The Truth About Stew Leonard's

Imagine you come across a sign that says, "Surprise! Free samples here, singing vegetables there, fresh mozzarella being made, Clover the Cow." Would you think you were at a kiddie birthday party? A state fair? Well, in a sense, you kind of are. Technically, however, you would be at Stew Leonard's, a small but remarkably impactful Northeastern supermarket chain with just seven stores. Each of them are in a nearby suburb of New York City, and they all provide what is arguably one of America's weirdest and wildest grocery shopping experiences. For parents-in-the-know, it's a secret, seemingly-magical resource for replenishing your fridge and pantry while stuffing your face and having someone in a cow-suit entertain your riveted children.

By the way, when we say "small but remarkably impactful," what we mean is that Stew Leonard's is a $400 million dollar business that employs more than 2,500 employees across the three states where it has locations (Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York). It also holds the Guinness World Record for "greatest sales per unit area of any single food store in the United States" (via Stew Leonard's Press Room). Furthermore, Stew Leonard's been selected 10 times over as one of Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work for in America" (via Stew Leonard's How It All Began). So for the curious, here's the truth about Stew Leonard's. Read on so you too can know all about it.

Stew Leonard's has been around for a century

Stew Leonard's has been around in some capacity since the early 1920s, when Charles Leo Leonard founded Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk, Connecticut, where the Stew Leonard's flagship store is located today (via Stew Leonard's How It All Began). State of the art in terms of pasteurizing and bottling standards, the dairy became known around the area for delivering milk via special trucks with "plastic cows on the front that 'mooed' for the neighborhood children." Around 40 years later, Charles' son Stew Leonard, Sr. decided he wanted to turn his business into a retail dairy store "where children could watch milk being bottled while mothers did their shopping in a farmer's market atmosphere."

When Stew Leonard's retail dairy store opened in Norwalk in December 1969, it carried just seven items (via Stew Leonard's Press Room). Over the years, the business branched into additional grocery aisles until it had pretty much all products covered, and gradually opened up six more locations in the region. Stew Leonard's was later dubbed the "Disneyland of Dairy Stores" by The New York Times in 1983. 

The truth is, less IS more at Stew Leonard's

You might think that the Guinness World Record holder for "greatest sales per unit area of any single food store in the United States" would be a mega-giant supermarket like Costco or Albertson's. But, as you have undoubtedly already guessed, you'd be wrong: it's Stew Leonard's (via Stew Leonard's Press Room). So how do they actually do it? One way is by adhering to the ethos that less equals more. "Unlike traditional grocery stores that sell an average 30,000 items, each Stew Leonard's store carries only 2,200 items, chosen specifically for their freshness, quality and value," according to Stew Leonard's. Anything more takes customers "out of the purchasing process and puts them into a decision-making process," Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of Stew Leonard's, told Fortune

In keeping with the less-is-more ethos, Stew Leonard's is not a public company, unlike many of its supermarket competitors (via Fintel). It's not even an employee-owned company like Publix. Rather, Stew Leonard's is owned and operated by the Leonard family. "In 1987, Stew Leonard, Jr. — Stew's son — took over the reins and is now President and CEO. Son Tom opened the second Stew Leonard's in Danbury, Connecticut in 1991. Stew Leonard's daughter Beth founded the famous Bethy's Bakery and heads up the Gift Center. Daughter Jill is Vice President of Culture and Communication."

Stew Leonard's has a one-of-a-kind approach to customer satisfaction

Stew Leonard's culture is built around one of the least agile acronyms in the history of acronyms: "Satisfy the customer; Work together as a Team; Strive for Excellence in everything you do; and Get the customer to say WOW," (via Stew Leonard's Fact Sheet). But what Stew Leonard's may lack in its ability to adequately describe its actual approach to customer service, it makes up for in its apparent passion for keeping customer blood sugar at workable levels and their kids surprisingly engaged.

With regard to blood sugar levels, Stew Leonard's is well-known among the locals for being almost endlessly generous with its delicious samples (sweets, savories, snacks, much of it made from scratch on site), to the point where it actually beat out Costco for the title of "King of Samples" in CT Bites' 2018 "throwdown." 

With regard to keeping the kids engaged, one of Stew Leonard's secret tricks is having twice as many employees as traditional stores, and not all of them are stocking the shelves. Some are wearing farm animal costumes and greeting children. Some are working at the petting zoo (yes, a petting zoo) or maintaining the choo-choo train that makes its way around the store to the delight of little kiddies. And some are cooking and baking in the back so that there can be enough fresh-baked cookies, apple cider doughnuts, and cheese croissants for everyone. 

Stew Leonard's has its own folk tale. It's called "The Rock"

Ready for the story of the Stew Leonard's "Rock" (via Stew Leonard's)?  Shortly after the Stew Leonard's dairy store opened in 1969, a customer complained to proprietor Stew Leonard Sr. that the eggnog he'd sold her was sour. Stew balked, and the customer stormed out. 

That night, when Stew told his wife the story, she told him he was wrong — because the customer is always right. One dark night of the soul later, Stew woke up a changed man. On his way to the store that day, he stopped by a monument-maker and had a huge slab of granite carved with the inscription: "Rule 1 The Customer Is Always Right! Rule 2 If The Customer Is Ever Wrong, Reread Rule 1." 

Now, the rock is a presence Stew Leonard's shoppers know well. "To this day, 49 years later, the rock still stands firm at each of Stew Leonard's store entrances," and "every single team member knows of the eggnog story, and how the rock came to be. They know that they can do anything in their power to make the customer happy. Happy customers not only come back, they bring their friends!"

Stew Leonard's also has a sad story to tell

In 1989, Stew Leonard Jr. and his wife, Kim Leonard, were enjoying a normal day-like-any-other with their two young children. Kim was in the kitchen, and Stew was hanging balloons in honor of the older child's third birthday. Each assumed the other was watching their younger child, their 2-year-old son Stewart Leonard III. You can probably guess where this story is going, and yes, tragically, Stew and Kim lost their son that day to a drowning accident (via i95 radio).

In 1990, Kim and Stew founded the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation in memory of "Stewie." And "since then, the Foundation has raised more than $2 million dollars to go towards water safety awareness and education, including lifeguard training and providing 10,000 free or low-cost swimming lessons to children every year," according to the Foundation, whose mascot is a cartoon duck named "Stewie."