Tour de Stewart’s
April 25, 2001
When temperatures increase in the Hudson Valley in the spring, this young man doesn’t turn to love. He turns to something more reliable — his bicycle and various ice cream flavors that go by wacky names at a gas and ice cream convenience store chain named Stewart’s.
I was going stir crazy in my New Paltz house from the cold weather in April, so I made a pact with the Bicycle Gods that on the first bikeable nice day in the month I would spend the entire day pedaling my road bicycle visiting the one common denominator of commerce that binds the Hudson Valley.
I created a 115-mile bike route in Ulster and Orange Counties visiting as many Stewart’s ice cream convenience stores as possible. I came up with 13 Stewart’s ice cream stores, paying homage to the brown-shingled, red-brick beacons of the Hudson Valley road network.
Stewart’s has taken the art of convenience store purveying to a friendly artform, selling what every Hudson Valley residents mainlines: coffee, ice cream, gasoline, milk, and a six-pack of Busch beer for $4.99. This strategy has spawned a 306-store, $700 million-a-year convenience store juggernaut that sells 500,000 gallons of gas a day and another 20,000 gallons of milk a day.
To celebrate the dawn of a nice spring day in New Paltz, I began my Tour de Stewart’s at 6:20 a.m. by pedaling a mere three-fourths of a mile to my first Stewart’s on the circuit on Route 32.
I told a friendly store clerk named Pat (her tag said, “Hi I’m Pat”) of my 13-store, 115-mile two-wheeled Stewart’s odyssey.
“That’s good to hear,” Pat told me.
With that kind of inspiration, I was off and pedaling to Modena under an overcast sky and temperatures in the 40s. Not ideal weather. But I’ll take what I can get in the Hudson Valley in April.
Modena is a small hamlet, but its Stewart’s is a hot store, feasting on race fans who visit a nearby track and SUNY New Paltz students and motorists bypassing the New York State Thruway. The store is generating more revenue than any of the folks at the Saratoga Springs, NY-based company ever expected.
The store’s all-star lineup included Barbara “Half Pint” Rhoades; a manager named Jeff who sounds like Kermit the Frog, according to Half Pint Barbara; and a young fella, Timmy Ritter.
Half Pint is a proud member of Stewart’s Nation. She recently visited the place near Albany where Stewart’s makes its ice cream with the funny names (for the record, my favorite flavor is raspberry graham cracker crunch light.) The latest ice cream name was PCBs for pecans, chocolate ice cream, and butterscotch syrup.
Here’s the Half-Pint report: “I tell you what. I was expecting a lot of workers making the ice cream. But there’s one man and two big buckets. It’s one guy and one radio. If the guy makes a mistake, he can’t blame it on the radio.”
Stewart’s sells 70,760 half-gallons of ice cream a day.
Next stop on the tour is Wallkill in south Ulster County. Not much to say except there were signs strategically placed in the bathroom trying to recruit new store workers and entice customers to spend a mere buck and a half on make-your-own sundaes. They don’t teach that type of marketing at the Wharton Business School.
Only 3½ miles south on Route 32 is the next Stewart’s in a village named Walkden in north Orange County. This is one of my two favorite stores on the tour. Manager Dot Ebneter and worker Jessica Stanley forge a warm mother-daughter relationship, with Jessica especially glib for an ice cream scooper.
Asked why a fellow worker named Joe showed up two hours late before his 10 a.m. shift, Jessica confided in me, “Joe has issues.”
So, it’s time to pedal east to a place called Orange Lake outside Newburgh for Stewart’s number five on the 13-store tour. I hit the big-time in this store because the manager of the local nine-store district is in the house. The fella’s name is Ron David and his homespun candor is what separates Stewart’s from the national corporate chains.
Case in point. I asked him what’s special about the Orange Lake area stores. Ron took time to think about the inquiry and answered seriously, “There is nothing special about the Orange Lake district.” You can’t beat that honesty!
