Sam Burnham, Curator
If you’re of a certain age and spent any time at all traveling when you were young, you’ve seen that teal blue roof, those angled covers above the gas pumps, that trade mark red script against a school-bus-yellow sign. I know that on the Coastal plains of Georgia and Florida, you could see a Stuckey’s from at least a mile away. Billboards up and down I-75 announced pecan log rolls, souvenirs, food, gas, and more. Stuckey’s is one of the great stories from the American South.
The story begins like the best Southern stories. W.S. Stuckey, Sr. was born on Dodge County farm in 1909. He was just getting his start in adulthood when the Great Depression hit and the bottom fell out of the cotton prices. So in 1931 Stuckey left UGA, right in the middle of his third year of law school to do what he could to help keep his family’s farm going.
With food scarce, Stuckey often had to hoist his starving mules back to their feet to plow the fields. There were too few jobs and times were tough. But middle Georgia had an ace in the hole. There was an indigenous crop that was mostly untapped. It was a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened.
Stuckey begged a local fertilizer dealer for a job doing anything. He was hired to go out and buy pecans. So with $35 borrowed from his grandmother, every dime she had, he set out in a Ford Model A coupe which was unreliable at best. He traveled the countryside John King, a black man who worked on the family farm. On many nights Stuckey and King were so exhausted from work that they slept soundly on the pecan bags. King would eventually own his own Stuckey’s store.
From his pecan sales he started his own pecan wholesale business. He bought a pickup truck and started buying his own pecans to sell for processing His philosophy was simple: “You’ve got to be honest with the public. And you’ve got to work. Of course good luck won’t hurt.” It was a philosophy that worked.
In 1937, Stuckey decided to make the most of the winter lull. He used some of his pecan sales profits and open a roadside tourist stand. In this lean-to shack he sold pecans, cane juice, homemade quilts, syrup, cane juice, and cherry cider - all you can drink for a nickel. A Texas housewife once told him “You must be crazy building a candy store in a cotton patch 10 miles from a dried-up town.”
The idea hits him. He decided to start a candy store. He busted up in the middle of his wife Ethel’s bridge game and asked her to whip up a batch of pralines...something she had never done before. Inexperience was no deterrent. You can’t sell pralines you don’t have. so Ethel and her sisters Hazel and Pearl worked some magic. Soon they’re turning out candy four times a day in their home kitchen and would walk it 2-3 miles out to the roadside stand where Stuckey had signs posted for marketing and selling the fresh goods. “CANDY MADE FRESH TODAY.”
Once Stuckey made enough to open his first real store in Eastman he sold his roadside shack to a farmer and the first ever Stuckey’s became a hen house. Humble beginnings.
The company thrives on the concept that “every traveler is a friend.” During the post World War II economic boom, travel became a big part of American culture. Stuckey’s strategically placed their stores along US highways 17, 301, and 1. These were main arteries for the annual snowbird migration. And northerners headed for Florida they were met by those famous teal sloped roofs. Marketing brought them in. Southern hospitality brought them back.
We’ve already mentioned that John King came to own his own Stuckey’s store. During segregation Stuckey’s was listed in the now historic “Green Book.” The stores were listed in the publication informing black travelers that they were welcome at Stuckey’s for food, gas, and other road trip necessities. While many locations chose to turn black customers away, Stuckey’s welcomed them.
So the company was on the cutting edge socially. But W.S. Stuckey was also a pioneer in the use of data. He did his own traffic studies on the highways observing the amount of local and out of town travelers. He would drink several cups of coffee and then drive until he needed to make a pit stop. That’s where he would build the next store. Everything from the slope of the roof to which side of the road the store was built on was determined with marketing in mind. He had a plan for everything.
His planning was so effective that in less than 20 years, the company had expanded from a lean-to shed in a cotton field to 29 modern stores. The company’s influence began the spread out further and further from Eastman.Stuckey believed in people. He rewarded executives and employees with interest in stores rather than raises. They built stock in the company that way. For example, a secretary making $75 a week would gross $16,000 a year due to her interest in the company. His business model was brilliant: “taking a bunch of good country boys and training them, giving them interest in the store, and having them do the finest job you’ve ever seen.”
By 1960 the company based in Eastman, Georgia had 160 stores. Only 10 of those were company owned. Franchisees pulled the wagon and Stuckey saw to it they were looked after. And that is how a man started with a shed in a cotton field and used some innovation and some good old fashioned Southern hospitality to build a roadside mainstay. I won’t steal all of present CEO Stephanie Stuckey’s thunder. She has done extensive research into her family’s business, her heritage, and was kind enough to share some notes from a book she hopes to publish. Perhaps we’ll do a review of it when the time comes. What I’ll definitely do is discuss her new role and the company’s future in the second part of this story.
Stuckey’s: Don’t Call It a Comeback
Sam Burnham, Curator
Stuckey’s is very much alive.
You may not see them in all the places you used to but reports of their demise are quite premature. In fact, what is going on with the company is one of those stories that ABG just can’t get enough of.
