The small-town chain remains unashamedly unfashionable, which is why I love it
When I visited my hometown near Poughkeepsie, New York, I used to get twitchy over the things that were different. Wasn’t that an Italian restaurant? When did they rename the school? But, at a certain point, I found the changes enhanced my nostalgia. The sandblasted spit-shine on the train station evokes its days of particle-boarded windows and birds in the waiting room. Seeing the buildings of the old mental hospital falling into decrepitude makes me remember their Victorian wedding-cake glory more fondly. The grassy lot that became a jumbo supermarket has now returned to weeds, while the new mega-supermarket sits on the site once occupied by an ordinary-sized supermarket, from back when supermarkets didn’t sell brie or have entire aisles dedicated to bottled water.
But there is one thing that never changed and had better never change, and that’s the string of Stewart’s Shops dotting the offshoots of Route 9 with their brick walls, shingle roofs, curvy ‘70s logos, and chalked signs shivering in the wind with their good words of ice cream sales and egg sandwich specials. As craft beer bars, artisanal chocolatiers and Thai fusion bistros spread upward from New York City in a ceaseless quaintening, Stewart’s remains unashamedly unfashionable.
Stewart’s is a local franchise operation, with over 300 outposts in upstate New York and eastern Vermont. In 1917, brothers Charles and Percy Dake bought their father’s dairy farm and used it to launch themselves toward the cutting edge of the food industry. In the ‘20s, they made ice cream, in the ‘30s they made soda and, in the ‘40s, they opened the first Stewart’s Shop.
Scattered from South Troy to North Hoosick, East Rutland to West Carthage, a Stewart’s is a sorta coffee shop, sometime gas station, and small-scale supermarket. The color palette tends toward burgundy-mustard-wood laminate. A long counter runs along one side, turning a new angle for each purpose: a freezer where ice cream is scooped and served, a coffee station with multiple carafes and creams, cellophaned pastries and shrink-wrapped sandwiches spinning inside a glass case, a register flanked by racks of Bic lighters and trail mix. A few orange plastic booths offer a view of the parking lot and a spot for senior citizens to sip hot drinks or little kids to wolf down sundaes.
Mornings are the bustling hours, as much as anything bustles in a town of a few hundred or so. Trucks for Verizon, Direct TV, and local lawn services park in rows as everyone grabs their favorite pre- or mid-shift beverage from the many Stewart’s house brands—pumping an extra-large refill of “richer roast” from one of the many carafes or a “Perk Up” soda from of the refrigerator wall. I’m partial to their bottled cappuccino, whose thickness and sweetness approaches milkshakery. Others swear by their 99-cent knockoff of Red Bull for a caffeine fix.
Alongside the morning drink might be a sticky Danish or a frosting-drizzled bear claw, or maybe a box of their crumbly, cinnamony apple cider donuts. In the mornings, the glass cases offer a variety of egg sandwiches with yellowish cheese and ham, bacon or sausage. Get there early and you might score a “meat lovers” with all three. Some outposts even serve breakfast pizza, which is cheese, sausage, and egg applied to a differently-formatted carb. (It could use some onion and spice.) However, while Stewart’s has four kinds of non-calorie sweetener and two kinds of mustard, there is no hot sauce. I tend to reach for the humble PB&J on a Kaiser roll (check the little round sticker for “grape” or “strawberry”), which is like a jelly donut with a swath of protein instead of a sprinkling of powdered sugar, and is a vast improvement.
I grab one of the window seats and eat my breakfast while flipping through a Pennysaver, but mostly watching the action. An up-from-the-city daytripper in Crocs and Lululemon is getting her Gatorade on. Behind her is a beleaguered school bus driver, grabbing a chocolate milk and a pack of Marlboros in the blessed lull between the morning’s screaming kids and the afternoon’s screaming kids. Behind her, an old man in plaid flannel and earflaps waits to pay for a quart of milk and a frozen pizza. Out in the parking lot, a guy unreels the free air hose—no $1.50 charge here—and attaches it to his tires, as a green ‘60s Karmann Ghia rolls up to the pumps. Stewart’s sells ethanol-free gas, a favored fuel for motorcycles and vintage cars.
In a few hours, my seat will likely been taken by a pre-teen with a sweet tooth. Stewart’s sells nearly 50 flavors of ice cream, frozen yogurt, gelato and sherbet, some with droll local-flavored names like Adirondack Bear Paw (vanilla with caramel swirl and cashews) or Crumbs Along the Mohawk (graham cracker ice cream with caramel swirl and graham cracker pieces). But Stewart’s supreme ice cream achievement—hell, Western civilization’s supreme ice cream achievement—is the Make Your Own Sundae. It’s the ultimate reward for Little League games lost and won, and the source of more prepubescent stomachaches than every test you never studied for combined.
Stewart’s style may seem more 1977 than 2017, but their policies are on-target for the contemporary buy-local, socially-conscious market. Their dairy products, eggs, and bread still come from regional farms and bakeries. Their vast array of house-brand foods, from chocolate pudding parfaits to frozen pasta dinners, are made in upstate New York. The Dake family still owns two thirds of the business, with the other third owned by employees, and the company makes sizable charitable donations each year.
As the personal and regional give ever more way to the uniform and national, the independent mini-marts are falling out of favor. Every town used to have its local mom ‘n’ pop store, now they’ve all got 7-Elevens and Dunkin’ Donuts. And if they don’t, they will soon. 7-Eleven has over 8,000 stores nationwide; last year, president of Seven-Eleven Japan Co. has announced plans to more than double that number. Dunkin Donuts also has about 8,000 outposts across the country, with several hundred more added last year, as well as expanding across Europe and into China.
Of course, I’ve got my soft spots for them too. The 7-Eleven where we used to smoke cigarettes and watch boys skateboard is still there, as is the Dunkin’ Donuts where my high school friends used to work. But I find their renovations and redecorations to be blandly contemporary, their menu items geared toward the latest marketing group findings. Give me burgundy polyester, raspberry lime seltzer, and all those things I can only get back home.