Leah Rozen
December 05, 1983 12:00 PM

One recent morning, as Stew Leonard walked past the life-size plastic cow guarding the entrance to his dairy store, a Connecticut housewife came out pushing a cart filled with bulging yellow-and-green Stew Leonard grocery bags. She looked up from the chocolate chip cookie she was munching, gave Leonard a big smile and declared, “I love this place.”

Leonard, 53, beams as he tells this story later that morning. “Do you know how that makes me feel?” he asks. “That makes my day.” And with characteristic disdain for the understated gesture, he stretches his arms wide, as if to embrace his sprawling 100,000-square-foot store and the 150,000 customers who annually spend about $80 million during 2.6 million visits there.

Stew Leonard’s Dairy Store is the World’s Largest Dairy Store. It says so right on the giant computerized sign that stands in its 500-car parking lot in Norwalk, Conn. The proprietor’s hero is Walt Disney, and Leonard has done his best to turn his store into an amusement park for shoppers since opening it in 1969. (Originally 17,000 square feet, with only eight items, it has since been expanded 23 times.) “There’s always something happening here,” Leonard says, “always something to make people say, ‘Wow!’ ”

The “wows” include a zoo with ducks, geese and goats in the parking lot; a milk-processing plant, churning out 10 million quarts annually, around which the store is built; employees who wander around dressed as cows, Twinkies and cowboys; lots of giveaways; and some astonishing sales figures, such as moving 20 tons of poultry products and 7,000 pounds of butter a week. Although the store carries only 600 items (most supermarkets carry about 14,000), its low prices, fresh products and festive atmosphere attract shoppers from as far away as New York, an hour’s commute. Leonard has celebrity shoppers such as Paul Newman, who lives in neighboring Westport. Naturally, the store stocks Newman’s private-label salad dressing and spaghetti sauce.

The biggest celebrity at Stew Leonard’s, however, is Stew Leonard. (The store stocks 200 items under the Stew Leonard label—198 more than under the Paul Newman label.) This is a man who loves his work. His guided tour through the store is a cram course in business strategy, culinary technique, employee relations and Dale Carnegie, all rolled into one.

The tour’s first stop is the $500,000 in-store bakery run by Leonard’s 25-year-old daughter, Beth. (The store’s 410 employees—or “members,” as the populist owner likes to call them—also include sons Stew Jr., 29, and Tom, 27, and daughter Jill, 22, when she’s home from college. Leonard’s wife, Marianne, 53, only shops there.) Beth, who has a Master’s in French language and literature from Middlebury College in Vermont, innocently suggested to her father two years ago that he offer croissants to his customers. Now she supervises a staff of 25 as it whips up 50,000 croissants, 40,000 muffins and 250,000 cookies every week.

Leonard plucks a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie off Beth’s cooling racks and chomps away. “Bethie,” he asks, “could you make a chocolate chip cookie without the chips? I know this sounds weird, but I like the cookie part more than the chips.”

In the meat cutting and packing department, Leonard exclaims, “Here’s a machine I just love.” The large steel device begins to whir and spin, spitting out perfectly cut, shiny pink pork chops. Leonard watches raptly. “Is that great?” he says, clapping the shoulder of the machine’s operator.

Now Leonard’s back in the main store, walking rapidly through the single wide aisle that snakes through the entire place, routing himself around the shoppers standing three deep before the rolls of Bounty. Suddenly, he halts at a display case brimming with polished red apples. “Laden, laden,” he exults. “You see how full everything is? Pile ’em high, watch ’em buy.”

At the newly constructed ice cream display shelves, Leonard boasts that there’s no glass between the product and the customer. “They can’t keep their hands off the stuff. Wait till you feel it,” he says. “Hard as a rock. You’ll never see that in another store.”

Over by the fried chicken and barbecued ribs counter, Leonard gnaws appreciatively on a drumstick supplied by a smiling young black man dressed in the requisite employee plastic boater and white coat. Leonard moves a few steps away and confides, “Notice how many blacks there are working here. We get the cream of the crop, the best kids, the honor society kids. That’s because it’s a prestigious thing to have a job here.”

Continuing his tour, Leonard whizzes by the 42-item salad bar, the refrigerated flower stand, the wishing well-cum-fountain, the suggestion/complaint box that receives 100 notes per day, and the bulletin board covered with snapshots of customers holding up Stew Leonard shopping bags at various unlikely landmarks around the world—the Kremlin, Stonehenge, the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

He stops at the card table where a woman is handing out slivers of toasted, buttered Thomas’ English muffins. “Thomas’ provides the muffins free and the girl free. We just give them away.” Swallowing the last of his muffin, he grins and says, “How can you eat stuff and not be happy?”

He points to the store’s bank of 25 computerized cash registers. The longest line has three customers. “The one thing I’ve got a fetish about,” he confesses, “is no lines. If you see long lines at a supermarket, it means the owner isn’t there.”

Leonard gazes with unabashed pleasure at the crowds of shoppers pouring into the store and those leaving with full carts. “I just love this dairy,” he says. “It’s not the money. I mean, I’ve done well and I’m thankful, but Frank Sinatra doesn’t sing for the money. Paul Newman doesn’t make spaghetti sauce for the money. You do It’ cause you love it.”

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