Stuckey’s has been a staple of America’s highways. At its peak, Stuckey’s pecan rolls, Texaco gas, and homemade candies dotted almost every interstate across every state. But a series of buy-outs and lack of attention shuttered this iconic American staple.
In this episode, Fran Racioppi is joined by Stephanie Stuckey – the third generation Stuckey to run the brand after buying it out of near bankruptcy two years ago. Stephanie is a lawyer by trade now leading not only a chain of franchised roadside stops and a pecan snack company, but also the resurgence of the American road trip.
Listen to the podcast here:
About Stephanie Stuckey
Stephanie Stuckey is the third-generation CEO of Stuckey’s Corporation, after buying the business out of near bankruptcy in 2019. Since then, she has embarked on a turnaround campaign of both roadside travel stops and the great America roadtrip. She served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1999 to 2013, and was later appointed by Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed to be Director of Sustainability for the City of Atlanta and then to the position of Chief Resilience Officer.
Stephanie attended the University of Georgia and earned a B.A. in French in 1989. In 1992, she earned a J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law. Stephanie’s optimism and personal connection to the Stuckey brand is a core asset of her change strategy. In addition to modest store growth, she has led the company in the acquisition of a pecan candy company.
Stephanie, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
The Great American Road Trip is part of every family’s heritage. I remember being crammed in the car, the excitement of getting fast food, and the movies. I remember we have the little Game Boys, but now you have full video systems in the car and everyone has iPads. We didn’t have that when I was a kid. There was always this initial excitement about waking up early and getting in the car. The first couple of hours were super exciting, and then it was like, “Are we there yet?” That quickly was followed by fighting with my siblings, and then my father pulling the car over, the arms swinging, and everybody yelling.
This is something that you and your family have embraced and it’s become providing the environment for all of these experiences to happen. I think about the stops South of the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, Flying J, Love’s, Speedway, and Stuckey’s. It’s an honor to sit here and talk to you, get to know you, tell your story, and hear about the future direction of this company because it’s so iconic in this country and a part of so many of our lives.
Thank you for that. You gave me flashbacks to my own childhood. We road tripped like so many other families. I grew up in the ‘70s and I’m 1 of 5 kids. We were in that woodie station wagon. I’m number 4 or 5, so low on the pecking order. I was on the way backseat because the air conditioning didn’t get back that far. It was those seats that pulled out and faced sideways. The good thing though I didn’t have air conditioning but my dad couldn’t reach that far. He would try to swat us with a flyswatter and still had the guts of insects on it. That was the worst, but he couldn’t reach the way back. I was on the way back.
Kids now with their Game Boys, their iPhones, all their devices and the videos that they can watch, you’re missing out. I call those feel conversations with families because between playing the games, swatting your brother and your sister, and your dad saying, “Don’t make me pull over,” there are these moments where you’re bonding as a family. That’s what made the road trip so special. Like you, we got up at 5:00 AM to get on the road. We would do these insane trips where dad is like, “We’re going the whole way in one day eleven hours. Get up.” He just throws you in the car. You wake up and you’re in North Carolina.
We did it over the winter. We drove down to Florida from Rhode Island twice, two different times, and I did that. We’re driving straight through and it was 30 hours. I’m going to drive until I’m too tired to drive and then switch with my wife. She does the same thing. We had to have those conversations with my daughter like, “Put the iPad down. Put the phone down. Look out the window.” At one point, we had her take out her computer and do a PowerPoint slide for every state that we went through with a little history of the state to get her off of it.
We always wanted to pull over though. You sound like my dad. The one difference growing up as Stuckey is we would pull over. There are a lot of parents who wanted to make time and they don’t want to pull over, but we want you to pull over.
That’s the story. There’s a community here and I want to get into it. In 1937, your grandfather, Sylvester Stuckey, borrowed a truck and $35 from his grandmother to start a roadside stand to sell pecans and candies. Fast forward to the 1960s, there are 368 stores, 30 states, a candy plant, a trucking company, and a sign company that produced 4,000 Stuckey’s billboards across America’s highways. What was the vision in 1937? Why did he set out to build this roadside stand?
That’s a great summation of the history of Stuckey’s, so thank you for that. At the beginning, he didn’t have a vision from what I could gather. My grandfather died when I was twelve years old, so it was out of family hands for decades. It was sold the year before I was born. I grew up knowing my grandfather is my grandfather, not as the CEO of Stuckey’s because he had sold it.Since the very beginning, Stuckey’s has had a well-earned reputation of being warm. Click To Tweet
As I’ve taken on this journey that I wasn’t expecting to do later in life, I’ve been learning about him. I’m talking to people who knew him and reading a lot of first-hand accounts. There was a published biography by a local university press that has a lot of first-hand accounts and interviews. I pieced together what happened in those early days. From what I can tell, there was not this great vision.
Many of these entrepreneurs, especially in that era during the Great Depression, were just looking for money. It was a side hustle for him. Pecans have on years and off years, and it was a bumper crop year. He needed money. He would drive around the countryside in this rented Model A Ford and he had that $35. He would buy pecans from local farmers, sell them to a shelling plant, and mark up the price, and then he created that little stand. Initially, it was just making money. It was his side hustle from farming all day and it grew.
When he started to get the vision is when he realized he was solving a problem that would help people and make their lives better. That’s what any great entrepreneur does. “What’s a problem that people have and how can I fix that?” The problem he saw was, back in that day, there was no reliable place to pull over and get everything you needed if you were traveling.
