Stew Leonard’s was founded in 1969 in Norwalk, Conn., by dairy farmer Stew Leonard. Leonard had learned the business from his father, Charles Leo Leonard, who had started Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk in the 1920s. To entertain neighborhood children and give the farm a homey charm, Charles had placed outside the business several plastic cows that mooed for neighborhood children.
It was Charles’s model of making the farm entertaining that his son carried on to the Stew Leonard’s chain, which is renowned today and recognized as a unique and fun shopping experience.
Around 1969, when the state began building a new highway near Clover Farms Dairy, Stew saw his opportunity to take the business to the next level and transform it into a retail dairy store that maintained its farmer’s market feel. He purchased a Norwalk farm from an elderly woman who only agreed to sell the land to someone who would also purchase and care for her farm animals. Stew believed he could make the farm an attraction — real cows instead of plastic cows. And he did.
Stew opened the 17,000-square-foot store with just eight items, seven employees and a petting zoo for children. It grew popular because it operated its own milk processing plant, introduced costumed characters, scheduled entertainment for shoppers, placed robotic singing animals atop store shelving and provided the petting zoo.
With popularity came expansion. Stew Leonard’s son Stew Leonard Jr. took over the company as president and CEO in 1987 and continued opening stores throughout Connecticut, particularly Danbury and Newington, and some in Yonkers, N.Y. Stew’s other son, Tom, opened the second Stew Leonard’s store in Danbury in 1991. Eventually, the chain reached four stores in the region and grew from the original seven employees to more than 1,800.
The company took the fresh dairy concept a step further and began selling meats, fish, produce, bakery items, cheeses and wines. But unlike traditional grocery stores that average 30,000 items per store, Stew Leonard’s stores carry about 2,000 items. They also look different than traditional stores, with barnlike wood decore and winding paths instead of straight, parallel aisles.
Stew Leonard’s has remained a family business that touts a patron-centric approach to customer service. The customer service policy is advertised outside every Stew Leonard’s store on a three-ton granite rock. It reads: “Rule #1 — The customer is always right. Rule #2 — If the customer is every wrong, re-read Rule #1.”
The company is also recognized for its management philosophy, which suggests that taking good care of employees will, in turn, cause them to take good care of customers. In 2002, Fortune Magazine ranked Stew Leonard’s in its 100 Best Companies to Work For in America for 10 consecutive years. The company was featured in two books written by management expert Tom Peter, and, in 1992, earned entry into The Guiness Book of World Records for having the greatest sales per unit area of any single food store in the U.S.
Stew’s daughter Beth created Bethy’s Bakery and heads up the Gift Center, while her sister, Jill, is the company’s vice president of culture and communication. Their brother, Tom, who opened the Danbury store, created a spinoff store in 2004: he opened Tom Leonard’s Farmer’s Market in a Richmond, Va. suburb.
Headquarters: Nowalk, Conn.
Annual Revenue: $300 million
No. of Stores: 4
No of Employees: Approx. 1,800
Geography: Connecticut (Norwalk, Danbury, Newington), New York (Yonkers)
Special Services: Kids parties, petting zoo, photo cakes, catering, floral shop, garden center
Tom Leonard’s Farmer’s Market
Stew Leonard’s only carries products it has developed under its own label.