Reviving the Road Trip: Stephanie Stuckey of Stuckey’s
Stephanie Stuckey is on a mission to revive her family’s brand. Started by her grandfather, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey, Sr. founded Stuckey’s as a roadside pecan stand along Highway 23 in Eastman, GA. Stuckey’s eventually became a roadside empire with its peak in the 1960s. With 368 stores in over 30 states at its height, Stuckey’s was known for offering kitschy souvenirs, clean restrooms, and its famous candies.
I spoke with Stephanie to learn more about her personal journey to restore her family’s legacy, how she has refocused the brand, and the opportunities she sees for the future.
Can you tell us the story of your entry into the business and what it has taken so far to start to bring Stuckey’s back?
I had a full career doing things other than food and the family business. I was a state representative for 14 years. I’m an attorney. I was a public defender for over a decade. I practiced environmental law and headed up sustainability for the city of Atlanta. And the last chapter of my career, I thought, would be environmental advocacy.
Then I got a completely unexpected opportunity to buy my family’s failing business. And it had been out of our family’s hands for a long time, and frankly was six figures in the red when I bought the company. We didn’t own or operate any restaurants, we only had a handful of licensed locations. We had a dusty rented warehouse full of merchandise that hadn’t turned in while.
So it was a challenge, but what I bought was a brand and it was a brand that I believed then, and definitely believe now, has sticking power. And so that’s what I believed in when I made the investment. My life savings are all sunk into reviving this brand.
In a little over two years, we’ve turned it around from $2.4 million growth in sales to over $12 million gross in sales and in the red six figures to a little over a million net profit, all of which we’re reinvesting in the company. And the way we have turned it around is through food and manufacturing.
We really went back to our roots. We started as a pecan stand on the side of the road. And so we went back to that. We bought a candy plant, a pecan-shelling plant, and a fundraising business. And the majority of our profit is being driven through the sale of our snack pecans, our in-shell pecans, our candies that we manufacture ourselves now and shell ourselves. And we’re selling to retail outlets from a mom and up store, like a gift to grocery chains and convenience store chains all over the country.
The future is bright for us. We’re looking at investing in a distribution facility that we will own instead of renting and we are expanding our candy production with new equipment and new space.
In your social media content, you really emphasize both the history of Stuckey’s and also the history of a lot of roadside stops and interesting historical brands along the way. Why is history so important to you and to the Stuckey’s brand?
I have a nostalgic brand, and I firmly believe in embracing what you truly are. And I’ve gotten all sorts of advice about how you manage nostalgic brands. But I went back to my roots in politics, which is you start with your base. The first thing I had to do was to shore up our base. We have generations of people who stopped at Stuckey’s on their road trips as kids. And those people are not only still alive, but they’re successful and have money to spend.
So I went after that demographic and those folks want to hear our story. They want to hear the history. I’m not selling to everyone everywhere, and it’s not just selling our product. It’s the story. And it’s creating a community and engaging.
I would put out the stories and I look at the analytics and I look at who engages and it’s working. So if something works, you do more of it. For example, my post today on LinkedIn was about the Big Texan Steak Ranch, because I literally had 20 people reach out to me and say, have you ever been to the Big Texan Ranch? I had about 20 people ask me if I have been to The Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia, the Kentucky Fried Chicken. So I put that out yesterday and it got crazy engagement because that’s what people told me they want to hear.
Sales and marketing is a two-way street. It’s not just you. Family businesses that have persisted, the ones that are still around into the third generation and beyond, are the ones that get that.
Has there been a favorite memory since you came into the business?
There have been so many, but I’ll pick one, which I like to call my Scarlet O’Hara “I’ll never go hungry again” moment. It was right after I bought the company, and I decided to embark on a road trip because I realized that is what this brand is really about.
And so I started my road trip and I stopped at Stuckey’s, of course. And I went to this one store that looked terrible. It was in Marion, Arkansas. It literally had a hole in the roof from a tornado. And I just sat in the parking lot crying. I just could not believe that that is the condition of the wonderful company that my grandfather built and put his life’s work into.
I finally like forced myself to go into the store and that didn’t look much better, I’ll be honest. But what gave me hope was that there were people in the store. And they actually seemed pretty happy to be there! And I just thought, wow, if this brand can translate past generations where people still remember our good days, and they’re still incredibly loyal despite the downfall, what if we actually had the stores looking good? What if we actually had great products to sell, because our products had been outsourced for decades and frankly, the quality had suffered. So that gave me hope. It made me think, okay, this brand actually has sticking power.
Now in full disclosure, I have yet to get the financing I need to start owning, operating and renovating stores. I get people messaging me every day saying, “Oh, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but I went to one of your stores and it looks terrible.” It’s not a big news flash. If someone wants to give me a million dollars, I’d happily do that. But right now we are focusing on what we can do right now to drive profit, which is through manufacturing.
What would you like to be remembered for?
The road trip. Professionally, I want my legacy to be about celebrating the joy of exploring America, and not just the big cities, but the small towns, by car.
This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
I know people always say their mothers, but that is because it is true. My mom gave me a great gift. When I bought the company, she had six boxes of archives that my grandfather had left my dad, her husband, and that was just an incredible gift.
And then I had this point early on when I was deciding whether or not to buy the company. And there’s a moment of tough love. My father is a wonderful man and I love him, but we’re not perfect. And he sat me down and he said to me, “You have never even run a lemonade stand. What makes you think you can run Stuckey’s?” And I was just struck by that. Suddenly I had all this lack of confidence. He was right. I’d never run a business, not even a lemonade stand. So what did make me think I could do this?
And my mom is the one who said, “You can do this. Look through these archives, look through these boxes, read how this company was founded. And guess what? Your grandmother did a lot of it. She just never got the credit.”
So I think too often when we tell the stories of family businesses, you read about Sam Walton and Colonel Sanders. You don’t read about the wives, but guess what? A lot of times, the wives are just as involved, just as critical. They just didn’t get the credit. So all these women who never got the credit, who were in these major businesses that I admire in food, they’re the ones who I think should get a shout out.
Stephanie Stuckey is the CEO of Stuckey’s, a family-owned roadside chain offering motorists a friendly stop where they can relax, refresh, and refuel. Stuckey’s is known for its Southern hospitality and candies, especially its world-famous pecan log roll. To learn more about Stuckey’s, visit their website: Stuckeys.com