You think the 1930s and ‘40s, cars broke down all the time. There weren’t safe places to stop. The restrooms were spotty if they even existed. There wasn’t reliable food. You usually had to pack your own food to go on a road trip. He put all of that under one roof. He had gas, cold drinks, and hot snacks that were quick. He offered souvenirs. He offered the pecan candies and treats that we became famous for. He sold gas and we became synonymous with Texaco. We were the first roadside retail chain before all the others, and that’s amazing. His vision grew to making road trips an experience and fun. Initially, it was just a side hustle to earn a living.
You couldn’t drive 85 to 90 miles an hour back then, so these road trips took way longer than they do now.
The other interesting thing about that era that people now appreciate, especially in the South, is that places were segregated. If you were African-American, there was a whole other layer to road trips where you had to plan everything in advance and there were many places you could not pull over. Stuckey’s was one of the few places, chains especially, that was not segregated. We have this reputation that’s well earned of being warm and hospitable since our beginning.
You built that inclusive community that you’re even talking about now. The 1970s came around and the company has scaled. You said that the company was “tossed and tarnished” by multiple sets of hands. The empire began to dwindle when Stuckey’s was purchased by a large corporation and became trapped in a time warp. That was how it’s phrased as what happened in this period of time in the company. What happened when the company was acquired? Why do you say it was trapped in a time warp? What was going on?
People remembered what we were in our heyday. In that sense, we were trapped in a time warp. The road trip and road travel became something completely different, and in fact, in many ways, the road trip went away in the ‘80s. With the Arab oil embargo and the advent of affordable flight, people were suddenly taking airplanes for their family vacations. They weren’t all piling in a car. When they did, there were more efficient cars. You didn’t pull over as much.
The era of the road trip ended in the late ‘70s, and then you couple that with the internal factors that we experienced with being out of family hands. This was not a takeover. My grandfather sold willingly. He had a great deal and he made a lot of money. At that time, it made sense. He sold it to Pet Incorporated, which makes evaporated milk and they had Whitman’s candy samplers as part of their portfolio when there was a good relationship.
Everything worked great for about five years, and then there was a change in upper management at Pet. My grandfather was ousted. The visionary founder was no longer around to help steer the direction of Stuckey’s, then my grandfather died and then there were all these external factors. It lost the magic. Frankly, I see that a lot with chains, especially the nostalgic ones that have fallen out of family hands. You lose that magic and vision. If it’s still in the family, there’s that extra layer of emotional connection where you’re going to be true to that founder’s vision. I’m so blessed that we were able to get the company back.
That’s interesting because the numbers show that 70% of businesses don’t make it from the 1st generation to the 2nd generation. It’s only 12% of businesses that make it from the 2nd generation to the 3rd generation. From the perspective of Stuckey’s story, it is interesting because between the 1st and the 2nd generation, it changed hands.
In 1984, your dad, Billy, came back in and he purchases it back, starts running it, and then brings it back to about 165 franchises in 17 states. There was this different model, the Stuckey’s Express model. Can you talk to me about how that Stuckey’s Express model created this change within the company that started to revitalize the brand?
First, let me comment on the change in ownership. Our story is different from other family businesses. You’re right. Those statistics are startling and sobering. There’s a reason why family businesses fail. It’s because that sense of excitement and entrepreneurial spirit gets lost over the generations sometimes. I’m in an odd way grateful that it fell out of family hands because I’m not your typical third-generation CEO of a family business.
I had to buy the company, even though it was from my father. My father had business partners. There were about five of them so there was a team and I had to buy the company back. The fact that it was out of our family’s hands and was trashed by corporations, there were a couple of owners, gives us such gratitude that we have the chance to rebuild this and do honor to my grandfather.
The word gratitude is important because when we talk about it in terms of leadership, we talk about gratitude, arrogance, and entitlement. You use the term gratitude because you appreciate the opportunity to be there, whereas when you look at those numbers and why they fail at such high rates over generation, it’s because there’s an arrogance that’s tied to entitlement. There’s this expectation. The term expectation is thrown out a lot in this conversation, where you sit back as a 2nd generation or 3rd generation and say, “I just have to wait my turn and this is going to come to me.” That arrogance, expectation, and entitlement of something that is “owed to you” when it does come to you, you can appreciate it in the way that makes you work hard enough to continue it in the way that the previous generation did.
One of the worst things you can do for your kids is give them a trust fund. Other than a trust fund maybe for education or create a 529 account to give them a good start in life. Handing wealth to the next generation does not instill a hard work ethic at all. I’m blessed that I wasn’t the heir apparent that I was number 4 of 5 kids and I was number 5 of 7 grandkids. Even if there had been this sense of passing the company along, frankly, the daughter who was number four, I wasn’t on the pecking order. There was that and then it was out of family hands, so there’s that factor.
The third factor that I’m in an odd way grateful for is that our company was not doing well. It’s not like I’m the heiress to Holiday Inn or Hilton Hotels. I’m thinking Paris Hilton. I’m the “heiress” to rubber alligators, Pecan Log Rolls, and ashtrays that says, “Put your butts here.” When I got the company, it had been losing money and was in debt.
It’s funny you say that because we interviewed Mitzi Perdue, who is the Sheraton heiress. Mitzi is an absolutely amazing woman, philanthropist, journalist, and author. We had a phenomenal conversation and she’s become such a friend to me after spending some time with her. She brought up Paris Hilton and Hilton as well. I tell this story because Mitzi compared herself to Paris Hilton and said in our episode that she wanted to meet Paris Hilton and had never met her.
