When the roadside shop finally appears on the horizon in Mappsville, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, there’s really no choice but to pull over.
I step inside Stuckey’s, and even on a chilly winter day, it feels like a beach vacation, with spinner racks of T-shirts, piles of Mexican blankets and shelves and shelves of candy.
“A lot of people who come here say they remember traveling with their grandparents during the summer, and they would always stop,” said Jennifer Fletcher, who has worked the counter for 32 years.
I nod knowingly. The truth is those memories had prompted me to detour miles out of my way to visit the last free-standing Stuckey’s in Virginia.
The emporium traces its roots to a Georgia pecan dealer who started a stand to sell nut candies made by his wife. As the country emerged from the Depression, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey Sr. began to build stores and soon was outfitting them with gas pumps, lunch counters and gift shops. His newly founded chain, with a signature blue roof, grew along with the country’s new interstate highway system, reaching 368 locations in more than 30 states, with a concentration across the South and Southwest.
For baby boomers, it became a road trip staple, an oasis of souvenirs and sweets, plus clean restrooms. But it was sold a couple of times to conglomerates and began a downward spiral after the oil embargo of the 1970s temporarily put the road trip out of fashion, and fast-food challengers sprouted along the highways.
Now it’s trying to launch a comeback.
I had fallen anew under the Stuckey’s spell a few months earlier during a visit to Atlanta, when I stayed at a Stuckey’s-themed Airbnb furnished with brightly branded coffee mugs, vintage candy boxes and even a rubber alligator, one of the stores’ treasured souvenirs. They all brought back memories of childhood trips across Virginia, with Stuckey’s stops in Front Royal, Williamsburg and points beyond.
The guesthouse belonged to Stephanie Stuckey, the founder’s granddaughter, who recently bought the financially troubled company. I felt as if I was sleeping on sacred ground, or at least in the shadow of royalty.
Stuckey, 56, laughs at the idea, although the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did call her a pecan log roll “heiress,” a title that seems to both amuse and annoy her. “I thought heiresses were supposed to have money,” she said. “I got debt.”
A lawyer and former Georgia state legislator, Stuckey grew up in D.C., the daughter of Rep. Bill Stuckey Jr., who represented Georgia’s 8th Congressional District for 10 years. Every summer, she would road trip with her family in a “woodie” station wagon to Florida, seeing her last name on billboards and stopping at every Stuckey’s store along the way.
Inspired by these memories, Stuckey says that, in 2019, she invested $500,000 to purchase the vastly diminished company. The chain now has just 13 free-standing original stores in 10 states sporting their signature sloped roofs. (The Gallman, Miss., location recently took a “terrible hit” when a truck slammed into it, wrecking the front half, Stuckey says.)
In addition, it has about 65 licensed Stuckey’s Express locations housed in larger stores. That’s why you’ll find a couple of shelves of Stuckey’s products at places such as the sprawling Border Station souvenir shop and gas station along Route 168 in Chesapeake, Va.
The company recently bought a pecan-and-candy plant in Georgia. It’s also online, shipping candy and an endless variety of Stuckey’s merchandise (socks, hats, hoodies) that once were available only to those wandering in off the highway. Also available, of course, is Stuckey’s grandmother’s pecan log roll, a cylinder of nougat and maraschino cherries coated with caramel and pecan pieces. The treat isn’t subtle: It’s a soft, chewy, crunchy sugar bomb. It remains the biggest seller.
The company has seen its annual revenue more than quadruple to $11 million in the past two years, Stephanie Stuckey says, but like its fans, Stuckey seems driven by nostalgia, traveling across the country to visit her outlets and other roadside attractions. “I love rubber alligators. I love snow globes, mugs, salt and pepper shakers, spoons, shot glasses, piggy banks, any of those kitschy collectibles. The tackier the better,” she said.
She also takes pride in her family’s legacy. “My grandfather really paid attention to what people wanted when they pulled over. We’re part of the DNA of the American travel experience by car.”
Indeed, the chain — which promised customers a place to “Relax, Refresh, Refuel” — made its mark on American culture. A 1995 article in the Society for Commercial Archeology Journal calls Stuckey’s “the forerunner of the modern convenience store.”
In the first years of the interstates, it was often the lone place to get a meal or gas. At one point, it was the nation’s largest seller of Texaco fuel, and its stores lined 12 major highways heading to Florida, notes the journal.
