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The Greatest Grocery Retailer in America Is Stew Leonard’s

Youngsters collect on the foot of the stage as animatronic musical duo Cindy Celery, a regal stalk holding a microphone, and Larry Lettuce, a leafy head taking part in a purple piano, warble cheerfully about Dole’s recent greens. “They give you lots of energy that you need when you play,” the couple croons to the gang. Dad and mom of the tiny viewers members are grateful for the mesmerizing distraction, offering them with a second to concentrate on deciding on produce earlier than rolling alongside to the subsequent present.

That’s the traditional grocery retailer routine the place I grew up in Southwestern Connecticut. Our neighborhood grocery retailer is the unique Norwalk location of Stew Leonard’s, a spot so brimming with superlative magic and kitschy robotics that the New York Instances in contrast it to Disneyland in 1983 — and its idiosyncrasy has solely grown since. Each meals part has its personal musical efficiency, from a singing Chiquita Banana to Clover the Cow, who moos with gumption on the push of a button. Actual reside animals are on the petting zoo within the parking zone (which is the case at most places, besides these in cities with planning and zoning legal guidelines that prohibit it).

Stew’s, as we locals name it, is a country, barn-like dairy retailer with a single one-way aisle that winds by means of the complete constructing (103,000 sq. ft, within the case of Norwalk). This design permits the patron to stroll previous each single merchandise and animated manufacturing, weaving by means of the all-consuming aroma of freshly baked breads and pastries to the nippiness of refrigerated instances of milk sitting subsequent to a window that provides views of working conveyor belts within the on-site dairy plant. A few small shortcuts alongside the maze-like route had been put in place for individuals who wish to get out and in rapidly, although I’m not fairly certain why somebody would wish to rush such a singular expertise.

When you’ve by no means had the pleasure of visiting one of many six Stew Leonard’s places between Connecticut and New York, it’s comprehensible to assume the shop seems like a gimmick. In an period the place People are extra obsessive about their grocery shops than ever, an off-the-cuff Stew’s customer would possibly share their go to on Instagram and extol its amusement-park qualities. However as Eater’s Jaya Saxena wrote, we wish even our alternative of grocery shops “to say more about us, to project a core truth about ourselves to anyone who cares to look.” And to buy at Stew’s says you admire do-it-yourself meals, good offers, and the Americana-style congeniality that comes with a family-owned enterprise — even, and maybe particularly, when it presents itself within the type of dancing puppets.

Stew’s pops its personal popcorn, crafts its personal pizza, and butchers its personal meat, which might be lower to order. Ready meals — soup, rotisserie hen, poke, sushi — are all made on-site. Most astoundingly, Stew’s processes its personal milk and with it makes its personal mozzarella, ice cream, and butter. The large purple letters on the facet of the gray constructing that learn “World’s Largest Dairy Store,” are usually not hyperbolic promoting — they’re a real differentiator.

Stew Leonard’s started as a dairy. Within the early 1920s, Charles Leonard based a milk supply firm referred to as Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk, Connecticut. His son, Stew Leonard Sr., took over the enterprise when his father handed, which was proper across the time his personal son, Stew Leonard Jr., was born.

“Our little delivery milk dairy was right next to our house that I was born in. My father was basically running a milk truck at the time, delivering milk door to door,” Leonard Jr., now president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s, remembers.

In 1969, Leonard Sr. realized the upcoming destiny of the milk supply enterprise — in response to Division of Agriculture statistics, 29.7 % of shoppers had milk delivered to their properties in 1963; that determine was simply 6.9 % in 1975 — and determined to foray into retail. He moved his dairy plant to a different location in Norwalk and opened a small retailer within the entrance. “You could actually look through the glass windows and see the milk being bottled. The store just filled up and flooded with customers,” remembers Leonard Jr.

As surrounding properties went up on the market, the Leonards bought the land and expanded the shop part by part, surrounding the dairy plant with extra retail area. With the constructing additions got here the introduction of regionally sourced fruits, greens, meat, and fish. The piecemeal extensions additionally made for a quite peculiar constructing form, which prompted the one-way aisle resolution.

The aisles would additionally quickly be full of an extra attraction. Impressed by household holidays to Disneyland and Las Vegas, the Leonards started to put in animated leisure within the late 1970s and early ’80s: bands of robotic milk cartons with smiling, doll-like faces carry out songs as prospects store. By the early ’90s, Stew Leonard’s had a fame for wild success: In response to the Los Angeles Instances, the Norwalk retailer was featured within the 1992 Guinness Guide of World Data for “selling $3,470 of merchandise per square foot of floor space — the highest sales volume in the nation.” One yr later, Leonard Sr. would plead responsible for conspiring to defraud the federal authorities in an IRS tax fraud case; he’d in the end serve 44 months in jail.