It’s funny because you’re the second person now who is in this kind of heir to these great family chains that have invoked her name. The short story is that we reached out to Paris Hilton and she refused to come on our show, which I’m disappointed about. Now that you’ve brought her up, I’m going back to Paris Hilton and say, “You’ve now been invoked two times on my show. Now you have to come on and have this conversation. We have to bring Stephanie Stuckey and Mitzi Perdue in on the conversation. We all have to talk about what it’s like to be the heiress to a company in a global franchise.” There’s a global heiress in the country.
I feel like the redheaded stepchild at our family reunion were among those two heiresses because they are legit multibillion-dollar heiresses. I listened to that interview with Mitzi and she’s amazing. She said she was 80 years old, a spitball, and what she is doing for human trafficking, which everyone should be concerned about. She said something about how if you live in a city or town of any size, the likelihood of someone within a 10-mile radius of you being human traffic is high. Anyone in the hospitality business needs to be aware of that. That’s certainly something I want to get involved in, become more profitable. Right now, ramen noodles, profitable. We’re still not ordering steaks and bottles of wine at this point.
I’ll introduce you to Mitzi.Just handing wealth to the next generation does not instill hard work ethic at all. Click To Tweet
A little bit about my father, Stuckey’s, frankly, was a side hustle for him, too. He had his career and his own business. Stuckey’s had been sold and he was in Congress for ten years representing Middle Georgia. I grew up in Washington, DC, even though we’re from Eastern Georgia where Stuckey’s is still headquartered. He got out of Congress and started Interstate Dairy Queen Corporation, which is brilliant. He and his business partners owned the franchise rights for Dairy Queen stores on the Interstate Highway System. It’s phenomenally successful.
That was his business. He had five children to support. Dairy Queen is super profitable and going strong, and Stuckey’s is a hot mess. The company that acquired it last was a Chicago railroad conglomerate, they were being sued by franchisees and didn’t want to deal with the litigation cost, so they gave Stuckey’s to my dad, which was not this great gift. It was a litigation mess. Because my dad had relationships and many of those franchisees knew my grandfather and my dad, he was able to resolve that amicably. He swooped in and got the company back, but it was losing money. What he did was Stuckey’s Express. This is an example of having to reinvent a nostalgic brand based on the realities. Many of which were financial realities.
He had the Dairy Queen franchise rights, so he started cobranding back in the ‘80s before that was a thing. Now you’ll pull over to a Pilot or Love’s. All the time, you’ll see a Subway, Wendy’s, Dunkin’, or whatever under one roof. My dad got Stuckey’s in 1985 and that wasn’t being done. He started cobranding Dairy Queen and Stuckey’s, and then he evolved from that to creating the Stuckey’s Express model where he would go into a travel plaza, they would pay a modest franchise fee and have a certain real estate square footage within the store. Stuckey’s will provide candy, snacks and our merchandise.
That’s what he did to keep the company alive. Frankly, most of the standalone stores were shuttered. None of which were company-owned and we didn’t have the candy plant, trucking company, and sign company. All of that had been sold. We’ve been outsourcing our candy made to our specifications, but we no longer made our product ourselves. There were layers of complexity added to the business model at that point.
It should pivot. Someone in episode eight coined the term pivotability, which I had never heard, but I said I was going to use that again. Bryan Passman mentioned that pivotability is important because that takes humility. You and I were talking about the nine characteristics of elite performance before we started here, and humility comes to mind when I think about that and your dad’s ability to look inward and say, “What we’re doing is not working.” It is hard in an iconic brand where you say, “We’ve been around for 50 years. It’s worked up into this point and this is all I know.” To be able to step back and say, “It’s not working anymore. We have to stop this. We have to make a change,” takes an incredible amount of introspection.
It was also a financial reality. He would have loved to have continued the business as it had been run by my grandfather, but that business no longer existed. There weren’t a lot of standalone stores. The ones that were there, many of them were not being well run. The company had been losing money. He had to reinvent based on what he had. He got the company as is, and I got the company as is. I got somewhat of a challenge.
You said very interestingly that you used the term naivety and said, “The level of naivety around running the business that if you had been a seasoned corporate executive, you would have walked away at such a ‘poor prospect.’” You also made the shift from public service. You had been in the Georgia House of Representatives for over a decade. Why make the change?
It’s because the opportunity presented itself. There are different ways you make life pivots. There are ones where you are strategic, think about what you want, and you go after it. That was not me with Stuckey’s. It was a totally unexpected opportunity that rarely landed in my email inbox. I got an email one day from one of my dad’s former business partners. They’d all retired and he said, “We’re selling Stuckey’s. Do you want to buy it?”
That’s what happened. I just finished a stint as Director of Sustainability for the City of Atlanta. I’m an attorney by training and I was practicing environmental law for several years before I segued into the sustainability gig, which I loved. We then had a change in administration, so I left with the change in administration. I was working at an environmental organization in Atlanta heading up a new division that was providing sustainability services to cities and nonprofits. I was loving it. I had a great career that was devoted to public service and the environment.
This opportunity presented itself. Nobody else in the family was interested. I consulted business executives and financial experts, and they also said, “Don’t do this.” Seasoned business people looked at the financial record of Stuckey’s, which at that point was six figures in debt. They said, “Don’t do this.” Even my father, the interesting part of the story is it was not my dad who came to me. It was his former business partners, two of them.