In the first part of this story we saw that W.S. Stuckey didn’t just build a company. He realized the power of people, his customers and employees and these two groups built the company. Oh he played a part. As a visionary, a marketer, as the kind of manager who trusted and counted on his employees, he built the system. But he couldn’t run every store. He couldn’t greet every customer. He needed his people to do that and he recognized that fact.
When a family builds a business it’s their name on the sign out front. When employees hold an interest in the company they want to see it succeed. But these aren’t concepts that modern businesses follow. Sure, you’ll come across Chick-fil -A or Southwest Airlines but for the most part large companies are cutting costs by using as few employees as possible and paying them as little as possible. And when outsiders take control of a family business they don’t see their name on the sign. They see their money on a spreadsheet. And things fall apart. Remember Sears, K-Mart, Toys R Us?
Stuckey’s has an ace in the hole though. The family recently regained control of their company. Stephanie Stuckey, granddaughter of founder W.S. Stuckey is now the CEO. She’s a vibrant, energetic leader who has studied her grandfather’s philosophies, methods, and concepts. She knows where all the right decisions were made. She knows what it’s going to take to get those teal roofs back on those highway exits.
The best way to promote something is to lead by example, to do it yourself. So if road trips are what you’re promoting, hit the road. That’s exactly what Stephanie Stuckey did. She’s on a quest to visit every store location this year. She wants to meet the people working in the stores. It’s an endeavor to be personally involved in the company And developing relationships rather than being a distant entity emailing out instructions to the rank and file. It’s the approach her grandfather would take.
The road trip has another purpose. Many of the old store locations are still in existence. Stuckey is identifying which operational stores need upgrades, repairs, etc. she’s learning which former locations might be salvageable, and what is gone for good. This all leads to the goal of making needed improvements to stores and revamping the franchise program that made Stuckey’s a household name.
That name is what’s driving the renaissance. The new CEO is driven to protect the brand. She told me, “that’s my name on that sign.” There was passion in her voice. Even as an outsider I could easily see this is bigger than money or property. This is about legacy and a sense of responsibility to both future and past generations.
And so she has enacted an aggressive plan to return the company to the place it once was, the place you remember it in. The plan isn’t all that new. W.S. Stuckey built the framework eight decades ago. It’s a system this world is hungry for.
For all it’s other wares, Stuckey’s was built on the pecan. So it only makes sense that the pecan is a major part of the plan. At the beginning of September the company announced that it had acquired Georgia pecan company Front Porch Pecans in a merger that made Front Porch’s R.G. Lamar the new Stuckey’s president. This is a move that will benefit both brands.
There are plans to for a candy plant, either by purchase or construction. The company’s old plant is still standing but years of disuse have left it unviable. So a modern plant is in the plans.
I don’t think you would call what is in the works a small business by the strictest of definitions. With stores spread across the country this is a sizable business. It is, however, a true family business. The business model is exactly the sort of concept we champion. How could we not rally around a granddaughter reviving her grandfather’s struggling business? How could we not adore a people-centered enterprise with nationwide reach from its headquarters in small town Georgia? This is the story of the year as far as I’m concerned.
So I’ll continue to watch as Stephanie Stuckey aims to make every traveler a friend, to take a bunch of good country folks and have them do the finest job you’ve ever seen, and to be honest with the public. She’ll have to work. Of course good luck won’t hurt. But that’s the example she saw while visiting Stuckey’s stores as a little girl. I think she’s quite prepared for what lies ahead.
Sam Burnham, Curator
At ABG we pride ourselves on our support of the small. Family owned. Home grown. Community oriented. Decentralized.
So when I stumbled over a particular article this weekend I was left shaking my head. Natalie Escobar of NPR’s Code Switch was tossing softball questions to Vicky Osterweil who recently published a book trying to justify, even glorify the violent and chaotic riots that have destroyed large swaths of major US cities. I was disgusted by a particular quote even more than the constant droning of Marxism that filled the interview:
“It's actually a Republican myth that has, over the last 20 years, really crawled into even leftist discourse: that the small business owner must be respected, that the small business owner creates jobs and is part of the community. But that's actually a right-wing myth.“
The first article linked in the quote is one of the faulty and incomplete arguments that Osterweil uses to justify violent mobs destroying the property and livelihoods of people unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of advancing terror. The second linked article is a more scientific sounding argument from MIT citing figures and statistics downplaying the importance of small enterprise as a job creator in America. The gist of Osterwell's abhorrent claims is that looting and rioting is justified because the small businesses really don't matter to the economy. Osterweil claims the property being stolen by rioters is a just compensation because Osterweil believes that small businesses are all built on a foundation of racism.
The idea that someone's livelihood, their slice of the American Dream is irrelevant and therefore welcome fodder for looting is a ridiculous instance of a bizarre elitism.
But let's take a look at one of the claims from the MIT article:
“Perhaps the biggest indictment of the small-is-beautiful view when it comes to jobs is the simple fact that in the United States small firms’ share of output and employment over time have been declining for decades.”