Regardless of the scandal, Stew’s lovers remained fiercely loyal, permitting the corporate to develop. In 1992, Leonard Jr.’s brother Tommy opened the second retailer in Danbury, Connecticut, which was adopted by a location in Yonkers, New York in 1999. The household debuted in Newington, Connecticut in 2007, Farmingdale, New York in 2016, and East Meadow, New York in 2017. Along with the 50th anniversary of Stew’s, the seventh and first New Jersey location is slated to premiere later this yr within the Paramus Park shopping center.

While you stroll into the unique Norwalk location by means of its doorless entryway, heat air blows down from the vent above. When you’ve brushed the windblown hair out of your eyes, an inscribed, 6,000-pound slab of granite stands strikingly earlier than you. It reads, “Rule 1 The Customer Is Always Right! Rule 2 If The Customer Is Ever Wrong, Reread Rule 1.”

Just like the “World’s Largest Dairy Store” signal, this engraving will not be hyperbole. Leonard Sr. instituted the coverage within the retailer’s early days when he realized he had mishandled a buyer criticism and wished to keep away from future incidents. The model’s fame for buyer satisfaction fuels followers’ adoration. “We want to have the best for our customers, which is something that’s been ingrained in my head by my grandfather, who was a fanatic about the quality, and my father, who continued that passion, and that’s trickled down to us. We try to make or find the best out there,” Leonard Jr. says.

Flip proper to start your loop by means of the shop and also you’ll hit the expansive show of do-it-yourself carbohydrates that’s Bethy’s Bakery. Upon coming back from working at a bakery in France, Leonard Jr.’s sister Beth established her eponymous bakery, the place she started to bake recent butter croissants within the retailer. Now, her crew of bakers fires up the ovens at three a.m. every morning to end up recent chocolate chip cookies, apple cider doughnuts, bagels, macarons, and extra. Bethy’s sells corn muffin tops as a result of everybody is aware of that’s the one half price consuming; it lately invented hamburger buns made with croissant dough. The bakery created half pies so buyers wouldn’t need to decide to only one taste.

“Obviously a lot of people told us we would sell less pie by offering half pies, but customers were asking, so we wanted to try it,” Leonard Jr. explains. “Sales actually went up. People wanted an assortment, so they ended up buying more.”

To additional please the patron, there are samples of Bethy’s baked items, produce, dips, and extra peppered all through the shop for tasting. In true Stew’s trend, samples don’t come sans spectacle. Leonard Jr. is pleased with a technique he calls “show and sell.”

“If we get an 100-pound tuna in the store, we’ll bring that out in the aisle and cut it right in front of the customers and they’re just amazed by it,” he says. “We do lots of demos.” Because of this, it’s finest to disregard the age-old advisory in opposition to grocery purchasing whereas hungry — you can eat a whole lunch of morsels on toothpicks by the point you attain the register. Consumers ought to save only a little bit of room for dessert. For each $100 prospects spend on groceries, they get a free cone of Stew’s do-it-yourself smooth serve ice cream or frozen yogurt on the store by the entry.

Stew’s is now a $400 million mini-chain, however continues to be family-owned, which could be why the enchantment stays. Moderately than specializing in fast development, Stew’s has spent the previous 50 years cultivating a faithful buyer base and broadening its personal scope to incorporate an intensive wine and liquor enterprise that spurred out of buyer requests for pairings and is helmed by Leonard Jr.’s daughter Blake.

The corporate has additionally poured power into serving to develop new manufacturers — it was among the many first to hold now-massive merchandise like Rao’s Selfmade Sauce and Chobani. To proceed to find and domesticate new manufacturers, Stew’s lately launched “Stew’s Tank,” an open competitors modeled after Shark Tank by which distributors have the chance to current their product to the Stew’s shopping for crew for an opportunity to be offered in its shops. Stew’s helps all its distributors by by no means charging a slotting price, a standard observe amongst grocers to cost manufacturers for shelf area and even particular placement.

The collective influence of Stew’s many unconventional practices is why I’m removed from alone in my enthusiasm for the shop. Whereas animatronic canine taking part in the banjo may not be virtually fitted to huge grocery retailer chains, it will be good in the event that they strived for only a fraction of the allure of Stew’s. For now, I’ll need to accept exhibiting off my beloved Disneyland market to visiting pals with a visit across the authentic Norwalk retailer, vanilla smooth serve wafer cone in hand, every time I’m house.

Morgan Goldberg is a contract author based mostly in Los Angeles, CA.

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