The chain also was an unexpected beacon of tolerance in the Jim Crow South, welcoming Black travelers as a company policy. It even makes an appearance in the film “Green Book,” when White driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and his client, Black musician Don Shirley, share burgers in South Carolina, sipping soda from canary-yellow Stuckey’s paper cups with a blue-roofed store behind them.
Stuckey’s was a relentless advertiser, boasting 4,000 billboards at its peak. It wore down parents’ defenses with an onslaught of signs alerting everyone in the car that a Stuckey’s was ahead. The company would typically locate stores on the northbound side of the road, knowing that southbound vacationers were so eager to reach their destination that they were less likely to stop, Stuckey said. Her grandfather also sought hilltop sites, so they could be seen from a distance.
The Mappsville store, which opened in 1964, was strategically located about an hour north of then-new Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel on U.S. 13. The thought was that drivers or their passengers would be ready for a restroom break, owner Kathy Kalmoutis tells me.
“They also put the bathrooms in the back-left corner, so you’d have to walk by everything.” Her store’s sugar-rich inventory includes variations of pecan treats, bags of vintage candies and boxes of fireworks. Another separate section features Virginia peanuts, jams and wines.
Although a little worn around the edges, the store is one of the best-preserved of the original designs. The partner stores hosting the Stuckey’s Express locations aren’t nearly as enticing. At the Border Station, I had to navigate around beer coolers and electronic betting machines just to find a few shelves of Stuckey’s candies and nuts.
How did we get here? Some attribute the start of the decline to Stuckey’s grandfather’s choice to merge his chain in the 1960s with Pet Milk Co., which made a number of food products, including evaporated milk. In the late 1970s, Pet was purchased in a hostile takeover by Illinois Central Industries, which started closing Stuckey’s stores, partly in the face of new competition from fast-food and convenience store chains. By the time Stuckey’s father, who came up with the Stuckey’s Express concept, repurchased the chain with some other investors in 1985, it was down to 75 stores. After her father retired in 2014, Stuckey says, there was only a “skeleton crew” managing the company; she bought it from his fellow investors.
Today, Stuckey’s is also facing off against 24-hour family-friendly truck stops and upstarts such as Texas-based Buc-ee’s, which has 41 stores in four states and lures travelers with its mammoth size and services. Some sites offer more than 100 gas pumps, and inside the stores, shoppers can find surprises such as a barbecue counter, a jerky bar and an endless variety of merch emblazoned with the chain’s toothy beaver mascot.
Stuckey isn’t intimidated. “There are way too many exits on the interstate highway system to think we can dominate the highways. We’re going to be small, curated, unique and special.” Her plan is to win over a new generation of customers by embracing the company’s roots. “We have a history that’s uniquely tied to the American road trip.” To that end, she promotes her travels and company through a barrage of postings on TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, along with podcasts and blogs.
“She’s the queen of social media,” says Brad Moore, 56, of Overland Park, Kan., who runs a Stuckey’s Facebook page. “They’re doing their best to keep their name out there.”
Moore knows the original stores well. An architect by training, he lovingly built a scale model of a Stuckey’s that now sits in what he calls its “forever home,” the Chamber of Commerce in Eastman, Ga., where the chain was founded.
For him, Stuckey’s brings back memories of family road trips from the Midwest to visit relatives in the South. He and his sister would see the billboards and start counting down the miles.
But now, instead of billboards, the landscape is filled with former Stuckey’s buildings. In fact, there’s a certain sport in finding them. In Elkton, Md., I recently located a long-abandoned Stuckey’s off U.S. 40, marked with a faded “Happy 40 Discount Liquors” sign, the 4 hanging at an angle like a digit that had too much to drink.
Some of the old Stuckey’s buildings still operate as gas stations under different names, but many appear to be abandoned. At least one has become a church, and several have been transformed into adult bookstores. (A chain called Lion’s Den seems to have an affinity for the buildings, Moore said.)
So, Moore feels lucky to live within 100 miles of two operational Stuckey’s, one east of him on Interstate 70 in Missouri and one west in Kansas. He manages to visit a few times a year, and he’ll inevitably pick up a T-shirt to add to his collection, now numbering 60. The stops are an homage to his childhood.
“It makes me think of my parents,” he said. “All of a sudden, it’s 1974 again, and I can see my mother smoking her cigarette. I can see my father pumping the gas. It’s nostalgia, the power of memories.”
Bleiberg is a writer based in Charlottesville. His website is larrybleiberg.com. Find him on Instagram: @lbleiberg.
Locations are listed on its website. To find a free-standing location, filter by “Original Stuckey’s Store” when searching.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.