My dad, when I went down to visit him, they’ve retired on the Georgia Coast, he took me in his study and shut the door. He said, “Do you know what the hell you’re doing? You’ve never run a lemonade stand. What makes you think you can run Stuckey’s?” I looked at him and I said, “Dad, I probably couldn’t run a lemonade stand, but I can run Stuckey’s.” It’s because I knew the brand. My dad did that out of wanting to protect me and knowing what I was getting myself into. He and his business partners, just a quick backup on this, had retired about a decade earlier. They sold their Interstate Dairy Queen Corporation to Berkshire Hathaway. I like to say, Warren Buffett, it sounds nicer.
Warren Buffett’s signature was on the paperwork but my dad didn’t get to meet Warren Buffett. I was disappointed. I was like, “What do you mean?”
Is it the signature or the stamp?
I don’t know.
You got to go check it out.
He seems old school. I love Warren Buffett’s approach to not only investing but business and life. He talks a lot about emotional intelligence and he hangs on to companies for the long haul. That’s the way I see Stuckey’s. By the way, he owns See’s Candy which is one of my favorite brands. I don’t even think of them as a competitor even though they make pecan log rolls, pralines, divinity, and fudge just like we do. I had known them for decades.
My dad sold it to Berkshire Hathaway. They owned American Dairy Queen, so it was part of their portfolio. They all retired and left a skeleton crew running Stuckey’s. My dad would continue to check-in by phone. The former treasurer would continue to come by once a week. At that point, Stuckey’s had been a side part of their business. They thought it could somewhat run itself on autopilot. They did have some competent people helping run it.
There’s no CEO, no real management force behind it, and no marketing budget. They had a distribution facility that’s rented with one person running it and some warehouse pickers, three sales reps, and two people in the main office, a CPA and a vice president, and he was vice president of everything. He still is vice president of just about everything. That was it for Stuckey’s.
The company coasted along for almost a decade like that. What happened was we lost a big account that was a chain because the owner of that chain had gone through a divorce and then sold the chain. The C-store business, especially in the roadside space, is extremely competitive. You’re always reading in the industry news about Speedway getting bought out or 711 is the big giant, and they’re always buying different smaller chains. It’s just the trend that these smaller C-store chains get bought out.
We had a good-sized store C-store chain, Wilco, that had us in every one of their locations. They then got bought out and then they got bought out and we lost that account. We went from being profitable to not overnight. For the past three years, before I acquired Stuckey’s, it was on this downhill slope, but we were still around, which is a testament to the power of the brand. My dad’s business partners realized, “We have to do something.” I was like the Hail Mary pass. No one else wanted it. “Let’s give it to Stephanie. She’ll try it.”Look for your core competency and then complement that with others who fill in your gaps. Click To Tweet
You went in, and you’ve been now, in your words, the chief executive officer, chief brand officer, and chief storyteller. “The secret to any business, having sticking power is to build emotional connections. If you focus on brand building instead of on profit, the revenue will start to flow.” That’s a quote from you. What does that mean? As you look at this company, you assess where it was at, you saw the challenge, and you understood the history. To take it to the next step and turn it profitable, you’ve put this focus on what you’ve called sticking power and these emotional connections. What is it? How are you doing that?
I focused on my strengths. I’m a big believer in strength building and looking at what is your core competency. You then complement that with others who fill in your gaps. My strength is that I know this brand, the brand’s history, I knew my grandfather, and I’ve got the last name, Stuckey. I can tell the story of this brand with authenticity, honesty, and sincerity in a way that nobody else can. That’s something special.
There are so many family brands out there that are no longer run by family members, often for good reasons. People don’t want to buy just a pair of sneakers. They want to buy a Nike or an Adidas and they want to buy a connection to a community. That’s why Stuckey’s has survived. For us to continue, we have to be true to that.
I also studied what my grandfather did because I didn’t know how to run a business. I had some of the skillsets that I’d picked up over the years in my various careers but I never ran a company. I’d run a nonprofit, a division of the City of Atlanta, and political campaigns, but I hadn’t run a company, so I studied how my grandfather did it.
He focused on marketing. He was the consummate brand ambassador for Stuckey’s. He was like PT Barnum of roadside travel. I thought, “I’ll do what he did.” I called him Big Daddy. “I’ll do what Big Daddy did and I’ll tell the story of the brand and how blessed I am to have 80 years of stories.” I got six boxes of his papers, which included tons of original photographs. I started digitizing them. I started pouring through all the articles. I made notes. There was this treasure trove of stories about him, my grandmother, the business, people and team that built this company that nobody had told and needed to be told.
I started telling that story. I’m going to say it’s our strength that we were small and scrappy because we didn’t have the money to hire a marketing firm. I had to be the one to tell the story. It turns out I’m the best person to tell the story because it’s my story. I started posting every day on LinkedIn. That’s what Gary Vee says.
Put content out and see what happens.
I love Gary Vee. He’s such an optimistic, upbeat, energetic person. I know there’s a lot of CEOs who roll their eyes and say, “You can’t post 8 or 10 times a day. That’s crazy.” Why don’t you try it? The great thing about being at the bottom is you have nothing to lose. The word for Gary Vee is he started at the bottom. Why don’t I try it? I just started posting on LinkedIn all the time and telling my story.
It started gaining traction. I started with 1,000 followers. I’m at 60,000 in 1.5 years. I would just post the usual stuff that people post like, “I bought Stuckey’s. Here’s a press release. ’m standing in front of the Stuckey’s store with a Pecan Log Roll.” I thought, “I wouldn’t even want to read my own posts. What would I find interesting? How do I engage people not just get a click that’s a thumbs up? How do I spark conversation?” That’s building a community.
