Stew Leonard’s: A Supermarket Like No Other

L. to R.: Stew Leonard Jr. and Kim Leonard. (Photo by Jennifer Uihlein)

While a chain supermarket might help shoppers fill their cupboards, Stew Leonard’s is known for bringing much more to the table.

The Stew Leonard’s story begins in the 1920s as Charles Leo Leonard helped deliver milk from the family’s dairy in Norwalk, Conn. to local residents. His two sons, Jim and Stew, took over in 1960, and they began to build the home delivery milk business by their creative use of large plastic cow heads on the front of their delivery milk trucks, which made a “moo” sound for all of the schoolchildren along the way.

By the mid-1960s, Stew understood that the days of the milkman were coming to a close. Like any adept business leader, he foresawthe challenges that the industry faced, and devised a strategy to bring a new company into the 1970s and beyond. In December 1969, Stew founded Stew Leonard’s, an “eliminate the middleman” dairy store. It was a 17,000-square-foot store carrying just eight items, but it had large picture windows enabling children and customers to buy their milk while looking directly into the spotless, state-of-the-art pasteurizing and bottling plant.

“You’d have to own a cow to get fresher milk,” was Stew’s slogan.

“In order to own and operate a business, especially when you get started, you need to understand your customer,” said Stew Leonard Sr. “As parents ourselves, we knew of the logistical difficulties of bringing our kids to the grocery to cross items off our shopping list. This was my inspiration.”

Two weeks after Stew Leonard’s grand opening in 1969, Stew was standing at the front door of the store greeting customers. It was then, though, that a customer returned a product that changed the business model for the Stew Leonard’s patrons have come to know.

“A customer came into our store and claimed that our eggnog was sour,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t sour — we had sold hundreds of half-gallons of it that day, and she was the only one that complained. I argued with her, and it left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Later that night, when speaking to my wife, I made the decision: the customer is always right and there is simply no use arguing.”

After the purchase of a large block of granite, there were two rules carved into the rock and eternally carved into the hearts and minds of Stew Leonard Sr. and every employee from that point forward: “1. The customer is always right, and 2. If the customer is wrong, re-read rule one.”

This customer service policy laid the foundation for business studies, lectures, and countless accolades. It became contagious, specifically be- cause happy customers equal happy Team Members, and happy customers and Team Members equal a successful business.

Since this point, Stew’s customer service rock of commitment sits at the entranceway of each and every store.

While Stew Leonard Sr. knew that he had found a winning recipe for the food store industry, he remained mostly a Connecticut-centric phenomenon. People would come from across New England to shop at his stores, but it was not until Stew Leonard Jr., his son, took over the reins that the company was poised for unprecedented success in the 21st century.

Stew Leonard Jr., the oldest Leonard son, had grown up in his father’s store. He had watched the company grow from a one-room dairy to a larger food store offering meat, produce, fish and more. As of 2019, after 50 years in business, the company which bears his name remains family owned, but has expanded across three states with 3,000 employees, and accounts for a whopping $500 million a year in sales.

Stew Sr.’s daughter, Beth Leonard Hollis, started Stew Leonard ’s in-store bakery when she began selling freshly made croissants in the 1980s. Stew Sr’s daughter Jill Leonard Tavello, Stew Leonard’s executive vice president of culture and communication, fosters the family’s philosophy of “take good care of your people and they in turn will take good care of your customers.”

Stew Jr.’s foresight, business savvy, and unconventional means of enhancing the shopping experience has brought on acclaim from The New York Times, who called his company “A Disneyland dairy store.” While Stew Sr. might be the “Walt” in this equation, it is Stew Jr., who has brought the company to new heights.

“I had the opportunity to speak before tech leaders in the early 1990s,” said Stew Leonard Jr., the current president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s. “I’ll never forget the experience. I was literally in a room with some of the brightest minds in technology who have built the ever-advancing technological sphere we are in today. It was there, though, that I think I made a slight impact on them: It’s not about what you’re selling, so long as you are passionate about it and value your customers, you have a winning formula. It’s picking a strategy that wins, buckling up, and going with it.”

