The Sweet Spot

by Lisa Bramen | 50th Anniversary 2019

Photograph by Carrie Marie Burr

Getting the scoop on Stewart’s, a regional institution

I drove for nearly an hour
on quiet roads through the northernmost part of the Adirondack Park. T-shirt shops and twiggy Great Camps are scarce around here—along with nearly everything but the occasional cluster of tidy raised ranches and mobile homes of every vintage, with miles of sprawling green acres between. It’s pretty country, but by the time I got to Dannemora I desperately needed to see a man about a horse; the familiar white sign with a maroon flourish was a welcome intrusion on the scenery.

I entered the squat brick building, passing a basket of plastic-wrapped donuts and buttered hard rolls en route to the lavatory, which was wallpapered in the same bucolic farm scene as every loo in every Stewart’s from Kerhonkson to Rouses Point.

That’s the thing with chains—for better or worse, you always know exactly what you’ll find. But in the Adirondacks, Stewart’s Shops is more than a gas station convenience store. In the hamlets and villages where they are often one of the few year-round businesses, they are places for coffee klatches and neighborhood scuttlebutt, post–Little League sundaes, even a hot meal, as well as steady employers offering benefits that can be hard to come by. It would be nearly impossible to give directions in the North Country without them.

In these parts, when you realize you’ve forgotten milk or run out of batteries at nine p.m., the only thing between you and a 40-minute drive is often a Stewart’s. When our seven-year-old asks where his father got something and is invariably answered with my husband’s favorite line from Western novelist Cormac McCarthy—“At the gettin’ place”—our son knows that probably means our local Stewart’s, six miles away in Keene.

In the park’s six-million
acres, there are only five McDonald’s, three Dunkin’ Donuts, five Dollar Generals, nine Tops Friendly Markets, one Walmart, and 26 Stewart’s. For the most part, the Adirondacks’ small population, long distances between towns, and big box–averse policies have kept chains from proliferating here. For many residents and visitors, that’s part of the Adirondacks’ appeal. But, even without competition from chain stores, it can be hard for small independent businesses to stay afloat here, especially in places where the population fluctuates wildly between the seasons. The Stewart’s business model seems to hit the sweet spot.

One key to their success, according to Stewart’s Shops president Gary Dake, is vertical integration—corporate-speak for doing things themselves, from production to shipping to marketing, instead of contracting with other companies. 

Dake is the third generation to helm the family business, which began in 1921 with ice-cream entrepreneurs Percy and Charles V. Dake. In 1945, the brothers parlayed their decades of dairy experience into the first Stewart’s Ice Cream Shop in Ballston Spa—just in time to fulfill the pent-up demand for ice cream after wartime rationing. By the time Gary was a kid, his father, Bill, and uncle Charlie—Charles V. Dake’s sons—were running the show, which had evolved into a convenience-store chain with dozens of locations. Gary spent summers in high school and college working in the ice-cream plant and in dairy operations.

“We have a family rule,” Gary said. “You have to work elsewhere for a few years before you come back” to the family business. After college, he gained experience at Agway in Pennsylvania as a farm consultant before returning to the Stewart’s fold in 1985. Within a few years he was in charge of manufacturing, and in 2003, he took over as president. His father, now 84, is still chairman of the board and is heavily involved in the business; Gary and Bill share an office in their glass-walled corporate headquarters in Ballston Spa. One of the benefits of a family-run business, he said, is that “Dad and I can decide in 15 minutes to make some multimillion-dollar decision. We don’t have committee meetings.”

Gary, at 58, is starting to think about who will take the reins when he retires —“I don’t see myself still coming in the office every day at 84,” he said. His son Zachary worked for the company for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it. “It’s bittersweet,” Gary said. “He shouldn’t do it out of obligation. The only thing worse than not having a Dake here is having a Dake here who’s miserable.”