Who’s the community that cares about Stuckey’s? I did my market research. I started reading the comments and seeing what it is that people are interested in. They kept talking about the road trip, nostalgia, remembrances, and family vacation. I started sharing what people were sharing with me to create more of that dialogue.
What are people posting on Yelp? What are people posting on Google? What are people posting on our Facebook comments? That’s my market research, not data analytics, which I do try to look at, but I don’t have the money to hire a firm to do that, so I just do my market research and reading comments. It’s working.
You’ve gained 20,000 followers on LinkedIn since we first spoke, which is quite amazing. They’re engaged. We’ve had this conversation in a couple of different contexts here on the show. Emily Sandberg Gold comes to mind. Emily was a fashion model who is on episode five, and then she has transitioned to run a digital marketing agency. She founded that, and this is her world. This sense of community is something she’s passionate about and talks tremendously about the engagement that you have to have with your audience and that consistent engagement.
There’s a couple of interviews that you were in that I had researched in preparation for this where you talked about the amount of time that you spend every day engaging with your audience. It’s so easy when you’re busy when you have these other things to do to say, “I’m not going to respond to that comment. I’m not going to tell that person that I hear them, understand their perspective, and I’m using that information now to better the brand to move forward.” You’re doing that and that’s now being proven in the results that you’re getting through your engagement on all these social media platforms.
Thank you for that. I made a note. I’m going to check out that episode. The engagement is harder as you gain more followers but I absolutely do my best to read all the comments. Having said that, I am also running a company. I have been fortunate to have put together what is a solid team. We need more people but, in due time, as we grow and profit, we can get more team members. You can find yourself spending your entire day doing nothing but posting on social media, responding to comments and scrolling.
I am an early riser. I get up at 5:00 and I’m a bit of a piddler. I’ll putz around the house for a little bit. I need that to wake up and I’ll have my coffee. I’ll think about my post. I have notes about what posts I’m going to do, but every morning, I like to think freshly about what I am going to say. I do that from 5:00 to 6:30. I’ll do my post on all the social media platforms and then I’ll put it away. I don’t check it again because you have to do your work.
I see this as work but it can be a distraction if you don’t put yourself in check. At 12:00 PM, I’ll check again during lunch break for half an hour and I’ll check again at 5:00. Every now and then, if there’s a five-minute break between meetings, I’ll make sure I’ll spook and like people’s stuff because it’s a grown stuff and you don’t like other people’s stuff. I think that’s rude.
I agree with you. I do the same thing.
My mother is this consummate Southern lady who follows all the rules of etiquette. I’ve been raised with this woman who was like Miss Manners and it’s poor manners if all you do is post about yourself and you don’t comment on other people’s posts and you don’t give people an, “Attaboy or attagirl.” I do try to do that sporadically, but you’ve got to keep it in check or you can go crazy.
Let me ask you about the team. You brought up the team and you have quoted your grandfather. You’ve spoken about him here in as we’ve spoken here. Your grandfather believed in people. He put his employees first and his customers second. Happy employees translate to happy customers. I’m wondering how you’ve carried that forward and how you’ve started to implement that in what we’ll call Stuckey’s 3.0 or version three. In the direction that you take, how are you structuring the team with that in the back of your mind as employees first, customer second, and one leads to the other? What are you looking for in these team members as you bring them in?
Part of this is the structure that is not the structure I built. That’s what you get with a nostalgic brand. You get the good part that it’s a brand that has lasting value and has a certain amount of stickiness to it but the bad part is that sometimes you inherit and buy a structure that you would not have created yourself. We do not own or operate any of our stores, which is my biggest challenge.
It’s what wakes me up at 3:00 AM in a cold sweat worried about the future of this company because we have limited control over that program. It’s not even a franchise program. It’s a licensing program. It’s hard for us to filter down to what people consider the front lines of Stuckey’s traditionally in those stores. The best I can do is empower our sales reps to go out and make sure that our products in those stores and our displays look good.People don't want to buy just a pair of sneakers. They want to buy a Nike or an Adidas. They want to buy a connection to a community. Click To Tweet
How do you control quality in that model?
It’s hard. In many respects, we’re not doing as good a job as we should. I have a long-term strategic plan to deal with that but it requires capital, not just financial capital, but human capital. Right now, we do not have the capacity to run and operate stores even as a franchise program. We don’t have an ops manager. We’re not operating a franchise program. It’s a licensing program.
We need either a joint venture partner or grow to the point that we can organically have corporate-owned stores. Honestly, every week, I probably deal with several pitches from potential investors about how we can move forward with the stores, but it has to be a good fit, not only for them but for us. I’m working through that.
Back to the point about filtering down to the employees, the reality is we have to because we are a small team. I can’t get to every frontline employee as well as I would like to. We don’t have a big staff, so the management team is critical in empowering a smart, energetic management team to then filter down to the people that they supervised.
That is what is going to help create the brand and connect with people. Our core management team is a CFO who’s a CPA. We have a vice president who has transitioned to vice president largely procurement and buying. He still does some sales. We’ve got the head of the candy plant and the pecan processing plant.
We bought a candy plant and a pecan processing plant. I’ve got a business partner who co-owns the company with me, so we’ve got the president and we’ve got a warehouse manager. That’s our core team. During pecan season, we’ll have about 120 employees and our full-time employees are bumping right at 50. We’re now dealing with the growing pains and putting together our benefits package.
Everything changes when you hit that threshold and the number of employees.
