Many years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, I was working for a firm that sold advertising on television for stations across the country. I was charged with using the Nielsen and Arbitron rating services to do research that showed that our programs on the stations we represented were doing better than the competition. Oh sure, it was boring, but at least it paid well. However, careers in broadcasting weren’t exactly being handed out on every street corner, so this was as good as it got.
One particular day I was in my supervisor’s office with a newer employee who was on my research team, and the boss was going over our work, and what he wanted done going forward. He ripped into my colleague in no uncertain terms for his sloppy efforts, and then piled a ton of work on top of the responsibilities he had to now re-do. After my teammate got up and left with his proverbial tail between his legs, I looked at my boss and said, “Whew, that was brutal.” My boss scoffed at the idea, retorting, “That’s not brutal, working in the hot sun with a jackhammer, now that’s brutal.” That perspective has never been lost upon me, and so when I consider jobs that sometimes seem as if they are kind of “brutal” or at least undesirable, I think of the words of Tom DeMartini. This sense of perspective can come in quite handy. Take our local treasure here in the Capital Region known as Stewart’s Shops. While we all depend upon it at one time or another, it doesn’t appear to be the most pleasant place to earn a buck. Sometimes I even feel guilty walking in to one of their stores depending on the time or day. Thanks to my old boss, I feel a little bit better.
For those of you who are not from these here parts, Stewart’s Shops is essentially the ultimate convenience store. When we first moved to the Capital Region, my Long Island centric view of the world caused me to see Stewart’s as some kind of upstate version of 7-11, (not “Dairy Barn” of course, since you couldn’t literally drive in to a Stewart’s) but really it’s so much more, with a rich business history to boot. If you’re from Long Island like I am originally, imagine 7-11 without the harsh stares when you attempt to leaf through any of the available reading material, or the often less than friendly people behind the cash register who seem annoyed that you would actually have the audacity to walk into their place of business and attempt to buy something. Stewart’s Shops has also somehow avoided the usury level of high prices for much of its products unlike 7-11 where I believe now you need to actually take out a reversible mortgage on your house just to buy a six-pack.
Stewart’s Shops is a local icon here in the Capital Region, but how did that become so? Well, you’ll have to travel back to the year 1917 in Middle Grove, New York. The U.S. was preparing to enter World War One, Woodrow Wilson had just begun his second term, and the Chicago White Sox were on their way to winning the World Series, drawing adoring fans to their exploits due to their immense talent and unassailable honesty. However in Middle Grove, Percy and Charles V. Dake, who had just taken over the family dairy farm were preparing to develop their delicious ice cream, which they would debut in 1921. This was good news for the new president, and honorable public servant Warren G. Harding. A guaranteed two-termer if there ever was.
As time rolled on, the Dake brothers began to branch out into making milk, and then cheese. (It’s at this point where lactose intolerant people may wish to reach for the “Lactaid,” and get a life.) After World War Two, the boys bought an ice cream facility in Ballston Spa, New York from a man named Donald Stewart. Everything would now fall into place as Charles V.’s son Charlie began selling the ice cream to the public right from the factory store front, which has come to be considered the first Stewart’s Shop. Stores quickly followed in South Glens Falls, and Saratoga, and in 1950 the company became formally incorporated. By 1955 there were 50 stores. The rest is dairy history.
No business can succeed without a good name, and Stewart’s Shops is no exception. Interestingly, “Stewart” doesn’t strike one as the kind of name that would lend itself to a successful franchise brand. For openers, it’s one of those names that can be spelled two different ways. There’s “Stewart” and “Stuart.” I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, and both my friends Jon and John feel the same way. Still, when I think of famous as well as not-so-famous people named “Stewart,” it doesn’t seem like the name should be the earmark of success. I can’t even think of a famous “Stewart” who could be the symbol or spokesperson for the company. For example there’s…
- Stuart Little – Famous mouse from the world of literature and movies has two drawbacks as I see it. First of all, his name is spelled wrong. Plus, you don’t want a mouse associated with a company that sells food.
- Jackie Stewart – World famous Formula One Race Car champion and “penny-pincher,” Stewart is fine for selling Quaker State Motor Oil, but unless they start to sell haggis at your local Stewart’s, Jackie seems ill-suited for this gig.
- Stuart Smalley – Al Franken ‘s humorous Saturday Night Live character is a little too milk-toasty to hawk the Stewart’s brand, plus he also spells his name wrong, and let us not forget that Al Franken got #MeToo’d and we can’t have that associated with such a pleasant and happy place.
- Ian Stewart – Why not this guy, after all, he only played keyboards with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, geez, what else do you want? However, he’s dead so that kind of makes the other stuff moot. I did teach a student named Ian Stewart, and I’ve heard he’s available.
- Russell Stewart – He was a friend of mine in high school, and if my recollection is correct, he was the strongest kid in my grade. I’d be happy to nominate him.
Yes, we all benefit from the presence of Stewart’s Shops in our area. However, what of its employees? Is it brutal work like Tom DeMartini’s little anecdote about operating a jackhammer in the hot sun? Well, I don’t think it’s quite that bad. However, just because it’s not brutal and we all love the place, it doesn’t mean that it’s an easy place to work. For those who mind the store so to speak for Stewart’s Shops, just as in any convenience store, there are many issues that one must deal with, not the least of which is limited pay. I should think the most challenging issue for these brave souls to deal with is the hours, as well as the threat of robbery. One of the things that I’ve noticed that Stewart’s employees have at their beck and call is a necklace that they wear with an alarm button on it. Sometimes when I’m in a Stewart’s and I’m at the checkout counter, I find my mind wandering as I stare at the cashier’s security necklace and think, it almost looks like a self-destruct button. It’s almost as if they are saying to any would-be robber, “You can grab the loot in the register, but when I push this button, I’m taking you with me.”
It’s the hours they work, and those certain particular days on the calendar that they are often forced to show up on that makes me feel bad for these employees. The fact that just because I was forgetful, and I needed to go out and get milk, or their wonderful eggnog, or ice, somebody had better be working Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, or Sukkot. Hopefully they’ll get to go home soon and be with their families I think to myself as I pick up whipped cream or AA batteries.
Most fans of Stewart’s Shops have their personal favorites regarding what products they enjoy most about this iconic Capital Region business. Certainly the ice cream would rank amongst most people’s favorites, particularly due to its cost and variety. Stewart’s milk and coffee are also great draws for the store, and if it’s summer time, ice and firewood fly off the shelves, or wherever they keep them.
This is not to say that everything you can purchase from Stewart’s Shops is how shall I put it, the gold standard. For example, the hot dogs that spin mercurially on the hot dog roller don’t always inspire confidence, and the bagels and muffins can be a little tough. The pizza that spins clockwise behind the glass often looks a little long in the tooth as well, but at the end of the day, I’ve seen plenty of people walk out with one or more of these products, and they seem happy enough, so what do I know?
In a world dominated by chain stores and restaurants that dot the landscape with little character or local flavor, it’s comforting to know that there’s at least one local establishment that upholds the pride of the Capital Region, the home of “Crumbs Along the Mohawk,” Stewart’s Shops!