From Adweek – Feb 3, 2023
By Fizz February 4, 2023
With Little Marketing Budget but Lots of Moxie, How Stuckey’s Is Plotting a Big Comeback
Stephanie Stuckey is on the road to rebuilding her grandfather’s candy brand
Doing the marketing herself, Stephanie Stuckey is determined to return the family brand to glory. Stuckey’s
In the Autumn of 1968, Truman Capote—the novelist famed for bestsellers including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood—decided to do something decidedly below his social rank: He took a cross-country road trip. More surprisingly still, he persuaded model and socialite C.Z. Guest to come along. Giddy with the spirit of adventure, the pair motored out of New York for the 2,723-mile drive to Palm Springs, Calif.
Within hours, they had a problem. Capote had also brought his bulldog Maggie along—and no restaurant would allow a fat canine in its dining room. That’s how it happened that two Manhattan bon vivants found themselves at a roadside restaurant, sitting at a picnic table and washing down chili dogs with Château Lafite Rothschild.
The restaurant? Stuckey’s.
W.S. ‘Sylvester’ Stuckey put up 4,000 billboards to convince drivers to pull over. Stuckey’s
Relax. Refresh. Refuel.
If you’re over 50 and have ever been on a car trip, odds are that you know Stuckey’s already. At the time of the Capote-Guest expedition, the eatery boasted 368 locations in 30 states, luring motorists with the promise “Relax. Refresh. Refuel.” With their signature teal roofs and red Texaco gas pumps, Stuckey’s had cut the template for the modern rest stop.
“We were almost synonymous with the road trip,” said Stephanie Stuckey, the brand’s owner, evangelist and the granddaughter of founder W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey. “He really had the world’s first roadside retail chain. Before there was a TA, Love’s or Wawa, there was Stuckey’s.”
But her use of the past tense is all too appropriate. A shadow of its former self, the company was six figures in the red when it came up for sale in 2019. No one wanted the brand. But Stephanie Stuckey did, going so far as to shelf her career as an environmental attorney and spend her life savings to do it.
“When people ask, ‘Why did you buy Stuckey’s?’ I’m like, ‘It was for sale! And I loved my grandfather,’” she said.
But it would take more than love for her to resurrect the once-famous brand. It would take money. It would take partners. And more than anything, it would take marketing.
The road trip was Stuckey’s theme in the 1960s, and it still is. Stuckey’s
From roadside shack to national empire
Stephanie Stuckey is quick to point out that she has no real business experience. But she does have something as valuable—an innate sense of her grandfather’s entrepreneurship. Her childhood memories including touring the pecan plant with him and playing office with Stuckey’s paperwork. Shortly after buying the company, “my mom gave me six cases of my grandfather’s archives that nobody had opened since 1964,” Stuckey said. “I spent months going through all his papers and figuring out how he did it.”
Silvester Stuckey had built his business on gut instinct. With a $35 loan and a Model A Ford customized to haul bags of nuts, he opened a pecan stand on Highway 23 in Eastman, Georgia, in 1937. Seeing the New York plates on many of the Florida-bound cars that pulled over, the young entrepreneur realized that road trippers were his bread-and-butter customers. He expanded his offerings to include pecan candy and opened his first proper store a year later.
For weary motorists in the days before air conditioning, Stuckey’s was heaven-sent: a place to park, use the restroom and load up on pecan snacks. With a restaurant and souvenir shop inside and a filling station out front, Stuckey’s grew coast to coast.
But the chain’s heyday would be short. Sylvester Stuckey died in 1977 when his granddaughter was 12 years old. His roadside empire—following a series of indifferent corporate owners—eventually shrank to just 13 of its original stores. In 1973, the OPEC oil embargo made gasoline too expensive for family road trips. Five years later, Congress deregulated the airlines, and suddenly flying across the county was cheaper than driving there.
The Stuckey’s that Stephanie Stuckey bought in 2019 was little more than a trademark and a modest revenue stream from the retailers that still sold the branded candy. But rummaging around her grandfather’s papers had imbued in Stuckey a fervent nostalgia. It would soon prove essential.
Stuckey has split her equity in the company with L.G. Lamar (l.) and Ted Wright (r.). Stuckey’s
The pecan pivot
After securing an SBA loan, Stuckey partnered with third-generation pecan farmer R.G. Lamar, which gave her the capital to acquire a roasting and shelling plant in Wrens, Georgia. Gaining control of the manufacturing end would afford her both quality control and better profit margins.
With national chains having snapped up all the “A” locations on the interstates, Stuckey knew that her company would never again be a major restaurant chain. But the candy—especially the signature pecan log rolls—retained a legendary reputation. As Stuckey saw it, the resurrected brand would have to be a retail one.