So if we see "small-is-beautiful" as some sort of conspiracy theory and that medium-sized and large businesses are the real job creators, what do we do with entire towns that are shuttered by the death of small businesses? While MIT argues that small business have declined over the last few decades, a 2018 article by the Pew Research Center shows that the average US worker has seen no measurable increase in wages in that same time period. You don't have to spend much time poking around on the web to find out that corporate outsourcing, restructuring, and downsizing have not been kind to US job markets. As I am writing this, Georgia economic mainstay Coca-Cola, which has the most recognizable trademark on Earth, has announced a massive reorganization that is going to cost thousands of people their jobs.
If we look at the efforts of the federal government under Bush, Obama, and Trump, we see multiple bailouts of the auto industry, financial institutions, and any other business deemed "too big to fail." While it is statistically true that small enterprise is in decline, it is also true that these businesses always perform without a net. No one is going to bail them out. If they fail, they fail. While the cited articles talk about the Small Business Administration and the programs available to "help" entrepreneurs, reality remains Lee Iacocca sitting before Congress with his hat in his hand. the TARP program, and "Cash for Clunkers."
However, the biggest fault in this argument is that it ignores that economic web of a healthy small community. We constantly discuss the economic principles of this web. It can be a powerful engine but we see how fragile it is when someone drops a Walmart or a Home Depot out on the bypass around town. Walmart, that started in Bentonville, Arkansas as a small five-and-dime is now one of the largest retailers in the world. It also pays its employees just enough that they can work 40 hours a week and keep a roof over their heads if they supplement their income with food stamps and Medicaid.
Walmart isn't the only villain here. Most large corporations expend substantial resources to determine how few people they can utilize and how little they can pay them and still operate. They drop a retailer in a small town and the majority of the income generated leaves the store in an armored truck, never to be seen in the community again. Profits go to corporate headquarters far away and the small wages paid to workers usually wind up in that armored truck as employees purchase the goods they need from the only game in town.
But the problem isn't just retailers. A local bank gets bought out by a large one. Suddenly a small business loan that was previously based on a relationship and a handshake now requires a phone call to Charlotte. The local newspaper, journalism's boots-on-the-ground, gets bought out by some conglomerate in New York or Chicago and restructured. The local radio station with local personalities who once broadcast local high school football gets bought out by Clear Channel and immediately automated and now only offers corporate music or syndicated political talk. People who once manufactured textiles, steel, automobiles, appliances, furniture, shoes, and machiery have seen their jobs sent overseas.
So why do the people behind these articles see consolidation, centralization, and homogenization as beneficial? At the very least, how can they not see the decline of small business as highly problematic? While these businesses are in such a state, now can Osterweil justify, even celebrate the burning and looting of these businesses?
Far from being irrelevant, small businesses can be the way forward for troubled communities. I found two claims in reading the two cited articles that I agreed with. The first is that one promise of small business is the possibility that it can become big business. I mentioned Walmart above as an example. But in juxtaposition we see the points that half of all small business owners didn't start their businesses principally to make money and that roughly 75% of small business owners have no intention of ever having more than a few employees. This is where a difference in philosophy comes into play. While big city, big government, and big college minds see dollar signs when they think of business, many small business owners are interested in being part of their community and finding personal fulfillment in their work.
If these philosophies as well as the resources needed for startup find their way into troubled communities. Specifically, black-owned banks and businesses can become an economic and cultural engine that could improve local finances as well as protect people from exploitation at the hands of corporate giants. This scenario provides jobs, builds community pride, provides generational wealth, and fends off gentrification. Walmart and Wells Fargo can't, correction, won't do that. None of this is going to happen so long as people are encouraged to go to small businesses, kick in the door, steal everything that isn't bolted down, and then set the place on fire. On the other hand, if small business owners are respected, if their livelihoods are honored, and if their businesses are patronized, they have a real chance to create jobs, especially if more and more people start more and more small businesses. Such a trend could come from an honest and positive portrayal of small business.
Essentially, the three articles I'm talking about have this one thread linking them all together: big government and big business built the modern world. The question is, is that really a good thing? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate electricity and indoor plumbing as much as the next guy, but there is a lot to the modern world that is less than desirable. For example, so long as our economy is measured in money alone, we can expect large corporations, medium sized businesses, and big government to scratch each other’s backs and leave small businesses and local governments out in the rain. Of course small businesses are struggling to keep up. Welcome to that modern world.
Back in 1930 John Crow Ransom wrote “Industrialism is rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence; it needs to be strongly guarded or it will destroy the (moral) economy of the household.” Some 90 years later industrialism has largely run its course and the economy of the household is all but dead. Ransom’s words were tragically prophetic.
We need to restart our economies. I say that plural because I’m not just talking about money. Money is certainly part of the picture but without the economy of the household, the economy of place, the economy of people, a plan for healthy and sustainable growth, a holistic view of prosperity, and the determination to rein in “progress” we can expect to be stuck in the same rut we’ve been in for decades. We have to think small. We have to think local. We have to revive all these economies. You say small businesses aren’t an economic engine? I say that’s a symptom, not a cause.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire