Shortly after moving back to Albany two summers ago, I told my wife I was going to meet my high school friends for coffee at Stewart’s.
“You’re going to a gas station?” Kathleen asked.
Kathleen’s from northern Virginia, so she didn’t grasp all that Stewart’s is.
For those of us who grew up here or who have lived here a long time, Stewart’s Shops is hardly just a chain of more than 350 convenience stores in New York and southern Vermont. It’s an institution that’s been folded into our identity as upstate New Yorkers. (It’s even been argued that upstate begins when you first encounter a Stewart’s.)
But at my wife’s consternation, I found myself questioning why so many of us are so passionate about “Stort’s.” I wondered if maybe it was just me.
Then, when ahead of the holiday season Stewart’s launched an online store, on which you can purchase swag ranging from a sparkly coffee tumbler to a Stewart’s onesie, and when people from 37 states placed orders on the first day the online store was open, any doubts I had about Stewart’s’ importance to us melted away.
I’ll say here that no marketing or PR professional pitched me on this idea — which, perhaps, says something in its own right.
Our love of Stewart’s likely benefits from the fact the company, in its current form, started as an ice cream parlor. In 1945, the Dake family bought Don Stewart’s creamery in Ballston Spa, and that became the first version of the store we now know. Gas came years later.
That means many of us associate Stewart’s with ice cream — world-famous, award-winning ice cream at that — and what builds fondness more than ice cream?
Of course, over the years, Stewart’s has evolved. It’s where we buy the gallon of milk or carton of eggs we neglected to buy at the grocery store. It’s where we get a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza. It’s become a kind of general store, where you can get everything from batteries to firewood to energy drinks. On a family canoe camping trip this summer, we stopped at a Stewart’s in the Adirondacks for practically everything but our tent and sleeping bags — we even fueled up with breakfast sandwiches.
A big reason that national brands do well is because they have a certain reliability. You walk into a McDonald’s, a Starbucks or a CVS, and you know what’s on the menu or how the store is likely to be laid out. Sometimes we simply like to know what to expect.
Stewart’s offers the dependability of a sizable chain, and yet it’s somehow uniquely ours. We embrace it the way people in Philly love Wawa or people in California love In-N-Out Burger. But it’s more than that.
It’s where some people buy the morning paper and read it in one of the practically iconic booths. (At least one couple has incorporated a Stewart’s booth into their wedding.) It’s where kids park bicycles out front and go inside for snacks or candy. It’s where we run into neighbors and talk about the weather or the traffic. My wife started to become a believer when she happened upon a big conversation in our Stewart’s about a red light that was slow to change to green. Peanut Butter Pandemonium has also helped earn Kathleen’s approval.
Stewart’s’ reputation as a charitable company and one partially owned by its employees also allows us to feel good about shopping there.
Heck, many of us have probably worked at a Stewart’s ourselves or had a family member who did so — my sister spent a college summer stocking freezers and scooping ice cream at our Stewart’s before the old building was replaced by a new one.
Somehow all of this — the small town and community feel, the convenience, the versatility — seems to embody who we are and what we love about upstate.
Stewart’s President Gary Dake said he started to realize just how much Stewart’s has become an upstate institution during the internet age, when listicles such as “you know you’re from upstate when …” cropped up and typically included a mention of the company.
“It takes almost a generation to get that sense of place,” Dake said. “I think we all go back to our youth a little bit, and whether we went to Stewart’s after the ball game, or your grandparents took you there or you walked there after school, I’ve heard all different kinds of stories.”
On the flipside, Dake said he’s heard stories about people from out of town being taken out for ice cream only to be confused when they arrive at a convenience store. He’s also seen newer markets like Syracuse be slower to embrace the company because residents there lack the nostalgia.
Last year for Christmas, my wife gave me a Stewart’s beanie, and what I’ve noticed is that, unlike, say, a Mets or Yankees hat, which will draw either scorn or a smile depending on sports allegiances, a Stewart’s hat pretty much always gets a friendly nod. (A buddy who now lives in Boston told me he struck up a conversation with a fellow upstate New Yorker entirely because she was wearing a Stewart’s beanie.)
So maybe that’s what it’s about. It’s connection and understating. It’s feeling at home and sharing a kind of collective experience that was part of our childhood and continues to stay with us as we age.
On that day my friends and I met for coffee, we joked about already being old men, meeting up at Stewart’s to chat.
Then, when I drove by the next day, I saw four older gentlemen sitting in the very seats my friends and I had occupied the prior morning.
If we’re lucky, that’ll be us one day. Then again, in some ways, it already is.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.