You have to get a good structure. It’s important to think about benefits, not in the traditional concept of what type of insurance you’re going to provide and what the deductibles are. All of which is important but structuring the whole program that will give people a pathway to advancement. If you start on the front lines at the candy plant and you’re on the chocolate line or you’re in the roasting room for the pecans, you could elevate up into a managerial role and beyond. Maybe you will run the company someday. I want people to have that sense that you don’t have to be in this one position with this company if you don’t want to be if you’re motivated.
I’ve turned that in organizations that I’ve worked within building programs. It’s the difference between having a job versus a career. The perspective that you’re giving the employees is that when you come in here into this organization and you’re part of our team, you’re here because there’s an opportunity to have a career versus, you’re here because you need a paycheck and it’s a job. It’s transactional. If someone comes to work every day, and they say, “I’m here because it’s my job. I’m providing a service. I get paid for that service and that’s all I care about.”
There’s a transactional relationship that occurs. If you create a path in which somebody comes every day and says, “I’m invested in this company because they’re invested in me. I see my growth path. I see the steps that I need to take in order to be here in 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years.” There’s a constant movement towards that assuming positive performance on their end, then you’re creating that community environment that’s bringing everybody in.
You can be punching a clock and collecting a paycheck or you can be advancing in a career, but you said a keyword for me. It’s community. In any good brand, you’re building a community internally and externally. For me, Stuckey’s is building a community of roadtrippers. My big and audacious vision for Stuckey’s is we want to revive the road trip. Selling Pecan Log Rolls is a way to achieve that vision.
Part of what I’m trying to do externally is to elevate this brand and get people excited about it so our employees get excited, too. It does get to the employee level. They’re excited when they hear people talk about Stuckey’s and they say, “I work at Stuckey’s candy plant and it’s a good association.” People are like, “That’s wonderful. It’s so cool that you do that.” That’s what I’m trying to do.
Everybody knows it. As I’ve told people that we were going to have this conversation and I’ve talked to them about it, almost every single person I’ve spoken to has said, “I know that. I’ve been there.” I’ll tell your story really quickly in these conversations. Hands down, every single person I’ve told this to has said, “I can’t wait for that to be successful.” There are so many people who are rooting for you and want this thing to be successful. It’s truly impactful. This community that you’re building is working.
Thank you. People rooting for us is so gratifying and that’s frankly what keeps me going. I have some hard days. I posted about this on LinkedIn, but for every yes, there are 4 or 5 noes. You’re constantly having to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Knowing that people are rooting for you, that’s critical. It’s part of what Americans love. The greatest story, in my opinion, is a comeback story and it’s uniquely American. I think of all of our favorite movies like Rocky and Bad News Bears. These are people who had incredible challenges and the odds were against them, and they rose above it. The comeback story is what it’s all about.
Can we talk about pecans? How do you say pecan?
There are four official ways you can say that word and none of them are considered correct. They’re all wrong and right. It’s all in the accent which syllable you put the accent on, so it could be PEE-can, PEE-kahn, puh-KAHN, puh-CAN. The most popular is puh-KAHN because 70% of Americans say puh-KAHN. I am in the minority, I say PEE-can. I cannot help myself.
People roll their eyes and laugh at me and they say, “PEE-can is something you do when you have to use a restroom.” They joke with me about it but that’s what I say. I grew up hearing people say that. One of my favorite sayings is, “There are PEE-cans when you pick them and puh-KAHNs when you sell them.” Whatever the buyer wants is what we’re pronouncing. I find myself switching around if I say pecan pie. I tend to say puh-KAHN.
You’re using multiple versions. Whatever it is, it’s fine.
I hear someone saying puh-KAHN, I will usually mimic what they say.
Now I know and I feel better about it.
I’ve never heard anyone say puh-CAN. I should start doing that to throw people off.When you're small and scrappy, you cannot win the volume game. Click To Tweet
This is a big part of the company here because you have pecan rolls, brittle, and flavored ones, but it was your grandmother who introduced this into the company shortly after your grandfather started it. You mentioned that you’ve done these two acquisitions in the last couple of years for the plants, which is amazing. Why is it such an important part of the brand and the direction that you’re taking Stuckey’s?
When you’re small and scrappy, you have to distinguish yourself. You cannot win the volume game. We’re not going to be Walmart or Buc-ee’s. We’re not going to have 20,000 square foot stores where you need GPS to find the restroom. We’re not going to buy ten container loads of products at a time. You have to figure out what our special sauce is. For Stuckey’s, it’s the pecan. You go back to the beginning to that roadside stand in 1937 in the hot summer sun when my grandfather was selling pecans on the side of the road and he got the inspiration to sell candies because he thought it would increase sales.
My grandmother got in the kitchen with her bridge club and her six sisters. They started cooking up those classic Southern confections like pralines and divinity. I’d love to say we invented the Pecan Log Roll but we made it popular like Chick-fil-A with the chicken sandwich. Maybe they didn’t invent it, but they certainly made it mainstream and better. That’s what we’re known for. You stick with what you’re known for. We have 80 plus years of people identifying Stuckey’s with the pecan and the other thing is, it is uniquely America’s nut.
If you want to talk about storytelling, I could do weeks of nothing but posting about the story of pecan. It is the only popular snack nut that is native to the US. I don’t count the filbert or the black walnut. There are filbert and black walnut followers who will get mad at me whenever I talk about the pecan being America’s native snack nut. They’re like, “What about the black walnut?” I don’t like to snack on a bitter black walnut.
