Can Stephanie Stuckey Revive Stuckey’s
The teal blue roofs of Stuckey’s road stops once rivaled the Golden Arches. Times changed, the Stuckey family sold the business, and the chain fell into decline. Then, in the fall of 2019, Stephanie Stuckey, granddaughter of the founder, decided to buy the business back. In this conversation, Stuckey talks about how the business grew to 368 stores in more than 40 states, why the family sold it, and what went wrong under the new owners. Before signing the deal to buy Stuckey’s back, she talked to two consultants who looked at the books, looked at the stores, looked at the competition and told her to stay away. To find out why she bought it anyway, you can watch the video or read the highlights below.
Why don’t we start—tell us a bit about the glory days. What was Stuckey’s at its peak?
I think what was so special about Stuckey’s—and what my grandfather created was that the stores were similar in that they had good quality and standards and clean restaurants and gas. And the product line—as far as the Stuckey’s candy and pecans were the same—but every store was different. So it really was an experience unlike any other. You would go in and you would get a sense of what was local. If you pulled over in Somerton, South Carolina, you would know you were in South Carolina, We would be selling peaches and firecrackers. Some stores had a talking mina bird. Some of them had those horses that the front you put a quarter in and they would rock, some didn’t. Some had photobooths. We had a couple of stores that had beehives and made their own honey, some made fudge. So there was a specialness about a stop.
And they were run almost always by a husband-and-wife team that lived at the store. So there was a real sense of pride and ownership with employees or franchisees. We’ve always had an independent franchise model, which we can get into later because it’s going forward. Frankly, there are some challenges with that model, getting consistency and quality, but historically, my grandfather was focused on the sale of his product and merchandise, and that’s where he derived his product.
He had people—most often a husband-and-wife team—who actually lived at the store.
In the store. So if you go to the old Stuckey’s—I was in an old one two weeks ago in Hayden, Alabama—and the living quarters are still there.
That’s amazing. Were some of them full-service restaurants. I think there’s some confusion about this. Some people seem to remember restaurants, but that wasn’t predominantly the case, right?
Stephanie Stuckey 3:55
It was never the case. And my grandfather’s vision, which I think is really smart. He was a businessman. He loved creating something fun for people, but he also enjoyed making money and employing people. And his idea was, like I said, he made money from the sale of his product. So if you have people sitting stationary at a table, you’re not making a lot of profit. And anyone who runs a restaurant, unless it’s a very high end restaurant, knows. Restaurants are hard businesses to run. There’s a reason why the number one failing type of business in this country is a restaurant. It’s hard to make margin. It’s hard to be profitable with food.
Even in normal times.
Even in normal times. And then the waitstaff labor costs. So my grandfather recognized that was a challenge. He was very thoughtful and deliberate. What do people on the road want? You give people what they want if you’re in a business. You’re solving a problem for people. What’s the problem? They’re on the interstate. They want to stop, but they want to make time. You want a hot meal, but they want it quick. So he had a snack bar. You would order at the counter. He had very limited seating. Why? He didn’t want people seated. He wanted them walking around the store spending money. So you could grab a hotdog and walk around the store and look at all of his kitschy souvenirs, and his candy, and his pecan. snacks. And that’s where he made his money.
Loren Feldman 5:30
So you said the peak was in the 70s? That’s 50 years ago now.
Stephanie Stuckey 5:36
Sixties and seventies.
Loren Feldman 5:36
How many stores were there?
Stephanie Stuckey 5:40
Three hundred sixty-eight in almost 40 states.
Loren Feldman 5:46
Can you tell us what the revenues were at the peak?
Stephanie Stuckey 5:49
Not off the top of my head. I do have that figure and I just can’t pull it.
Loren Feldman 5:58
And did your grandfather own the whole thing?
Stephanie Stuckey 6:03
He did. Well, let me preface that. The franchises were independently owned, right? But he owned the company outright. And I think it’s really fascinating the way he built employee loyalty. I know this is part of that era, in the 50s and 60s and 70s. You would get a job out of college or maybe out of high school. And that was your job. You were part of that corporation for life. And you rarely see that today. So I recognize that part of it was just the culture of the times. But my grandfather really rewarded his employees with ownership in the company, but the way he did it was they had shares in the stores. So the franchisee sometimes wouldn’t completely own their stores. They would own half of the stores, and he would share ownership, and he would give bonuses every year for good employees. And it would be shares of the company.
WHAT WAS LEFT OF STUCKEY’S WHEN YOU BOUGHT IT?