With Stew Jr. at the helm, the farm-fresh food store has elevated the retail experience. Whether it is their trademark single-aisle shopping experience which allows shoppers to see each of the 2,200 products on the shelves of their stores, or the animatronics that keep young ones entertained with educational, catchy tunes, Stew Leonard’s has made shopping just as much about fun as the fundamental of quality product. This winning strategy from the past just might poise them for success in the future.

Every year, Stew Leonard’s sells more than 2 million chocolate chip cookies, 2.5 million half-gallons of milk, 1.5 million pounds of filet mignon, 1.2 million pounds of lobster, 300,000 pounds of fresh Mozzarella, 250,000 pumpkins, and 70,000 Christmas trees. In 2019, more than 20 million people visited Stew Leonard’s stores. It’s become a tourist destination for people who have heard of the legend of the experience. In an era where business punditry prognosticates the end of retail shopping as we know it,
Stew Jr. invests more in the experience, more in the technology that makes the experience fun, and most of all, the basic principles that made the store great in the first place.

“We cherish the loyalty that has been displayed by our shoppers,” he said. “They’ve come to expect a standard of the finest meats and dairy, the choicest produce, and the quality products that we have built our reputation on. But they also still enjoy the welcoming environment of our store, the experiences that they have laughing and smiling when a dancing avocado lights up a child’s eyes. At Stew Leonard’s, we are so much more than a grocery, but a family, with our employees and staff, and that we think is irreplaceable.”

So where does Stew Leonard’s go from here? The stores are on their third generation of family management, meaning that Stew Leonard Sr.’s grandchildren have opened stores that are pushing the boundaries of the grocery industry. Their newest store in Paramus, N.J., embraces technology to entertain kids, aiming to teach them valuable lessons about food and basic life-skills through fun games on their devices, the first grocery store in America to use augmented reality and artificial intelligence in its stores.

While mom and dad are shopping, they can be certain that they are not only leaving with the best products to feed their young ones, but also education that could prove lifesaving in the long run.

One particular lesson that strikes a chord with every parent is water safety. Drowning is the leading cause of death among toddlers and children, which means that this age-old problem is still existent and is never going away. Stew Leonard Jr. and his wife, Kim, know this firsthand, as their son, Stew Leonard III, was lost in a tragic backyard-pool drowning accident when he was just 21 months old.

The Leonards have since taken this tragedy and turned it into advocacy, launching the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation and sharing the importance of water safety to millions of parents nationally and internationally. They’ve traveled the world to share their story, wrote a story that reminds children of the importance of staying away from the pool without an adult, and even published an award-winning book whose proceeds have brought critical swimming lessons to hundreds of thousands of youth in underserved communities.

“We want to make sure that parents know it’s not a lack of supervision, but a lapse in supervision,” said Kim Leonard. “That tragic day when we lost our son will stay with us forever, but it is so important that other families know that it could happen to them, and that all it takes is a few seconds for tragedy to strike.”

“It’s critical that parents put the phone down, designate a pool watcher, and make sure that every parent has the ‘water safety’ talk with their children,” she continued.

The company also gives back. Since 1979, Stew Leonard’s has donated more than 70,000 turkeys to local churches, senior centers, and civic centers through our annual Turkey Brigade to help provide Thanksgiving Day meals for families in need.

Stew Leonard’s was named to Fortune magazine’s “Top 100 Places to Work in America” for 10 consecutive years. Many of its Team Members have been with the company for decades and worked their way up from cashier to senior management.

America’s top grocer has seen unprecedented success because it represents the entire package: a well-run business, happy and healthy team members who feel appreciated, quality products that people enjoy, and shoppers whose experience keeps them coming back for more.

With challenging times for all businesses and uncertain economic times ahead, Stew Leonard’s is ready for what is beyond the bend.

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