Not to slam our nut rivals but the pecan, on the other hand, is one of the healthiest nuts and one of the most sustainable nuts. Going back to my environmental background, it doesn’t rely on a lot of water in a drought-prone area like the almond does. It’s one of the tastiest nuts. It has this natural, buttery flavor and it’s delicious raw in recipes chopped up, and it’s great with meals. You can grind it and use it as a meal and pie crust. It makes a wonderful oil. As we know, it’s good for candies.
We’ve gone back to our roots, and we’re celebrating the pecan and we have a pecan shelling plant. We’re now exporting the pecan. Ninety percent of the world’s pecan production is from the United States. Georgia is the number one pecan-producing state and the number one pecan-producing country. We have this natural wealth, so we should take advantage of it. We’re making the product in our backyard. We’re taking it from the shelling plant to the candy plant. We’re making our candies ourselves again like my grandfather did using the recipes that are true to all of his original lineup of confections. That’s our secret sauce.
None of the other roadside chains out there now have not only that history, but have a product that they’re uniquely known for that is uniquely connected to this country. It’s not just the story of Stuckey’s. It’s the story of America. Thomas Jefferson grew pecans. They are still there at Monticello. Lyndon Johnson had a pecan grove. George Washington walked around with pecans in his pockets during the Revolutionary War. That was the first snack pack. He would grabble that in his hand and that was his snack.
Was that the 50 to 100 calorie pack?
That’s the original snack pack.
He also believed that he couldn’t be killed. The story is cool. There are a number of horses that were shot from under him during the war, which then led to this belief that he believed he could not be killed. There was this higher power that was protecting him in battle. It’s really an interesting story. Maybe it was the pecans.
It is a super nut. That is our campaign. The pecan has been a lowly, humble unrecognized nut. I identify with it in many ways because it’s a scrappy little nut like Stuckey’s is a scrappy brand. We got our federal marketing order. Almond, cashew, pistachio, and the peanut have had their federal marketing order for decades. Cashews are not native to this country. We don’t grow cashews here but the pistachio, almond, and peanut all have federal marketing orders.
What that means is they voluntarily assess a fee the industry does the farmers and that goes to the USDA, the Department of Agriculture and they have all of this money that is spent on doing studies and scientific research saying, “This is the healthiest nut,” or promoting and marketing. The “Got Milk?” campaign is a federal marketing order from the Dairy Association. “Pork. The Other White Meat,” that’s a federal marketing order. The pecan got its federal marketing order a couple of years ago. You’re going to hear a lot more about pecan and Stuckey’s wants to be part of that campaign to make pecan America’s favorite nut.
I have a question about what you’ve called the myth of the girl boss. You said, “Too often, female CEOs are portrayed as having it all smarts, ambition, super polished look, and ninja-like multitasking abilities. I say more power to those women if they exist. The reality, at least for me, is much messier.” Can you talk about the myth of the girl boss and what does that mean?
It’s so funny. Sometimes these moments of inspiration come to us sporadically and I was at a total loss what to post one morning. I was scrolling through my feed and I have seen six posts of these super amazing women who I admire. They look so polished, have their beautiful husbands, beautiful children and everything seems so wonderful. I thought, “I’m going to post a picture of me in my Georgia Bulldogs t-shirt.” We’re not happy about that.
I had a baseball cap on, I was working at our warehouse, and I was covered in dust. I was building boxes for our gift box sets. I was helping design the boxes that day. I was like, “I’m going to post what the reality is, or at least what my reality is.” I’m divorced, I have two teenage kids, and I’m trying to run this comeback brand. My life is not always perfect. In fact, it’s not perfect, but I love it and I’m grateful for it.
If that’s the reality for these women, I meant when I wrote, “More power to you. That’s awesome. Go, girls.” For those women who don’t have that as their reality, those women need to see women like them, me, who have days that are messy and don’t always look polished. We should post more about that. Getting back to Gary Vee, he talks about failure all the time on his podcast. He celebrates the failures. He said, “I welcome the failures because that’s where you learn.”
I want to celebrate that sometimes we’re not always perfect and that’s not only okay but that’s who we are. You need to be vulnerable and honest. You need to put out there what is real. People will connect with what is really more than something that is not authentic. That’s why I posted it. I’ve had a photoshoot. I had my hair and makeup done. I have my moments. That’s not me 99% of the time.
We’ve talked a lot about failure. One of the things I always come back to is that if you haven’t failed, have you tried? That’s something that you need to ask yourself. If I sit here, I’m one of these people and every day I wake up, and I think, “Today is better than yesterday. All these amazing things are happening. I never have these setbacks.” The question is, are you pushing yourself as far as you need to push yourself to that next limit? Are you being complacent about where you are? If that’s what you want, then that’s okay.
We’ve also had number of conversations about finding the true you and the authentic you. Shelley Paxton talked a lot about finding your authentic self. Maybe your authentic self is, “I don’t want to be pushed. I do want to live in my comfort zone.” That’s fine. For those who are trying to take the next level, are you truly taking it to the next level when every day you say, “I’m better now and I never have a setback.”
You’re right about accepting who you are and knowing who you are. Not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur. Authentic is overused. Everyone wants to say they’re an entrepreneur when they’re not willing to try hard enough to fail and put themselves out there. If you’re not failing, you aren’t truly an entrepreneur, in my opinion. You have to get out of that comfort zone. If you want to be in that comfort zone, great, but you’re not going to be an entrepreneur. It’s not possible.
I have a section here to wrap it up at and it’s called Stephanie’s Road Trip. You said The Pecan Roll Heiress. It’s more like The Roadtrip Queen or something like that. I don’t know what the right term is.People will connect with what is real. Click To Tweet
My team’s nickname for me is Roadie.
