Stuckey’s sloped turquoise roofs and signs advertising their signature pecan log rolls were comforting sights during the road trip boom of the 1950s and ‘60s. Weary travelers could indulge their sweet tooth and stretch their legs at these pecan paradises, which were almost always conveniently located near a highway exit.
The company was founded in 1937 in Eastman, Georgia, by William Sylvester “W.S.” Stuckey. He borrowed $35 from his grandmother and, along with his wife Ethel, developed the secret recipe for their chief product, the pecan log roll. With ingredients sourced from the region’s pecan and peanut farms, the distinctly Southern treat consists of nougat wrapped in caramel and pecans; it was made by hand until the company opened a dedicated candy factory in 1948.
Stuckey’s business boomed, thanks in part to the developing Interstate Highway System (the Eisenhower administration oversaw passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956), and he opened more than 300 locations from Connecticut to Oregon. The roadside shops became as common and visible along U.S. highways as Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s, later adding Texaco gas pumps and souvenirs to their offerings.
The company was sold in 1964 and passed through various hands and iterations in the following decades, almost falling into obscurity. In the ‘70s, the oil embargo and decreasing price of air travel led to more store closures. It wasn’t the end of the brand, though. In November 2019, William’s granddaughter, Ethel “Stephanie” Stuckey, took over the family business—and its legacy, inextricably linked with road travel.
“We were founded during the Great Depression—a lot of companies have been founded during economic hard times because it forges innovation,” Stuckey tells me from an Atlanta coffee shop eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve often thought, ‘What if [the company] had been in my family’s hands during that period in the late ’70s? What if we had been able to reinvent ourselves then? What would the company look like today?’”
Billboards and brochures
Stuckey says her family’s business played a big role in fostering her love of travel. She remembers visiting franchised locations on road trips throughout her childhood, even after the business was out of their hands. “We would stop and, quite frequently, it would be some of the franchisees that my father still knew because he had worked in the company when he was a young man,” Stuckey says.
It was on these trips that Stuckey developed a love for quirky roadside stops, which she learned about through billboards and brochures set up inside of the stores. “Those are the places that I crave—the places that aren’t necessarily in the guidebooks,” she says. “The places that other people have to tell you about through word of mouth; the hole-in-the-wall dive bars and restaurants that you would drive by if you didn’t know that they served the best quesadillas anywhere. That’s what roadside America is about.”
One such place was a (now-defunct) Western-themed park in Silver Springs, Florida—complete with faux gun fights and replica locomotives. Stuckey says that the family went south with “no agenda and no itinerary, other than we were going to stop at every kitschy attraction that we saw.” They went to Disney World, but “Six Gun Territory was our favorite,” she says.
A fresh perspective
Stuckey’s now has 67 locations in total, most of which are located in the Southeastern U.S. The majority are “Express” locations housed within gas stations, which offer the famous Stuckey’s brand pecan log rolls under an existing chain’s umbrella. Of the 20 standalone brick-and-mortar stores remaining, very few locations still showcase the classic roadside architecture that the brand was known for; finding one is “like finding a rare bird,” Stuckey says.
In small towns across the country, Stuckey’s stores are often reflective of the communities they serve. “If you pull over at the Stuckey’s in Baghdad, Florida, you know you’re in Florida,” Stuckey says. “There would be rubber alligator souvenirs and maybe some fresh oranges sold out front, and a lot of shells and shell sculptures.”
The stores bring people back to a simpler time, Stuckey says, although she recognizes that times have changed since her grandfather spent that first $35. “Stuckey’s really evokes that warm sense of getting on the road,” she says. “My challenge is, how do I tap into that feeling but still have a fresh perspective on the brand?”
Stuckey has been trying to both reinvent and reintroduce the brand to a new generation of travelers, in part by selling vintage-inspired goods such as neon clocks and “drinking bird” toys. The company’s blog highlights roadside attractions like Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs and the World’s Largest Pecan in Seguin, Texas. She’s even collaborated with an Atlanta brewery, Wild Heaven, for Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll Beer. Stuckey has also become a historian of sorts, diving into her family’s archives and posting black-and-white photos on Instagram. Artifacts from the company’s history are featured at her Atlanta Airbnb, where guests get free pecan log rolls.
Weird and wonderful places
After she took the reins, Stuckey planned to visit all of the company’s locations, but the pandemic made it difficult. She still has three left to see, but she says her focus on domestic travel has allowed her to also promote the interesting places located near the stores. “If you pull over at the Stuckey’s in Perry, Georgia, I want you to also go to Rose Hill Cemetery to see where the Allman brothers are buried—or to the Big House Museum, where they recorded a lot of their early songs,” she says.
The pandemic has certainly changed the way people travel, but Stuckey says she’s also seeing an increased interest in the weird and wonderful places she loves. And while you’re out exploring, look out for the sloped roof of Stuckey’s—it might just be the gateway to something unusual and wonderful.