The market you can’t resist

By Torey Van Oot

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

Stew Leonard Jr.’s eyes light up as he bounces into the bakery section of the Yonkers market that shares his name.

“I love this, just having a real crust,” he gushes as he tears through a round loaf he has just plucked from a cooling rack. “That’s like your real artisan-type crust!”

The bread was far from the only item the energetic and gregarious grocery executive gets excited about during a recent tour of the 120,000-square-foot Stew Leonard’s outpost that sits atop Stew Leonard Drive, one of four specialty markets his family has opened in the metro area.

A case of Technicolor cupcakes (“This is hot right now, cupcakes. People love them.”) Coffee beans (“You can see him, just roasting it right there.”) Mozzarella still warm from the pot (“Now when did you make that?”) Juicy cubes of watermelon (“Mmmm.”) A row of crabs in the seafood counter (“They’re still moving around in the case.”) And even a shield for keeping a grill grime-free (“I love using this.”) All win his praise.

“My favorite is fresh stuff,” Leonard, president and chief executive officer of the grocery chain, insists. “I love fresh stuff.”

That passion for food is in Leonard’s blood. His family has been in the food business for three generations now. Stew Jr.’s grandfather, Charles Leo Leonard, founded a milk production and delivery business called Clover Farms Dairy in the 1920s. In 1969, Charles Leo Leonard’s son, Stew Leonard Sr., expanded into retail with the first Stew Leonard’s store in Norwalk.

That small shop, which carried just eight items to start, has grown into a regional grocery powerhouse, with nearly $300 million in annual sales and 2,000 employees across its locations in Connecticut and New York. Twenty million customers a year fill their carts and baskets with some of the roughly 2,000 items the average store stocks. In the last 15 years, the brand also branched into wine and liquor with nine additional stores.

“It’s a wonderful … almost institution in Westchester County,” says John Ravitz, executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Business Council of Westchester. “You walk into Stew Leonard’s, whether it be 8 o’clock on a Monday morning or 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, you’re going to see a crowded parking lot.”

Part of the allure could be the store’s distinctive style. The barn-like Yonkers store seeks to mimic the airy, homespun feel of a farm stand, sending customers through a maze of bins, shelves and cases instead of traditional aisles. While costumed characters no longer roam the stores, Stew Leonard’s still buzzes with campy features like a toy train circling the checkout lanes and a mechanical stuffed lobster performing on a trapeze near the fish counter.

As Leonard sees it, though, much of the stores’ success is rooted in its commitment to fresh, local ingredients, stellar customer service and keeping a finger on the pulse of what the shoppers want.

He traces the family company’s focus on local sources back to its early days as a dairy, when the milk that stocked the shelves and the Leonards’ fridge came from their local plant.

“We’ve always been, like, farm-to-table. It just so happens it’s become vogue now,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not vogue to us. We’ve been doing it.”

But just because customers want fresh food doesn’t mean they want to do all the work to get a home-cooked meal on the table.

More and more shoppers now expect the store to serve as their ingredient source, sous chef and step-by-step cooking guide. That trend has led Stew Leonard’s to offer more ready-to-cook items and food-pairing suggestions. Mounted TVs stream Food Network-style cooking demonstrations and segments on topics like how to store fresh herbs.

Leonard estimated that about half of Stew Leonard’s employees are involved in the food production or preparation side of the business. A small army of staff is at work preparing vegetables and fruits for the produce section on a recent morning, slicing watermelon into squares and spears – a new style Leonard wanted to try after seeing it packaged that way at a competitor’s store – and shaving Brussels sprouts so they can be sold ready to throw in the pan.

“Customers want things done. They don’t want to buy it packaged and cooked already, (but) they don’t want to spend the time doing this,” he says. “Look at this, now these are just Brussels sprouts here. Who would even think that shaving and slicing it ready would be a big seller? It is.”

Those freshly prepared foods and other signature items packaged and sold under the Stew Leonard’s brand keep longtime customers like Susan White coming back again and again.

“I’ve got to tell you, I hate you because I moved to the city and I can’t stand it. I have to come back up here to go shopping,” White, who now lives on the Upper West Side, tells Leonard when they cross paths at the deli counter. “I have to come all the way up here, because I lived here for 14 years and I just got addicted to the place.”

At the top of White’s grocery list, as far as her sons were concerned, is the store’s buttermilk chicken. Leonard, who revels in greeting and chatting up dozens of customers and employees during the 90 minutes we spend meandering through the store, calls over the deli chef to detail the recipe for White before trying to sell the longtime shopper on a new spin on the classic they’ve been trying out.

Pursuing new products or presentation of old favorites is essential, Leonard says, especially as consumer demands shift and competition grows with big-box stores and delivery services. He points to a low-sodium version of the store’s bacon as one innovation driven by customers’ more health-conscious shopping habits. Indian and Thai cuisines have also been introduced in the prepared foods section to serve the store’s increasingly diverse consumer base.

Not all the experiments are a success. A Stew Leonard’s label soda pop and frozen cookie dough were some of the more recent flops.

But Leonard doesn’t mind taking a shot at something new. As our tour comes to an end, another employee brings a package of the watermelon spears from the produce kitchen for Leonard to inspect.

“Does it look a little chunky?” he asks, turning to one of his store managers. “You know what we’ll do? We’ll just put it out there and try.”

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