Loren Feldman 7:07
All right, so you’ve given us a picture of it at its peak. You bought it back a little more than a year ago. What did you buy?
Stephanie Stuckey 7:18
I bought Stuckey’s Corp. On paper, what I bought was 67 franchise locations. Again, all franchised, only 20 of which were brick and mortar stores. A distribution center that we rent not own. And what I really bought was a brand. I bought the trademark, which I immediately made sure was updated, hired a law firm. And we did have to update some of the trademarks. I really bought a brand.
Loren Feldman 7:51
So from 368 to 67 locations, you said that only 20 of them are brick and mortar. The others are kind of a store within a store?
Stephanie Stuckey 8:02
Yeah, without going too much into history, it fell out of family hands for over 20 years. My father got the company back in 1985. He was running several other businesses at the time. So what my father did that made sense at the time was, because he owned interstate Dairy Queen Corporation. So he would pair Stuckey’s with interstate Dairy Queens. And so he created this model store within a store. So you pull over and nowadays you see cobranding all the time at Love’s and Pilot and all the other interstate locations you’ll see. There will be a Wendy’s or a Subway or a Dunkin all under one roof. So he was doing that in the mid 80s with Stuckey’s. And so, some of those are still around. Some look good, some not so good. So a lot of cleaning up to do.
Loren Feldman 8:54
Can you give us some sense of the revenues?
Stephanie Stuckey 9:01
So we had not been turning a profit since 2016. And when I got the company, we ended 2019 in the red—$130,000, basically. We were the first roadside retail. There was no competition. Now it’s everywhere. Every week I have to keep up, every single day, reading the convenience store daily paper to see who’s bought who out. Speedway gets bought out. Flying J gets bought out by Pilot. It’s constantly happening. And we were in—Stuckey’s Express was in a chain, Wilco, and Wilco got bought out by another company that then got bought out by Pilot. And they pushed Stuckey’s largely out of their locations, and we overnight lost a quarter of our locations. We were no longer profitable and just hemorrhaging money, year after year after year. So that’s what I inherited—not inherited. I bought it. I bought the company.
Loren Feldman 10:47
Are you comfortable telling us how much you paid?
Stephanie Stuckey 10:56
I’ll say it was six figures. And it was my life savings.
Okay, that gives us a sense.
I did consult some investment advisors. I talked to three. Two said, “Do not buy it.” The third said, “Invest in it”. And the third who said, Invest in it, is someone who knew my family and had been involved with the business peripherally over the years and had a good understanding of the company. And he said, You should do this, because it’s a brand. And the brand’s not on the books. And within six months, we started turning a modest profit.
Loren Feldman 11:37
The ones who told you not to buy it, what did they tell you?
Stephanie Stuckey 11:44
Well, they just looked at the books, and they said, This company has been losing money. It’s a very competitive landscape. Your stores are not in good condition. You don’t have the rights to those stores. So I can’t go in and control. I mean, yes, I can technically under our franchise agreements—and I’m an attorney—but you have to be an attorney reading agreement. It’s very straightforward. If I don’t think that they’re representing our brand well, I can de-brand. And I can take stuff out of the stores. But frankly, we need the revenue.
Loren Feldman 12:32
I want to talk a lot more about that about how you turned it around and what your vision is for the future. But let’s take a step back. Where do you trace the decline of the business to? Did that happen before it was sold?
Stephanie Stuckey 21:07
Oh, the decline was when my grandfather sold the company to Pet dairy Corporation.
Loren Feldman 21:17
That’s not a name I’m familiar with.
Stephanie Stuckey 21:21
It’s a St. Louis-based company. It seemed like a good fit at the time, because they were in the candy business, right? And then my grandfather remained head of the Pet Stuckey’s division of Pet. And I think you see this a lot with a visionary founder of a company. He had a great idea—roadside retail. There’s a need for it. He grew it from a modest, pecan stand on the side of the road in 1937, to the 368 stores. But it got to the point, and this happens in any business, you get to the point of the growth is going so fast, and he was rapidly expanding. He couldn’t manage it. So he needed the capital, and he needed more management in order for the company to grow. Now he could have gotten business partners. He could have gotten a loan. He’d actually gotten loans throughout his career. He was always very highly leveraged. But I think he just was ready to get additional support, and it was a very lucrative offer. The money was good.
