You remember Stuckey’s even if you don’t think you do. It was synonymous with the road trip. Relax, Refresh, Refuel, the billboards read. The slanted red-and-yellow script font signaled an oasis for cramped legs, restless children, and hungry drivers. It signaled clean bathrooms, a place to fuel up, and a treasure trove of delicious candy (do the words “Pecan Log Roll” ring any bells?) and even nuttier souvenirs.
Stephanie Stuckey’s grandfather founded Stuckey’s in 1937 from a shack, slinging pecans, and he built it into a shiny chain of 300+ stores. After the company was tossed and tarnished by multiple sets of hands, Stephanie seized the opportunity to buy it back. In what could absolutely be called the coolest comeback story the South’s seen in decades, this lawyer-turned-CEO is reviving the nostalgia, comfort, and wonder of the great American road trip one Pecan Log Roll at a time.
Meet Stephanie Stuckey, our newest FACE of the South.
Tell us about your younger years as a third-generation Stuckey. What was it like going to your stores?
What’s interesting about my story unlike other “Three G-ers” (that’s what I call third-generation family businesses) is that I didn’t grow up with the company being in our family. In many ways, I see that as an asset now. We were founded in 1937. My grandfather built it from a roadside shed, selling pecans on US-1 in Eastman, Georgia to — at its peak — 368 stores in 40 states, mostly centered in the Southeast hub. But he sold it in 1964, so growing up, we would road trip and stop at Stuckey’s almost like any other family because it was out of family hands.
We had a woodie station wagon. I was number four of five kids, so I was always in the backseat with no air conditioning. And we’d pulled over and beg our parents to buy us Pecan Log Rolls and coonskin caps and rubber alligators and all the fun, kitschy souvenirs that many of us remember. We were just like everyone else, and I loved that experience. My mission is not just to revive Stuckey’s, but also the road trip experience. I want to see our country get back to enjoying and exploring small-town America and getting on the road.
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Your career began in law and politics. Did you ever imagine that you’d take over the business?
I did not grow up thinking that this would ever be my career path. I didn’t get Stuckey’s until I was 53 years old, and I bought the company, so I had a very different career journey. I was not groomed to be the Pecan Log Roll Heiress as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently called me [laughing]. I’m not an heiress like Paris Hilton. I did not inherit this company, and it was definitely not a Fortune-500 company. I was trained as a lawyer and practiced for decades.
What was the state of the company when you bought it?
The state was not good. We had been losing money for five years since 2015 and, frankly, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to buy it had the company been fabulously successful. My father got the company back in 1985. My father and grandfather were serial entrepreneurs — they always had several side hustles in addition to Stuckey’s (and Stuckey’s started as a side hustle).
My father and his business partners were fabulously successful with their other businesses. But thank God they kept Stuckey’s alive. When they got the company back, we had lost many assets, like the candy company, the trucking company, and the billboard companies. They inherited a struggling company, and I commend them for reviving the brand. They all retired after they sold one of their companies to Warren Buffett. They checked out — as they should have — and the skeleton crew running the company was losing money. My dad’s former business partners asked me if I wanted to buy their shares. That’s how I got into the business.
So, why did you decide to take the plunge and buy it?
[Laughing] Sometimes I ask myself that! It was my family’s legacy, and it broke my heart going on road trips and seeing a Stuckey’s that is now a porn shop or a video poker gambling place. That is not our brand, and that is not what my grandfather would like to have seen. I wanted to turn that around. How often does an established brand lose what’s special about it, fall out of the family’s hands, and you get a chance to take it back? It just doesn’t happen. I thought I’m going to do this. It’s been amazing. Within six months we turned a profit, and I got a business partner who helps me run this thing. We just bought a candy plant, and our new product is literally just about to roll off the lines. We are about to totally turn things around, and I can’t wait!
You have such a palpable love for vintage road trip nostalgia. How are you bringing this pillar of American life back into Stuckey’s?
So much of brand-building is storytelling. You can talk about how great your product is or how low your prices are, but at some point, people have to have an emotional connection to your brand if you’re going to have sticking power. Great companies are not just selling a product, they’re selling an experience and they’re building community.
I want us to be bigger than just pulling over at these teal roofs. In fact, we don’t own or operate any of our stores. That’s the reality of the company that I acquired. We don’t have any corporate locations, so I have to build this brand around the storytelling of how wonderful it is to explore America. I’m building a road-tripping community.
What’s something that people are often surprised to learn about you?
I’m a health nut! And we sell candy. That’s one of the reasons I set out almost immediately after buying the company to merge with a business partner who has a healthy snack company. The pecan is actually one of the healthiest nuts and it’s the only snack nut native to the United States. It’s full of antioxidants and anti-aging agents and the good kinds of fats and makes your hair and skin glow. It’s okay to have some candy as an indulgent treat — and I absolutely love eating our product — but it’s going to be the absolute freshest and best ingredients that you will find anywhere, and it is going to be mind-blowingly delicious.
You and many others call this a comeback story. What have been some hurdles you’ve faced in your first two years at the helm?
The lack of control over our stores surprised me the most. We do not have an operations program or a manual or an ongoing percentage of sales: all traditional ways that franchise operations are run. People pay to use the Stuckey’s name on their stores, and only 20 of the 65 locations that are franchised even have a standalone store … we are just a section within the store.
Most of the products you find in the stores are sourced from other people, so we provide a limited quantity of branded merchandise that bears our name. To turn the stores around overnight in such an incredibly competitive marketplace is hard. Accessing the capital and human capacity to really do the gazillion things I want to do with this brand — that’s been the biggest challenge.
Do you have a favorite location?
Any of the traditional teal sloped-roof stores. There are very few of them still left. I’ll highlight Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The owners Russ and Candy Whiteside run that store the way I think Stuckey’s should be run. They make their own fudge, and you walk into that store and you just are hit with the smell of freshly made candy, which is what my grandfather did when he started the business. There’s nothing better than that smell.
Where can we find you on your days off? Do you even have days off?
I don’t really have days off. I call myself an entrepreneur and Stuckey’s an 80-year-old startup. But my time off is road-tripping. I’m so blessed that my kids actually enjoy doing it with me. My daughter will even suggest a new fiberglass statue we haven’t seen. She’s part of that whole generation where everything is a selfie on Instagram or TikTok, so she and her friends will go with me and make videos. Maybe I’ll get a whole new generation of teenagers interested in the brand thanks to my daughter.
Alright, time for a “lightning round.”
Last best meal: Friendly Gus outside of Macon, Georgia. She makes homemade mac-n-cheese, mashed potatoes, collards, and fried chicken every morning. I’ve been in search of “gas station gourmet.” It has to be fresh, made-on-site food, and they have to sell gas. I was inspired by the website Gas Station Gourmet when I saw there are none for Georgia.
Favorite hidden gem in Atlanta: Doll’s Head Trail. A local artist filled this trail with all these dolls. And it’s free!
Last vacation: Helen, Georgia
What’s on your bedside table: I’m reading Bill Bryson’s new book about road tripping.
Go-to birthday present (to give): A shared meal.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
A mentor and a person I really respect, Bill Bolling, founded the Atlanta Community Food Bank from nothing. He told me it wasn’t about the food but about the community. It was an ah-ha moment. If you want something with lasting legacy value, it’s got to go beyond a return on investment. It’s about building a community around a passion like road-tripping.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you couldn’t live without?
A good book. A great pot to cook with. A comfortable mattress.
Thank you, Stephanie, for talking with us. We cannot wait to keep witnessing your incredible comeback story. To see the complete interview with Stephanie, you can check it out below.
Read more interviews with our inspirational FACES in our archives!