Stephanie Stuckey stepped into the role of CEO of Southern road trip chain Stuckey’s in 2019, the company her grandfather, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey Sr., first founded in 1937 as a roadside pecan stand in Eastman, Georgia. As the third generation to lead the business, Stuckey is often on the road, giving a presentation in Houston one week and attending the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago the next, all while sharing her travels on behalf of the company on social media.
Unlike her grandfather and then her father, who focused on keeping the interstate stores and restaurants attractive to travelers, Stephanie Stuckey is taking a different approach to drumming up business and winning new customers. The former Georgia state representative and lawyer bought a new candy factory in 2021, teamed up with a new company president, and is working to revive the 85-year-old Southern travel brand for today’s road trippers, centered on one key component: the pecan.
Stuckey doesn’t have many memories of her grandfather. But there is one that has stuck with her over the years, like molten caramel in pecan brittle before it cools. She remembers walking through the company’s original Eastman candy plant with him when she was 8 years old. Spotting Stuckey’s famous pecan brittle being made, she watched the gooey mixture hit an ice-cold marble table, immediately solidifying. It flattened and started to crack from the temperature change as plant workers broke it up into bite-sized pieces with hammers. Stuckey says she plucked one from the table as she passed by.
“I just remember it being so delicious,” she says. “I still remember that today.”
When Stuckey took over as CEO in 2019 — the only one in her family who wanted to buy back into the business – she turned her attention to the iconic Georgia nut, ramping up production of the company’s famous pecan log roll, a nougat candy with maraschino cherries dipped in caramel and rolled in chopped Georgia pecans.
“The core of everything we’ve done has been the pecan, which is the only snack nut native to this country,” Stuckey says of the company’s history.
Stuckey recently returned to the shuttered plant in Eastman, which still houses the old brittle-making equipment. “I wish I could have revived that plant,” she says, “but it’s in terrible shape.”
Before opening his first location, her grandfather, Sylvester, bought pecans from local farmers and neighbors who had pecan trees on their property, selling the nuts at his roadside stand in Eastman. Stuckey’s grandmother, Ethel, used some of the pecans to make pralines, divinity (pecan-covered nougat candy), and pecan log rolls, now the company’s most popular candy item.
People would pull over to purchase bags of pecans and candies for the road. Stuckey says her grandparents soon realized there was a market for what they were selling, and for other roadside amenities. They began to expand their pecan treats business into gas, souvenirs, and restrooms, building the first standalone Stuckey’s store in Eastman about a year after opening the roadside stand. As the company grew, Stuckey’s grandfather eventually bought the candy plant in Eastman.
Sporting bright-teal roofs, Stuckey’s became road trip destinations. At its peak in the 1960s, the company had over 350 locations in 40 states and thousands of highway billboards reminding travelers where they could “Relax, Refresh, & Refuel.”
Each store had a sense of place: A Florida Stuckey’s might have had kitschy alligator heads and wind chimes made out of shells, while a Virginia location might have sold souvenirs focused on U.S. history.
Tim Hollis, 59, grew up going to Stuckey’s while on the road for family vacations.
“I came from a family that believed in preserving things,” says the Birmingham, Alabama, native. “My dad was the one that when we went on vacation trips, he saved absolutely everything — every brochure, every postcard, every roadmap. The funny thing is, he stored those things in empty Stuckey’s candy boxes.”
As an author of several books on Southern tourism history, Hollis even wrote a book on the roadside chain, citing Stuckey’s as one of the most iconic businesses to come out of the road trip era in the Southeast.
“Even though they had locations in practically every state, when people think of Stuckey’s, they think about trips to Florida, they think about trips to Georgia,” he adds. “That is really where it came from, and that’s what it will always be associated with — those Southern vacation trips.”
But as times changed, so did the company. Sylvester Stuckey merged the business with Pet Milk, Inc. in 1964, and over 20 years, it passed through several corporate owners, steadily declining, until Stephanie Stuckey’s father, W.S. “Billy” Stuckey Jr., a five-term Georgia congressman, bought back the business in 1984.
