William Sylvester Stuckey Senior got his start in the 1930s selling freshly harvested pecans from the orchard on his family’s farm out of a roadside shack in Eastman, Georgia. The business would eventually grow and evolve into a restaurant, gas station, and novelty shop housed in a building with a teal blue roof. The pecan theme evolved as well. Stuckey’s wife, Ethel, would supply the store with pecan candies to supplement the plain pecans already on the shelves. After WWII, Stuckey began to franchise his business, and blue-roofed buildings began to pop up in sparsely developed spots along major highways where traffic was heavy, real estate was cheap, and competition was limited. Stuckey’s peaked at around 350 locations all over the US. Like most early businesses set up to cater to American motorists, decline come for Stuckey’s in the 1970s. Fuel shortages, economic recession, and increased competition from the national fast food chains all made it difficult for Stuckey’s to remain competitive. The brand had been acquired by Pet Inc, makers of Pet evaporated milk, in 1964, and by the ‘70s they had little interest in evolving the Stuckey’s brand. The chain had shrunk to around 75 locations when William Sylvester Stuckey Junior bought his father’s legacy back from Pet in 1985.
The history section of the Stuckey’s website proclaims the reacquisition of the brand by the Stuckey family as a triumph, and states 115 locations are currently open for business. However, a little fiddling with their difficult to use store locator yields a count of only 82 operating locations. My internet friend, Mike, who runs Houston Historic Retail, was nice enough to research some of those locations and found that there’s a high degree of variation between them. While some locations are traditional old-style Stuckey’s with teal blue roofs and inventories stocked with pecan candy and cheap novelties, while others are little more than modern convenience stores and travel centers that stock Stuckey’s merchandise. Many of those seem to have no visible outside signage to reflect their affiliation with the Stuckey’s brand. A truck stop with a shelf or two of pecan log rolls can hardly be considered a real Stuckey’s. I therefore suspect that the actual count of Stuckey’s locations recognizable to the average passerby is well below their supposed 1980s-era rock bottom of 75 stores.
These days, roadsides are littered with abandoned and repurposed Stuckey’s buildings. I pass two of them (plus an empty Nickerson Farms) along I-94 in Michigan when I drive to the last operating Hot ‘n Now. With the Stuckey's brand's best days decades behind it, I decided to seek out an operating Stuckey’s location that best exemplified the heyday of the brand. My search landed me in Johnston City, Illinois, home of a long defunct Stuckey's that was restored and reopened in 2017. It seems to be marketed as something of a flagship location for the brand. It had long been on my list to visit, but my recent Festiva trip across Indiana and Illinois finally afforded me the opportunity to visit.
|Even without the sign or blue roof, it's clear that this is a Stuckey's.|
My initial impression upon pulling my ridiculous car in under the gas canopy was positive. All the signage appeared modern, but sported the classic Stuckey’s logo, which was even present on the individual gas pumps. The building looked to have been nicely restored, and though it lacked the signature blue roof, its distinctive roofline with varying slopes was classic Stuckey’s architecture. The interior was spotless and well lit, and I was delighted to see not only a plethora of pecan products lining the shelves, but also the cheapest, cheesiest tourist trinkets imaginable. After a visit to the impeccably clean restroom, I went shopping.
|It's the most fun gas stop I've had in recent memory.|
I started with a couple of Stuckey’s logo T-shirts, then a blue, black, and white striped falsa blanket, another of Stuckey’s better known offerings. I also picked up a couple bags of whole pecans for the next time I feel like baking a pecan pie. I also bought a large Stuckey’s pecan log roll, because it’s tough not to buy one when you’re at a Stuckey’s. I ate it for lunch the next day, and found it to be tooth-meltingly sweet, but very filling. All told, including half a tank of gas, I spent a little over $60 at Stuckey’s, but I was and still am excited about everything I bought. The one item I was anticipating the most was a pecan milkshake, though.
|Tchotchkes as far as the eye can see.|
Stuckey’s has experimented with offering fast food off and on over the years, sometimes using their own branding, sometimes integrating an existing fast food concept, often Dairy Queen, into their stores. There’s not a clear legacy of memorable fast food menu items, other than the pecan shake. While the Johnston City Stuckey’s doesn’t offer much in the way of fast food, I was happy to see shakes advertised across the front of the building at this location, but when I asked what flavors they had, I was met with a reply of “Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.” I settled for a nondescript strawberry shake which came in a “Caribbean Creme Smoothie” cup. It was the one letdown of my visit to Stuckey’s.
Is not what's in this drink
Now my hopes are all but gone
Of milkshakes with pecan♬
|My Stuckey's purchases, minus the pecan log roll, which I ate, and one tshirt, which I gave to Esmeralda Fitzmonster.|
Aside from the lack of a pecan shake, I have nothing but good things to say about the Johnson City Stuckey's. It's a step in the right direction for the chain. I'd love to see more locations like this one, operating out of refurbished original structures following the original Stuckey's business model. I could see them doing well with billboard advertising along routes to major tourist attractions. The only notes I'd offer would be to keep the roofs blue and keep pecan shakes on the menu.