At the Stewart’s plant, on
the outskirts of Saratoga Springs, two sprawling warehouses on 60 acres of land are where the proverbial sausage is made. Stewart’s doesn’t actually make sausage, of course, but in addition to ice cream and dairy products, they produce everything from their own freshly packed salads to Buffalo mac-and-cheese to eggnog, and sell private-label baked goods and sodas—even a beer called Mountain Brew Ice (a Stewart’s-brand craft beer, High Cliff IPA, was pulled after a year). “We ship about a million pieces of product a week,” according to vice president of plant operations Jim Norton.

A person might easily get lost in the labyrinthine warehouses, but you could almost navigate by scent alone—this way to the baked goods, that way to the cocoa stores used in ice-cream flavors that include Death by Chocolate, Crumbs along the Mohawk and kid-favorite Fireworks, studded with Pop Rocks candies. 

Close to 500 people work in the facility, pasteurizing, separating and homogenizing the milk from 25 Stewart’s-exclusive dairy farms, mostly in Washington County; flavoring, freezing and packaging ice cream; stacking, loading and moving inventory; and making prepared foods, a department that has grown from five to 30 workers since the kitchen was expanded in 2015.

In the other warehouse is everything used to service the company’s 335 shops in upstate New York and Vermont: cleaning supplies, display cases, the farm-themed bathroom wallpaper, plus a full-service garage for maintaining the truck fleet.

Gary Dake said one reason Stewart’s can afford to stay open year-round in a place like Long Lake that does huge volume in summer and nosedives in the off-season is that the company owns most of its fleet and they’re going there anyway, en route to higher-volume outlets. In such places, he said, “We become the anchor for the town,” providing a lifeline to communities with few other options for basic services or jobs.

The entry-level wage of $12.50 to $15 per hour exceeds the state minimum, and full-time workers receive health and dental benefits, paid vacation and maternity leave, and can participate in the employee stock ownership plan for retirement savings. Store managers start at an annual salary of $60,000 to $75,000—well above the median household income of most Adirondack counties. The company employs close to 400 people within the Blue Line.

Yet new Stewart’s locations in the Adirondacks haven’t always been welcomed with open arms. Often, Dake said, there is a split between the desires of second-home owners who consider chain stores, with their bright lights and gaudy signs, a blight on their idealized landscapes, and the year-round residents who just want to be able to buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk.   

Over the summer I took a
Stewart’s road trip, stopping at as many locations as I could manage in a day. Despite the superficial chain-store sameness, I found that every location is a subtle reflection of its community, with its own personality and rhythms. Employees often know their customers personally, commenting on a new haircut or asking after a sick family member. Most shops have a group of regulars, often retirees, who meet for coffee each morning.

This dynamic is why, Dake noted, “[State Senator] Betty Little’s whole outreach is to go from Stewart’s to Stewart’s.”

In Dannemora, across the road from the entrance to Clinton Correctional Facility, Teaonnie Barcomb said there’s a rush of corrections officers at every shift change. People visiting inmates shop there, too, some frequently enough that employees learn their names. “People will share their whole life story in a minute transaction,” Barcomb said.

Lunchtime in Long Lake, a day-glo-shirted construction worker munched a hot dog on his way out the door; a balding man sat in a booth eating a sundae and looking at his phone; a hipster in skinny sweatpants and Converse high-tops bought iced coffee; and a long-haired woman picked up a six-pack of Seagrams coolers and two bananas.

In the recently rebuilt Schroon Lake store, at picnic tables overlooking the lake, a vacationing family with New Jersey accents ordered cones and smoothies from the ice-cream window.

And in Ticonderoga, notices on the bulletin board advertised charity motorcycle rides, a high-school reunion, a taxidermy service, Census jobs and German shepherd puppies.

In nine hours of driving, I made it to seven locations, spending no more than 15 minutes in each one. I was almost home, but first I had one last stop. My husband had texted that we needed coffee creamer.

Naturally, I went to the gettin’ place. 

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