He propped it up with the money made from his other businesses, namely Dairy Queen. He had the franchise rights to the fast-food restaurants off the interstates in the continental U.S., so he added Stuckey’s to some of those Dairy Queen locations, jumpstarting the Stuckey’s Express people still see today. This store-within-a-store model created licensed Stuckey’s shops which include a section dedicated to the brand’s items, but aren’t standalone Stuckey’s. There are only about 15 old roadside shops remaining from Stuckey’s grandfather’s time, mostly scattered across the South.
After Stuckey’s father retired and left the business to a handful of business partners, it wasn’t enough to keep the company steady. With the Eastman candy plant sold, the foundation that once supported the company was gone, Stuckey says.
“All we had was a rented warehouse with some inventory in it and 68 locations that we don’t own or operate anymore,” Stuckey says of the licensed stores. “That was not bringing us enough revenue to keep the operations afloat.”
She decided the days of relying on the Stuckey’s stores — whether licensed or standalone — were over. Instead, she shifted the company’s focus to food sales, but also leveraged her history with the brand to keep the old-time Stuckey’s nostalgia alive. In six months she was turning a profit. From 2019 to 2021, candy and nut sales increased about 35 percent. Now, halfway into 2022, Stuckey estimates that number is growing closer to 50 percent.
While she doesn’t have a background in business, Stuckey credits her time as a state representative and public defender with teaching her to be a strong advocate for worthwhile causes and to answer tough questions — skills she takes with her as she pitches investors, applies for financing, and secures sales.
Her ability to negotiate with investors while marketing nostalgia for the brand has been key to the rejuvenation of Stuckey’s and its pecan candies over the last three years, says company president R.G. Lamar. Stuckey hawks pecans, brittle, and log rolls on Instagram and Twitter, and even provides a way for people to share their fondest Stuckey’s memories via an online guest book.
Lamar is Stuckey’s business partner and a third-generation farmer at Lamar Pecan Company in Hawkinsville, Georgia, which has managed the Stuckey’s pecan orchard for two decades. He joined Stuckey’s after the company acquired his pecan snack company, Front Porch Pecans.
“We saw very much eye-to-eye on the opportunity to promote pecans as a snack, so we just decided to kind of throw our hats in together,” he says.
He and Stuckey purchased a new candy plant and pecan-shelling plant in Wrens, Georgia, in 2021. What was once six figures of debt is now worth over $2 million in revenue for the company.
“It’s because [Stuckey’s is] a great brand,” she says. “We have a unique product, and we’re focusing on what’s working — and that is the food.”
This means sourcing pecans from Georgia growers to make sweet and savory snacks that appeal to people looking for less-processed foods while on the road, and selling different components of the pecan, like raw nuts, nut pieces, and pecan meal. Her goal is to be the “go-to brand of pecans” — much like Planters peanuts or Blue Diamond almonds — by getting Stuckey’s pecans into grocery stores, convenience stores, and today’s roadside restaurant and country store chains like Cracker Barrel.
Down the line, she hopes to eventually own a handful of Stuckey’s interstate stores to revive the original premise behind the company as a “roadside oasis” while continuing to build up the pecan side of the business to secure its future for another 85 years.
Though nostalgia makes a longtime Stuckey’s fan like Hollis wish he could see all the old stores reopen, he understands the business needs to adapt to stay afloat. Hollis says he’s watched many brands from his childhood fade away, so it makes him happy that Stuckey’s is still around for a new generation to discover on road trips through Georgia and the South.
“It would’ve been terrible if the same thing had happened to Stuckey’s, if there had not been any of them for people today to see,” Hollis says. “We would’ve lost a little bit of history.”
Kris Martins is a Brazilian-American journalist exploring the intersection of the restaurant industry and food culture. Her work has appeared in Eater Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta magazine, and MyRecipes. When she’s not writing, she’s visiting a farmers market, sharing a fun bottle of wine, or cooking a new recipe at home.