FRESH MEALS EXPANDED AT NEWEST STEW LEONARD UNIT

NORWALK, Conn. -- Stew Leonard's, the independent operator known for its in-store theatrics, is taking its prepared foods department to new heights in a 130,000-square-foot, from-the-ground store that opened in Yonkers, N.Y., last week.The unit, complete with a 20,000-square-foot section devoted to fresh meals and components, also represents the retailer's first foray into New York State. The store

NORWALK, Conn. -- Stew Leonard's, the independent operator known for its in-store theatrics, is taking its prepared foods department to new heights in a 130,000-square-foot, from-the-ground store that opened in Yonkers, N.Y., last week.

The unit, complete with a 20,000-square-foot section devoted to fresh meals and components, also represents the retailer's first foray into New York State. The store is located off a busy highway about 30 miles north of New York City.

According to Stew Leonard, Jr., president of the chain, the expanded department reflects the retailer's growing commitment to providing customers ready-to-eat foods in an environment that makes it easy to choose.

"It's definitely a trend," said Leonard. "People don't want to cook. They don't want to spend a lot of time preparing [foods]."

Leonard added that one reason the department was expanded at this store is because it is situated between a major commuter artery and upscale residential neighborhoods that are scattered throughout Westchester County, one of the state's richest.

"We feel there is going to be a big demand for [prepared food] in the Westchester area," he said. "This area [is] next to New York City, we feel we are going to be attracting a lot of people who are busy and don't have time to cook."

Overall, the new Yonkers supermarket is the largest unit in the independent's chain three-unit chain. The store employs 700 people and occupies 130,000 square feet, compared to its two sister locations: the Danbury, Conn., unit covers 65,000 square feet and the original Norwalk, Conn., store is 40,000 square feet.

The larger blueprint has allowed Stew Leonard's to prepare and merchandise a more extensive prepared foods selection, while retaining all the theme park-type flair Stew Leonard's is known for.

Customers know they're in for something different even before entering the prepared foods department. Exiting the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, consumers are immediately introduced to the store via Stew Leonard Drive, which is, in fact, the exit ramp from the highway. Once inside the store, customers are greeted by a 20-foot, man-made waterfall that empties in to a wishing well.

The enlarged prepared foods section is located towards the back right section of the store, past the deli/barbecue. There are self-service hot and cold food bars that contain entrees and dinners under it's signature, "Mrs. Leonard's Recipes" brand. Included in the food bars will be everything from salads to various pasta dishes [see "Are You Being Served?" SN, Aug. 2,1999].

However, customers will find different stations not found in the retailer's Connecticut stores.

One new element added to the mix is a sushi bar. Another unique feature is an authentic wok located in the Chinese food station. The wok was specially designed for its chefs by a company located in New York City's famous Chinatown.

According to Leonard, the custom designed wok was purchased not only for theater, but because the retailer is striving to create authentic Chinese food tastes and textures. The authenticity of the device also works better for attaining the flair that is Stew Leonard's trademark.

"[The wok's] right in front of the customers," he said. "The customers see all the sizzle, the chefs making the food. We are going to have real authentic Chinese."

Another highlight of the department that can only be found at the new store is a kosher bakery, as well as a traditional bakery equipped with the latest equipment from Europe, said Leonard. Providing fresh baked breads daily, the bakery department will be headed by Nick Grecco, a former professor at the French Culinary Institute located in New York City.

Leonard said that Grecco was retained because he is committed to providing customers with the best bakery products in the area. To attract business, Grecco plans to have in-store tastings to get customers interested.

"He promises that he is going to have the best bread and bagels of any of our three stores," he said. "They say that the secret to a great bagel is New York City water. We have plenty of [it]. The New York City aqueduct runs right underneath our store."

Other features of the department include a coffee bar using coffee that's roasted in-store by Stew Leonard's themselves, and a pizza station offering pizza made fresh on the premises. Also available is the retailer's staple prepared item, rotisserie chicken, which for the first time is being merchandised using New Orleans-based celebrity chef Emeril Legasse's spice rubs.

Another department feature is a section devoted to "Stew's Top Ten Cookbooks," which includes cookbooks by local New York City-area celebrity chefs.

Preparing the foods in the expanded department is a staff of 60 in the on-site kitchen, and about 10 chefs manning the action stations on the main floor.

The kitchen, which also handles catering duties, is located on the first floor, unlike the retailer's Norwalk store, which has all prep and cooking located on the second floor.