And so he sold it completely. He sold the candy plant, he sold the trucking company, he sold the billboard company, he sold the franchise rights to the stores, he sold the trademark, he sold the company. And then the head of Pet Dairy Corporation, who brought my grandfather on—they had a really good, positive relationship. He died suddenly of a heart attack in his 40s. So that’s kind of a downward trajectory. I think often in business, decisions are definitely based on finances, but it’s also relationship-based. This was largely relationship-based. There was a trust factor. There was a sharing of the vision and the strategic direction of Stuckey’s. And that was gone. And so my grandfather was pushed out. And he died shortly after.
And then Pet got bought out in a hostile takeover by a Chicago railroad conglomerate. And then there was the Arab oil embargo. People weren’t driving on the interstate as much. And then there was the Airline Deregulation Act, which made domestic air travel affordable. So it was just all these bad things happening. It was like a perfect storm. And so I don’t know if you can pinpoint like this one thing. And I mean, you’ve studied so many businesses throughout your career, Loren, I’m interested in your thoughts, but I wonder how often there is just like this one moment when a business starts failing.
Loren Feldman 24:39
I think often one common thread is that a business gets sold to somebody who’s more interested in it from the cash flow perspective. Often it’s private equity money that comes in, and they start doing things differently. And they don’t have the love for the brand that the family that developed it once had, and they look for ways to save money. And that tends to have an impact, especially over time. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what we’re talking about here.
Stephanie Stuckey 25:13
No, true. And when people ask me, What makes you think you can run Stuckey’s? Well, first of all, I do know how to read a balance sheet. I do know finances. I couldn’t have been in the Georgia legislature and balanced the budget or head of the Office of Sustainability for the city of Atlanta. And I ran a nonprofit law firm for a while, too, before I went on to the city of Atlanta. So I do have the basic skill set. But more importantly, no one’s going to love this brand more than I do.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION FOR STUCKEY’S?
Loren Feldman 26:09
Well, give us your vision. What would you like Stuckey’s to be when you get it where you want it to be?
Stephanie Stuckey 26:15
I think one of the important things to stress before I really say what my vision is, is that you have to—when you’re in business or running any organization—you have to be able to adjust with the times and let go of some sort of fixed notion. And I think especially if it is a family business, that is hard, because in my case there’s three generations of running this company. But I had a very almost romanticized view of Stuckey’s when I took on the company. Oh, I want to bring back these blue, the turquoise buildings with the sloped roof and the blue jewel, the candy store on the side of the road. And there’s part of me that is still really attached to that.
But then I look at, how are we making our money? What’s driving the revenue growth? How have I been able to turn this company around? And it’s because I’ve been selling the product. So the future for us is going to be more product-focused. And the core of our product line is the pecan. And that is one of the few nuts that’s native to the United States. Ninety percent of the world production of the pecan is in this country, and Georgia has consistently been the number one state for pecan production. We have a great product. It’s a healthy nut. It’s domestically grown. It’s sustainably sourced. And we can sell it in shell, we can sell it raw, we can sell it in our full line of pecan candies and snacks. And the stores are a venue by which we can deliver them to our customer, but there are a whole variety of channels, sales channels, by which we can get that product to market.
So my vision is we hunker down on selling pecan-based products. And we have some wonderful merchandise which is sort of like a little sliver of that. But our branding has gotten really good. We have a wonderful designer, and we have a handful of really special stores that are almost like a destination location that are showcasing the product. That’s sort of the new vision that I have. And we are very close—hopefully not revealing too much—but we are close to closing on a manufacturing facility. So we will be making the product again for the first time since 1964. We’ll have a manufacturing facility.
Loren Feldman 29:06
Stephanie Stuckey 29:06
So our margins are about to get better. Our ability to scale is about to improve exponentially. And I get back to what I said at the beginning, which is, When you have a business, you’ve got to be solving a problem that people have. So what’s the problem you have on the interstate? Well, when my grandfather started, there wasn’t even an interstate. He was before the Interstate, but people traveling needed a place to stop where they could get gas, where they could get a hot snack, maybe a souvenir. Those places are everywhere now. So it’s figuring out what’s our marketplace differentiator. And as Seth Godin likes to say, Who is our tribe? Who is the unique customer who’s going to want to come to our store above all others.
I have a business partner now. There’s a lot I’m throwing in here. He’s in the pecan business. So he’s going to help us with manufacturing and exporting, grocery store distribution, chains.
Loren Feldman 31:54
You sold him a portion of the business.
