It was American entrepreneurship at its finest.
A Georgia businessman opens a pecan stand alongside U.S. Hwy. 23 in the little town of Eastman and drives around the southeast part of the state buying pecans from area farmers in the midst of the Great Depression. He adds a few souvenirs, some jars of local honey and his wife’s homemade candy and begins to catch business from all the New Yorkers and Chicagoans heading to the Georgia coast for the winter.
W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey Sr. would go on to open a nationwide chain of stores he owned and franchised along the country’s busy highways as the nation took to the roads during the prosperous 1950s and 1960s.
At its height in the 1960s, 368 stores sported the Stuckey’s logo in 30 states. Restless children and tired adults watched out for its distinctive teal blue roof so they could stop for Texaco gas, candy, souvenirs and a bathroom during the height of summer before air conditioners became standard features on new vehicles.
It became a standard part of any road trip for some Baby Boomers during long trips with the family. Stuckey’s was there offering souvenirs, pralines, very sugary candy, restrooms much cleaner than those found in service stations of the day and Texaco gas.
It owned its own candy plant in Eastman and a sign company that built 4,000 Stuckey’s roadside billboards.
However, as is often the case, Stuckey’s sought to expand in a merger with Pet Milk Co. in 1964. After that, its numbers began to dwindle as subsequent owners downsized the chain.
Americans also began using the fast-growing interstate highway system for travel which allowed them to quickly bypass the roadside retailers along former main routes like Hwy. 41.
The granddaughter of the founder, a former Atlanta state legislator and attorney named Stephanie Stuckey, in 2019 began operating the company that bore her family’s name in a bid to bring it back from the dead.
I was reminded of Stuckey’s when I visited the much-ballyhooed roadside extravaganza called Buc-ee’s recently.
Buc-ee’s has a name that rhymes with Stuckey’s and seems to follow the same formula — except at a much larger scale.
Its Calhoun, Ga., location opened in August and is the Texas-based company’s second in Georgia. Judging from the crowds, it will not be the last in the Peach State.
Calhoun is about halfway between Atlanta and Chattanooga and formerly was only known for its outlet mall and high school football team that won three state titles in seven years in the 2010s. Not anymore.
It is now home to a massive destination-styled convenience store/gas station/fast-food restaurant/gift shop that boasts 100 gas pumps, 53,000 square feet of store space, a wall of beef jerky, souvenirs, clothes by Buc-ee’s and other brands, and more.
Think of a QT or RaceTrac with a gift shop on one end and the cold and hot drinks on the other — and multiply the inside space, the candy aisle and the drink machines and the gas pumps by five or more.
While we in Newton County don’t have anything like that now, Georgia-based Jones Petroleum is planning a version of this “travel center” concept in a building less than half the size of the Calhoun Buc-ee’s.
Once completed, northeast Newton County will have two or three fast-food restaurants attached to a convenience store, gas station and gift shop.
One feature Jones is borrowing from Buc-ee’s is a requirement that no tractor-trailers patronize the store — a bow to those potential customers who told them they would not spend their money at a truck stop.
However, in Jones’ case, it agreed to change its plan for a 24-hour truck stop to a “travel center” that did not allow tract-trailers and was open a fraction of traditional truck stop hours.
Jones also agreed to drop a lawsuit seeking a reversal of the Board of Commissioners’ decision to deny a rezoning for the truck stop and for damages from not being allowed to build and operate on the 46-acre site at I-20’s Exit 98 near Social Circle.
The excitement around Buc-ee’s reminds me of when supermarkets or shopping centers would open with a fanfare and people would flock to them for awhile.
Buc-ee’s is bigger than what the two Georgia-based businesses — Jones Petroleum and Stuckey’s — are either planning or will offer their road-weary, target customers.
It also reminds me of the potential effect such large-scale retailers have on local businesses that may have operated in a location for years only to see a much newer and shinier rival from outside swallow all their business.
Is this just another sign that retail businesses like convenience stores are going the way of department stores — iconic retailers like Sears being muscled out by Walmart or Target?
Maybe it’s time consumers consider more than just the size or shininess of any store before they go spending hard-earned cash there.
Maybe they should consider the size of the owner’s community involvement or commitment to local sourcing of goods or any number of other ways to remain a part of a community.
Buc-ee’s probably will contribute to schools and nonprofits in the Calhoun community. It makes business sense and it has the money to do so.
But maybe other communities also should consider the course Newton County took and carefully considered the effect a business could have on the quality of life before bowing to the tax revenue it will generate.
Tom Spigolon is news editor of The News. Reach him at email@example.com.