Stephanie Stuckey at the Majestic Diner. (Photo courtesy Markham Yard)

Stephanie Stuckey spent more than a decade in the Georgia House of Representatives, before becoming director of  an environmentally focused law firm then the City of Atlanta’s director of sustainability and chief resilience officer. In 2019, she bought back the family business – the famed chain of roadside stores called Stuckey’s. Now as CEO, she’s on a mission to revive the brand and has been visiting all the stores. We caught up with Stuckey while she was back in Atlanta and also got her road trip themed In the Mix playlist, which includes choice cuts by Bruce Springsteen, REM, Journey, and Chuck Berry.

Q. You’ve been on the road visiting Stuckey’s locations and documenting your adventure on Instagram. What’s a highlight or two of your road trip to reconnect with your family business?

A. Route 66 is my favorite. It holds such a special place in the American consciousness and epitomizes the freedom and exploration that is the road trip. We have a Stuckey’s right off the Mother Road in Doolittle, Missouri, just down the road from the World’s Largest Rocking Chair and Meramec Caves where Jesse James had his hideout. That store has such personality, with a giant fiberglass rooster out front and a whole section of local jams and hot sauces, plus fried spicy peanuts that you eat in the shell. That’s what I love about Stuckey’s, every store is unique with a sense of place and belonging. What I’ve learned through touring the stores is that it’s not just about reviving Stuckey’s, it’s about connecting with folks who love to road trip. I want motorists to pull over at Stuckey’s on their travels but also visit the local petting zoos, state parks and Coca-Cola murals while they’re at it. It’s building community.

Q. Stuckey’s has endured since 1937, going through ups and downs over the decades. What’s the secret to its ongoing longevity? 

A. The secret to any business having sticking power is to build emotional connections. If you focus on brand building instead of profit, the revenue will start to flow. I knew nothing about running a business when I bought Stuckey’s in November of 2019. But I poured over old articles about Stuckey’s and interviews with my grandfather. I always knew him as “Bigdaddy,” but he came to life to me through reading through our archives as a businessman who grew Stuckey’s from a humble stand to a roadside empire. And he did it without a college degree. His secret was that he believed in people, his employees first and his customers second. Our stores were unique because the franchisees had ownership in the business and loved what they did. Happy employees translate to happy customers. There was such attention to detail in how the stores were designed, the merchandise selection, and overall experience. It was very customer-centric and created lasting memories for folks who stopped at a Stuckey’s back in the 1960’s and 70’s. Even though we’re a dusty brand, we have decades of brand equity. I hear from dozens of customers every week who share their Stuckey’s stories with me. It takes up several hours of my time to read and respond, but I do. Because that’s why Stuckey’s has sticking power, that emotional connection. And we’re bringing back that experience for a whole new generation.

Q. You’ve been a politician and a sustainability advocate. What did your previous jobs teach you that have helped transition to CEO of the family business?

A. There’s so much learning in everything I did to get to this point in my life, I wouldn’t trade a single experience, not even the challenging ones. In fact, it’s the failures that best prepared me for my new role. As a public defender, I handled some tough cases, and I didn’t win them all. As a state representative, I introduced some legislation I was passionate about and had the bills chewed up in committee or defeated on the House floor. And I really loved heading up sustainability for the City of Atlanta under Mayor Reed. It was really hard on me when the new administration came in and replaced me. I point out these losses and low points in my career because too often we only talk about the positive wins in our lives and don’t give value to the incredible growth that occurs as a result of these challenges. As an entrepreneur, I face tough moments every day – a potential big account turns us down, our packaging is delayed for months, our flow wrapper on the candy line is broken –and the list goes on. Learning to deal with these “oh sh—” moments with grace and gratitude is the best lesson I’ve learned from my past.

Q. When you’re not on the road rebuilding the empire, what are some of your favorite places to eat in Atlanta?

A. I love places that tell a story, that have sticking power, and create a sense of place. The Majestic Diner, “Food that Pleases since 1929” tops my list. The Colonnade has really revamped their menu and is worth re-discovering if you haven’t stopped there in a while. And you can’t get any more classic Atlanta than Paschal’s which is steeped in such rich history connected with the Civil Rights Movement. I also love that the Paschal brothers are from Thomson, Georgia, which is where I stay when I’m visiting our candy plant in nearby Wrens. Lastly, I’ll give a shout out to Waffle House #1 which is in Avondale Estates but right outside Atlanta. My grandfather was friends with Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner, the founders, and I love how they built that brand from nothing. Plus, who doesn’t love their hash browns scattered, smothered and covered?

Q. Where are some of your favorite places to unwind in the city? Where do you take out-of-town visitors for a taste of the real ATL?

A. I love places that unique and different. Doll’s Head Trail in Constitution Lakes is one of my favorites, decorated with found objects by a local artist and lovingly maintained by volunteers. Browns Mill Food Forest and Proctor Creek Greenway are two of the sustainability projects I worked on while I was at the city and are really fun to explore. My favorite weekend activities are to visit the Freedom Farmer’s Market at the Carter Center, do some people watching in Little Five Points, and catch a movie at the Starlight Drive-In (only one of five drive-ins still remaining in Georgia). I’ve also got the Trap Museum and Slutty Vegan on my list – I’m definitely going to visit those by summer’s end.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.