the beer here, “is about being at the beach, even if you are standing in six feet of snow.”

The pandemic, by shutting down public transportation, provided the key. “People started traveling by car again,” said Ms. Stuckey, whose stores experienced an uptick in sales. “I personally witnessed the connection people had with not just the brand but the road trip,” she said. “It’s hard to have an emotional connection with a pecan log.”

The romance of road trips provided the path.

With little money for marketing, Ms. Stuckey promotes the brand through her own road trips. She posts primarily on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn, though she concedes that her YouTube game needs work.

“Can I single-handedly revive the road trip? I can’t,” Ms. Stuckey said. What she could do, she said, is put out stories that resonate with people, then encourage others to share their road trips.Credit…Kristen Zeis for The New York Times

She has posed for photos wearing a Stuckey’s “Eat Here and Get Gas” T-shirt, and has posted recordings of herself belting out Andrew Gold’s 1977 hit, “Lonely Boy,” in the car along with her best friend on Instagram. On her account, she has posted more than 1,600 neon signs, diners, tourist traps and quirky roadside attractions.

Although the pandemic resulted in an increase in road trips and revenue for Stuckey stores, that may not last. Building the brand, however, doesn’t require people to actually take road trips; they just need to identify with the road-trip lifestyle, much the way not everyone who wears board shorts actually surfs. It’s aspirational.

“Can I single-handedly revive the road trip? I can’t,” Ms. Stuckey said. “But can I put out stories that resonate with people on a personal level, then encourage other people to share their road trips? I think we can build a bit of a movement.”

As she builds that movement she also has to serve people who have already joined. That means supplying some 70 stores with kitschy baubles, which are a significant source of revenue.

“We look for stuff you don’t see in every roadside place,” Ms. Stuckey said.

Certain classics — rubber alligators and coonskin caps — remain popular, as do Mexican blankets and Baja jackets.

“Jesus stuff sells,” Ms. Stuckey said. “We brought in walking sticks recently, and we blew through them.” Less popular? “License plate signs — they are really cute, but they are not selling,” she said. “State merch doesn’t turn as well. That stuff is collecting dust. Except for Texas. Texans love their Texas merch.”

Then there is a plan to extend Stuckey’s turf by selling candy through outlets like Food Lion, TravelCenters of America and food brokers. There was even a seasonal run of a Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll beer in partnership with an Atlanta-area brewery.

“That’s part of our strategy to expand the brand, and I think collaborations are the path to scale,” Ms. Stuckey said.

Ultimately, the goal is to leverage road-trip allure to drive candy sales, use candy profits to increase manufacturing and, perhaps, turn Stuckey’s into the top-of-mind pecan brand, like Planters is for peanuts or Diamond for almonds. There might even be a handful of Stuckey’s destination superstores.

For now, Stephanie Stuckey puts in the miles and spreads the gospel of road tripping, finding joy even when the trip leads to an Arkansas Stuckey’s with a hole in the roof.

“Here’s the interesting thing — this was the moment when I realized this company is going to make it,” she said. “Because even with a hole in the roof, there were people in there. And I checked, and the store was profitable. If a Stuckey’s with a hole in the roof can be profitable, the chain can be profitable.”

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