Maybe this is termed Stephanie’s Roadie. I have a couple of things that I’m interested in what your favorites are. First, on the road music, favorite music.
I love country music and classic rock. I’ll often get on one of those serious channels. You can get introduced to maybe some music you hadn’t heard in a while. I’m also biased towards Southern rock. I love R.E.M and Allman Brothers. Otis Redding is from Georgia. I like some of those classic Southern bands.
Your favorite road?
I’m thinking, “Do I want to go North-South or do I want to go East-West?” I’m going to say 95 because that’s the road I remember that took me as a kid from DC all the way down to Florida. That was such a classic stretch of road. I also like the back roads. State Route 1 and 341 in Georgia are some of my favorite roads. Of course, Route 66. That’s another level all by itself.
The worst portion of that road along the East Coast, 95 is not on my list of the best. What about your favorite food on the road trip?
I’ve got to say Pecan Log Roll. I’ve been obsessed with finding local restaurants when I pull over. One of my obsessions is finding gas stations that make their own food. No Chester’s, no Hunt Brothers Pizza. I want someone back there whipping up fresh biscuits. I found a place outside of Macon and it’s a small chain. It’s called Friendly Gus. The Friendly Gus outside of Macon, there’s a woman back there who makes fresh vegetables and biscuits. Fresh veggies and biscuits are my favorite road food. I’m a vegetarian, so that ruled out barbecue, unfortunately. I do have an appreciation. I’ll pull over at barbecue places because I can eat coleslaw, pickles, and white bread.
You’re missing the best part now.
I know. That makes tempeh barbecue and I love that.
What about your favorite car?
Probably a Mustang convertible followed closely by the Corvette. I love visiting the Corvette Museum. They have such a great history because they had this giant sinkhole that swallowed a bunch of their cars. Instead of having this tragedy destroy them, they made it into a positive. Their membership skyrocketed when that happened. They made it a permanent exhibit that you can visit the sinkhole. They kept it.
The last one is the most memorable part of every road trip. What is your most used and favorite line to control the behavior of the children?
The reality is me telling my kids, “If you don’t behave, we won’t stop at Stuckey’s,” does not work. It’s the opposite. They don’t like stopping at Stuckey’s because I will stop for an hour and a half. They’ll get bored within ten minutes. I’m in there talking to the manager, taking photographs, looking at the displays, doing an inventory count, and checking the parking lots. I go out in the parking lots and I look at where they’re coming from and which state they are coming from. Does this look like a vacation or is this a business traveler? It drives them crazy. Telling my kids, we’re going to stop at Stuckey’s would be an incentive for them to behave. If they start minding me, then we’re going to go to Stuckey’s.
We close out every episode and I asked each one of my guests the same question. What are the three things that you do every day to be successful? The reason I ask that question is that in World War II, the Jedburgh had to do three things foundationally as the baseline things that they had to do every day and that was shoot, move, and communicate. If they could do those three things with a high level of proficiency, then that allowed them to solve other complex challenges. The question I ask is, what are the three things that you do foundationally every day to set the conditions to be successful in everything else?
I start every day doing a post on social media, which has now been part of my routine. I like it because it grounds me and it gets me thinking creatively. The big picture is doing something creative. What’s something that is often lacking in CEOs is tapping into that creativity. I start every morning with that post and it gets my creative juices flowing. That’s the first thing, a moment of creativity.
The second, drawing on more characteristics and traits that I try to cultivate is gratitude. I write down at least three things I’m grateful for every single day. I learned that from Oprah. She says, “Keep a gratitude journal and write down what you are grateful for.” It makes you turn things into a positive. It gives you that positive mindset. The last thing is I exercise. With exercising, if you want to have consistency, you have to do something you love, which is true with business and life too. I love to dance. I take dance classes. My dance studio is closed on Fridays. Fridays, I will have to go for a walk or go for a run. Other days, I’ll take a dance class.
I’m a terrible dancer. That’s not too high on my list but I am in the exercise camp. We spoke about the nine characteristics of elite performance. We talked about it in the episode. Every person who is an elite performer demonstrates these nine, not at the same time but different numbers of them at any time based on the situation that they’re in. I take each one of my guests and I think about the one that sums them up even though I say that you demonstrate all nine because you have to be successful.
For you, I think about the definition of resiliency, which is perseverance in the face of challenges. It’s something you talked about here. You said that for every yes you get, there are 4 to 5 noes, you have to get up and you have to go after it again. The Stuckey’s story is a comeback story. It’s not only a comeback story one time. It’s coming back again for another time. Your father brought it back. You’re bringing it back.
Resiliency is such a strong and important piece of reaching elite performance because it’s easy to try something once, it’s easy to be successful once, but as we talked about, the more times you get out there, push the envelope and take it to the next level, you will find failure. If you don’t find failure, you’re not pushing yourself. You’re pushing this company forward. You’re driving yourself. You’re driving the organization for it, you’re pulling with you the society and the society is rooting for you. There are going to be challenges. If there’s anything that you’ve shown, it’s the ability to stand back up, face it, accept it, show humility, pivot to the new way to do it, and find success.
Stephanie, we’re all rooting for you. We’re all fans of Stuckey’s. We will continue to stop during our road trips. The community is being built and you’re doing a phenomenal job at that. Every morning, I look forward to seeing what you have to post. The pecans are all coming back, all versions of them, and you’re leading in that area as well. I look forward to see what’s on the horizon for you, for Stuckey’s, and the next chapter of the American road trip.
Thank you so much. It’s been my pleasure.
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