DANBURY, Conn. — At the 25th anniversary celebration of the Stew Leonard's store here this month, there was much talk of the past — and also a glimpse at how the future may play out for this iconic Connecticut-based grocer.
The 130,000-square-foot Danbury outlet — the second of four Stew Leonard stores renowned for their fresh foods, store-made milk, devotion to customer service, animatronic characters and single serpentine aisle featuring about 2,000 SKUs — began in December 1986 as a makeshift tent selling Christmas trees. That operation was led by Tom Leonard, 56, younger son of founder and family patriarch Stew Leonard Sr., who with cousin Dan Arthur turned it into a farmers' market and became head of the full-fledged Danbury store when it opened in 1991.
Take a virtual tour of Stew Leonard's Danbury store
Danbury also represents the Leonard family's roots — the place where Stew Leonard Sr.'s father, who started the family dairy business, was born, and where his grandfather settled after emigrating from Ireland in 1888.
Tom Leonard later left the family business and now operates his own Tom Leonard's Farmer's Market in Richmond, Va. Stew Leonard's continues to be run by the other three Leonard siblings — Stew Leonard Jr., 57, president and chief executive officer; Beth Leonard Hollis, 54, executive vice president; and Jill Leonard Tavello, 50, executive vice president, culture and communications — who were all present at the Danbury anniversary party on Oct. 5, declared Stew Leonard's Day by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.
But what about the next generation of Leonards — will any join the business? One of them, Blake Leonard, the eldest daughter of Leonard Jr. and, at 25, the oldest of 13 grandchildren of Leonard Sr., accompanied her father to the Danbury store celebration. Currently working for Cultivate Wines, a start-up company, Blake called going into the family business a possibility. “I'd like to come back to Stew Leonard's one day but I want to get as much experience as I can first,” she said. The Leonard family also runs an independent wine-store business consisting of nine stores in the New York Metropolitan area.
The Leonard family has established a policy for its third-generation members stipulating that they can work for the company for one year after graduating from college, but then need to get at least three years of experience working elsewhere. Currently, two of the other Leonard grandchildren are employed by food retailers — Jill's son Jake, who works for Wegmans Food Markets, and Tom's son T.J., who is with Safeway.
“We're hoping the third generation comes into the business,” said Leonard Jr. “We're trying to teach them the passion.”
In his book “Stew Leonard, My Story,” published in 2009, Leonard Sr. wrote that “our grandchildren will be offered that same baton, and we want them to be able to see the value in the opportunity, to see the roles they might play, and to be able to run with that baton.”
The original Stew Leonard's store, opened by Leonard Sr. in Norwalk, Conn., in 1969 as an extension of his father's dairy business, became and remains a destination location in Southwestern Connecticut. The company opened a third store in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1999 and another in Newington, Conn., in 2007. The self-distributed company's overall annual volume is an estimated $400 million, with the Yonkers and Norwalk stores thought to be the largest-grossing locations.
Stew Leonard's stores are so unusual that shoppers sometimes think each is a stand-alone entity. “I love it when people come into the store and say, ‘You should have another one of these’ — they think it is our only store,” Leonard Jr. observed. “That's a compliment to me, because it means the store doesn't look institutional.”
Leonard Jr. recalled that the decision to expand from the Norwalk flagship store to a second location in Danbury was a wrenching one for the Leonard family. “It was a huge decision,” he said. “They always say the hardest move is going from one store to two.”
Though the Danbury store has many of the features of the Norwalk location, Leonard Jr. said it also caters to local ethnic groups, including Brazilian and Lebanese populations. “The customers are different in Danbury and the food they like is different,” he noted. A favorite Brazilian dish prepared at the store is feijoada, a stew of beans with beef and pork.
Art Weiss, director of kitchen operations, said that initially Danbury shoppers were seen as favoring more home-style “comfort foods” like meatloaf and macaroni and cheese than Norwalk shoppers. But over the years the Danbury store added more eclectic fare like a sushi bar and artisan breads, noted Leonard Jr.
Stew Leonard's has also become a major corporate contributor in the Danbury community, donating $1 million since 1986 through its outdoor wishing well, water safety foundation and food donations. “They're one of our major employers,” said Mayor Boughton at the Danbury store celebration. “If you have a cause, at some point Stew Leonard's is involved in some way, shape or form.”
Leonard Jr. said the company is looking into opening a store on Long Island, N.Y., though he declined to provide a timetable. Previous attempts to open stores in Farmingdale, N.Y., and Orange, Conn., fell through. “We don't want to grow fast but we want to keep the momentum going,” he said.