Running the company her grandfather started might not have seemed like it would be in the cards for a young Stephanie Stuckey.
“My grandfather sold the company the year before I was born. During my childhood, I didn’t go into Stuckey’s like we owned them because we didn’t. I went to Stuckey’s like everyone else did. My family took our vacations in the car back in the 70s,” said Stuckey, who bought the company bearing her family name in 2019 and acquired the former Atwell Pecan Co. on Main Street in Wrens, Ga. in January 2021. Stuckey’s recently moved its operations to Wrens.
W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey Sr. started Stuckey’s as a roadside pecan stand in Eastman, Ga. in 1937 after borrowing $35. His first company motto was “every traveler is a friend.”
While Stephanie Stuckey might not have owned the company, the business felt like a friend of hers on those many road trips she took with her parents and four siblings packed into the back of a station wagon.
“We would pull over at South of the Border, Weeki Wachee and Stuckey’s. We were travelers like everyone else,” she said.
The business grew from the original pecan stand to include its signature candies such as pecan logs and divinity, made by her grandmother, Ethel Stuckey. In 1948, the small candy kitchen moved into a candy plant and distribution center in Eastman, Ga., according to the Stuckey’s website.
During the 1960s, “Stuckey’s grew into a roadside empire synonymous with the American road trip,” the website said.
The business grew to 368 stores in 30 states with 4,000-plus billboards pointing the way.
In 1964, the year before Stephanie Stuckey was born, Stuckey’s merged with Pet Milk Co.
Stuckey’s decline began in the late 1970s. Her grandfather died in 1977 and the stores began to dwindle.
In 1984, her father, W.S. “Billy” Stuckey Jr. acquired the company. He would start the Stuckey’s Express model of the stores within the store. And in 2009, the recession hit the Eastman plant closing its doors, but the candies would still be produced.
Stephanie Stuckey, in the meantime, would grow up and pursue a degree in law, spending several years as a trial attorney as well as serving in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1999 to 2013. She followed in her father and grandfather’s footsteps there as well. Her father served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and her grandfather served in the Georgia Legislature.
After leaving the Georgia House of Representatives, she held several positions. She worked on behalf of environmental causes as well as heading the mayor’s sustainability office for the City of Atlanta. She had settled into another position and was happy there when the opportunity to buy her family’s business arose.
Stuckey considered it for about two months before signing paperwork, and on Nov. 1, 2019, she became the CEO of her beloved family business.
“I loved my grandfather, and I didn’t want his legacy to be a bunch of stores that were shuttered on the side of the road, and people asking ‘whatever happened to that company I used to remember as a kid?’ I wanted it to be resurrected,” she said.
While her background wasn’t as the CEO of a snack company, she had acquired the skills of leadership, communication and even sales over the years.
As a trial attorney, she had to make a pitch of sorts when presenting a case, she said. She had to raise money for her political campaign, and she’s had to raise funds to invest into the business. And as an environmentalist, she’s “always advocating for the underdog.”
Stuckey’s, she said, was definitely that underdog when she took over the helm. It wasn’t doing well financially.
Some might say she picked a bad time to resurrect a dying brand, but Stuckey doesn’t agree. In fact, the timing was probably just right.
“Here’s the interesting thing. Some of the largest most powerful companies in the world were founded during economic hard times and during challenging times — like Microsoft, Target, Amazon, Revlon, IBM; the list goes on and on,” she said.
Both Krispy Kreme and Stuckey’s were founded in 1937 during the height of the Depression.
“It just forces you to be creative,” she said of hard economic times. “We had to think of ways to reinvent the company, which we had to do anyway.”
As Stuckey was attempting to resurrect her family’s company during the pandemic, another resurrection occurred — the road trip. With people canceling plane trips, many took to the open roads to drive. And what’s a road trip without snacks? Grocery and convenience stores were still open, and people were still eating snacks.
At Stuckey’s, the company shifted from running stores to manufacturing products at the Wrens’ facility, and its leader embarked on her mission to make Stuckey’s a name re-associated with travel and the roadside experience. She did it by taking her own road trips and posting them on her social media.
“I do a lot of speaking engagements to publicize the Stuckey’s comeback journey,” she said. “I’ll take the time to find interesting places to explore. I love roadside attractions. That’s very much aligned with what our brand represents.”
On those trips, she likes to stay in unique hotels and bed and breakfasts. She searches out places with character and their own stories to tell.
And Stuckey said she’s enjoying the ride.
She recently finished writing a book paralleling her life with her grandfather’s and her experiences with his. The chapters alternate between her and her grandfather. The book will be published in May 2024. Stuckey said she learned a lot about him and the company after taking over as its head.
“I was just so amazed at how he managed — just through resourcefulness and drive — to create something amazing,” she said.
She also pays tribute in the book to an African American man named John King, who was a vital part of the company’s early years.
Stuckey is already planning for the company’s centennial in 2037.
“I want us to be the go-to brand for snack pecans in the world. Just like Planters for peanuts, Emerald for cashews or The Wonderful Company for pistachios, Blue Diamond for almonds, I want Stuckey’s to be the company you think of when you think of pecans snacks. I want us to be on every snack/nut aisle in the country,” she said.
Charmain Z. Brackett is the publisher of Augusta Good News. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have headlines delivered to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter here.