Indeed, her grandfather had made a similar pivot himself when the gasoline rationing of WWII forced him to switch from running roadside eateries to making pecan snacks for GIs headed overseas.
“I shifted—just like my grandfather shifted,” she said.
Instagram posts like this combine Stuckey’s personality with the road trip theme. Stuckey’s
Word of mouth replaces the billboard
Expanding Stuckey’s as a retail brand was an ambitious objective. And one that required marketing, which is why one afternoon Ted Wright heard a knock on his door.
Wright is the founder and CEO of Fizz, a word-of-mouth marketing firm whose clients have included Chipotle, JetBlue and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Wright knew that the woman standing in his vestibule scarcely had the money to hire his firm. But her enthusiasm awakened Wright’s own childhood memories of road trips and stops at Stuckey’s, and he sensed an opportunity. After a few months of considering it, he sank seven figures of his own money into Stuckey’s, becoming a one-third stakeholder as well as its in-house marketing thinker.
Sylvester Stuckey’s original marketing plan had long outlived its usefulness. The founder had sunk 20% of his revenues into billboards—some 4,000 of them. He put up so many roadside placards that he had to add sign painters to his payroll.
But with so few Stuckey’s locations left—and the fact that Stuckey’s products are already for sale in chains like Cracker Barrel—billboards made no sense anymore. But Wright figured they didn’t need a pricey media buy anyway. The job at hand was to introduce younger generations to Stuckey’s by tying it to the nostalgia of the road trip—and that was a job for social media.
“If you think about the road trip, whether you’re 20 or 70, it’s one of the few things where you can have total freedom and independence,” Wright said. And since most effective word-of-mouth marketing starts with a story, it was clear the best person to tell the Stuckey’s story was Stuckey herself.
Wright told his new business partner to hit the road.
Social media is taking the place of the old billboards, ads—and teal roofs. Stuckey’s
The road trip redux
Stephanie Stuckey has spent the last two years plying the byways of America. Primarily she looks for “ghost stores” that were once Stuckey’s locations, but generally she’ll stop at most any roadside attraction that presents a selfie opportunity—South Dakota’s Corn Palace, for example, or Doumar’s diner in Norfolk, Va., where the waffle cone was invented. Last year, Stuckey put over 27,000 miles on the odometer.
In her posts, sometimes she will talk about Stuckey’s and sometimes not—but nostalgia, Americana and the institution of the road trip thread their way through every message.
“The road trip is not actually about being on the road,” she said in a recent Instagram post from Route 66. “The road trip symbolizes the freedom that is America. From Jack Kerouac’s jazz beat musings to the Eagles taking it easy on a corner in Winslow, AZ, it is embedded in our culture and our psyche.”
Among those who noticed Stuckey’s reflections was Hootsuite CEO Tom Keiser, a Birmingham, AL, native who, like Wright, had rosy childhood memories of Stuckey’s. Keiser reached out to Stuckey personally and invited her to use Hootsuite for her web analytics.
“It’s cool to see the power of social and how quickly things can get off the ground; you don’t need a big budget,” said Hootsuite communications specialist Chrisanna Chan.
Veteran marketer Hayes Roth, principal of HA Roth Consulting, observed that Stephanie Stuckey is “very au courant in her ability to market herself and have a lot of fun with it.” But in addition to her colorful Instagram posts, her familial connection to Stuckey’s founder gives her the kind of credibility that can’t be hired or bought.
“The bottom line is authenticity, heritage and a bright young photogenic owner who is the real deal,” he said. “If she plays this right, she’s got a long run. It’s a great story.”
When she’s not taking selfies with pink aluminum trailers or a swimming pool that Elvis took a dip in, Stuckey is behind a podium. She speaks to local clubs and civic organizations—pretty much any group that invites her. When an enthusiastic audience member approaches her, Stuckey is ready with pecan candy to press into their palms. Odds are the recipient will tell their friends about Stuckey’s, and those friends will tell their friends.
“Every question we ask ourselves is: How can we create the maximum number of conversations?” Wright said.
Crunching the numbers
These tactics have produced measurable results for the brand. In the last 30 months, Stuckey’s revenues have risen from $1M to $20M. Stuckey’s recently signed up Wawa to carry its products, and Wright hopes to double the number of retail locations selling the brand (from 5,000 to 10,000) by the end of this quarter.
If things go well enough, there’s also a plan to build new Stuckey’s restaurants—though just a few of them.
“The deal we’re negotiating right now is five Stuckey’s stores, that’s it,” Stuckey said. “They’re going to be destination locations—a roadside oasis.” Ward can already envision what the restaurants will look like—a big dining room, charging stations for electric vehicles, even “a really nice dog park.”
Too bad Truman Capote and Maggie won’t get to see it.