Stephanie Stuckey 31:58
Loren Feldman 32:00
And that was going to be my next question. I was going to ask you, because you mentioned how people ask you why you think you’re qualified to run Stuckey’s. And you have a great resume, but you know, this show is called 21 Hats. You’re wearing a lot of hats right now. And you’re talking about doing things that I don’t think you’ve done before, like, overseeing manufacturing?
Stephanie Stuckey 32:22
I’ve not done that before.
Loren Feldman 32:23
I’m curious, what are you most confident about? And what are you most wary about taking on?
Stephanie Stuckey 32:46
I’m most confident about building the brand.
Yeah. And in a perfect world—you know, I just saw a great documentary on Steve Madden, the shoe designer. He built that company with $1,000 in savings and grew it to a multi-billion-dollar corporation. He’s had a lot of ups and downs. But one of the things that I really liked about his career was he—I think about five, six years ago—he decided he’s going to focus on what he does best. And that’s the branding and the designing. And so he changed his title from CEO to chief brand officer, and he brought in a super smart, highly qualified CEO. In a perfect world, I really could see myself shifting away from being CEO and being chief brand officer. I would be so happy doing that. And that’s not to say I’m not rising to the challenge and being CEO, because I’ve got to do it.
Loren Feldman 33:55
Well, it sounds like you’ve already brought on some help with your partner who I’m guessing is bringing some manufacturing expertise and …
Stephanie Stuckey 34:02
And financial acumen. Yeah, he has a good business sense, has run his own business. He had a pecan snack company. He’s younger than I am. He’s about 15 years younger. So it’s also a bit of succession planning, and getting the fresh perspective of someone who didn’t necessarily grow up with Stuckey’s on the side of the road. His name is RJ Lamar. He’s very good at bringing me down a notch or two when I get all romantic about, Remember the talking mina birds? He’s like, No, no, Stephanie, I really don’t.
Loren Feldman 46:48
We’re almost out of time. The last thing I want to ask you about is your marketing strategy. And one of the things I’ve noticed, having gotten to know you a few weeks ago and following you a little bit, you have quite a following on LinkedIn. To what extent is LinkedIn your marketing strategy?
Stephanie Stuckey 47:10
It’s amazing how that shifted. Because when I started, I was posting on LinkedIn once a week. And I had like, I don’t know, a couple thousand followers from the head of sustainability for the city of Atlanta. And I think 90 percent of my followers were related to the environment. And I’m now at 27,000 followers, and the post I did for my one-year anniversary at Stuckey’s last month, I checked it earlier this week, I had 976,000 engagements with that post.
Loren Feldman 47:44
Wow. How did you do that? How did you build your following?
Stephanie Stuckey 47:48
I just started watching YouTube videos and webinars on how to market your brand and how to tell a story. And I’m so fortunate, I’ve got a great story.
Loren Feldman 48:02
You do have a great story. But why did you choose to tell it on LinkedIn? It didn’t.
Stephanie Stuckey 48:06
I’ve been telling it on everywhere. The crazy thing is, I’m doing very similar posts. I’ve learned on Twitter, you have to be kind of sassy with a little bit of attitude, which is not as much Stuckey’s brand. Twitter’s really not our medium. We’re not Wendy’s. We’re just not that smartass. That’s not our vibe. So I just started posting every day on everything. So I was posting on Facebook, I was posting on LinkedIn, I’m posting on Instagram, I’m pinning on Pinterest. And I started noticing LinkedIn was taking off. LinkedIn was the one that was taking off. So then I was like, What do you do when you find something that works? You double down on that.
Loren Feldman 48:53
Have you been paying to promote it on LinkedIn?
Stephanie Stuckey 49:00
All organic. And then I just noticed what posts get the most engagements. And then I start doing more of those posts. It’s the posts that tell the story.
Loren Feldman 49:11
What is the value to you of telling the story? Does that sell your product?
Stephanie Stuckey 49:17
You know, that’s, that’s so hard for me because right now I’m really focused on brand awareness. And I get frustrated sometimes because everyone gets so focused on the pay-per-click and how many clicks actually generate the sales—and absolutely, that’s important. We have to have cash flow. We have to have revenue. But I want people to have a relationship with Stuckey’s. I don’t want just a one-time customer, two-time customer that’s going to buy a product. I want someone that connects with us. And so for me, telling the story is creating those points of connectivity. And that might not generate a sale overnight. But it’s going to be part of the longevity of this brand, and I want to tell it in a way that sparks a conversation. To me, the posts that are the most important are not the posts that get the most likes. Somebody just clicks it. I want posts that have dialogue, posts where people give me their thoughts, that you have messages. That’s what I’m looking for.