Worker Dan Smith did add this gem why customers stop at his store: “It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere before they get to Walden.”
The 4,000 employees of Stewart’s are something else.
I biked over to the Newburgh store and met a worker named, “Chyrl.” I wanted to add a vowel to her first name. Anyway, she was stacking cigarettes when she told me, “You’re going to be a tired little puppy when you get home.”
From Newburgh, it was a four-mile trek to Vails Gate and its crazy five-corners intersection. At the Stewart’s shop, I met a driver for a Schwan’s ice cream truck and was suspicious. I wondered what was a Schwan’s ice cream truck guy doing at a Stewart’s ice cream store?
He ‘fessed up: “I buy Stewart’s ice cream. It’s pretty good.” Holy smokes! That’s like eating ice cream behind enemy lines.
I bike along Route 94 and its rolling hills to Washingtonville with lovely scenic views of the Schunemunk Mountains to the east. At the Washingtonville store, I met worker Marie “I’m Available” Forestiere and fellow worker Sonny DePatto.
Marie is the fastest scooper in the biz. “I’m famous for my ice cream cones.” OK now!
Marie was what we in the newspaper biz call a good sport. Or she was horny. Either way, she posed for photos with my bicycle in ways our photographer, Tom Bushey, could never imagine.
“Don’t put me on the nude Internet sites,” Marie said.
At the Washingtonville shop, I bumped into the chain’s auditor, Kevin Alridge, who explained that Stewart’s President Bill Dake flies above the Hudson Valley looking for traffic congestion to build sites. This is Wharton business content!
Dake and employees own Stewart’s. It’s not publicly owned.
It’s a pretty ride along Sarah Wells Trail to Goshen, where I stop at a Stewart’s and meet my only bicyclist of the day — a long-distance riding machine named Bil Fox from Fair Oaks outside Middletown.
Bill was pedaling all the way into New York City for a British blues concert.
I felt a strange connection to this guy — a kindred two-wheeling spirit who made his rides into adventures.
So, it was off to the city of Middletown, home base for the Times Herald-Record. The road is a jumble of a landfill, golf courses, apartment complexes, farms, psychiatric centers, and cookie-cutter subdivisions.
I was so hungry I gobbled a Stewart’s pre-made chicken sandwich, the kind of food that actually tastes good when the hunger pangs kick in from bicycling so much. I get to Route 302, which takes me north of Pine Bush. It’s a lovely road with horse farms and the Shawangunk Mountain ridge to the west. I hit the 75-mile mark and ready for a make-your-own sundae at the Pine Bush Stewart’s.
So, I head west to the Gunks, start climbing on Route 52 and bike over a pass to reach Ellenville in Ulster County. The Stewart’s here is near the old Times Herald-Record bureau and outside the store, a worker is smoking.
Then it off to Kerhonkson, and the 13th and final Stewart’s on the spring bike circuit today. Then it’s a hilly bike ride up and over the Shawangunk Mountains to New Paltz.
At the cash register, worker Sandy Craig explains to manager Jim Brearley, “We have a leaker” — Stewart’s lingo for a milk jug that sprung a leak.
Just to be sure that I got it straight, Sandy told me, “I’m not leaking,” and that cracks up store customers.
By now, it’s early evening and the soft light gives the Route 44-55 road that I follow up the mountain a soft glow. I reach Lake Minnewaska State Preserve at the top to bike over the Gunks and I fly down the other side to New Paltz.
It’s 115 miles and evening when I reach the New Paltz Stewart’s that started the tour. Worker Tami Buckner explained the store chain’s mystique: “Bill Dake started with a little ice cream shop. I heard it from Bill Dake himself. Then he said since people want milk and eggs, he’d have that, too. People said, ‘This is pretty convenient.’ And that’s how he’s been able to afford to build them everywhere.”
A fellow worker listened to Tami’s story and chimed in, “Tami Buckner, you’re my hero.”
And mine, too, Tami Buckner.
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