Despite scandals, Stew Leonard’s rings up the business
It’s the world’s largest dairy store according to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and Fortune magazine calls it one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”
You gotta hand it to Stew Leonard’s. When it comes to surviving a major tax evasion scandal, overcharging customers, and delaying a wrongful death lawsuit, the Leonard family has mastered the ability to live long and prosper. Paula Deen could learn a thing or two from them.
Over the fourth of July holiday weekend, I visited Stew’s in Danbury, Conn., one of four Stew Leonard’s grocery stores in Connecticut and New York. It was packed! Wall to wall people wending their way down the store’s snaky, one-way aisle, buying $5.99 lb. porterhouse steaks and $4 watermelons. If you tried to turn your oversized cart around and go backwards you’d be trampled.
The store is a destination. Unlike a regular supermarket, people travel many miles just to shop there. The New York Times called it “The Disneyland of Dairy Stores” and the name fits. Employees don duck and cow costumes, and there are a number of Disney-animatromics such as The Farm Fresh Five, Twinkie The Kid, and Clover the Cow sprinkled throughout the store, making it wildly popular with kids. There’s also a free petting zoo and $1 ice cream cones.
Adults like myself are attracted to Stew’s high quality and low-priced dairy, meat, and produce items. When I make my Three Cheese Crisp and Weston Grilled Cheese for cooking demos, all the ingredients come from Stew’s — sourdough bread, Parmigiano Reggiano, Gruyere, Fontina, Cheddar, and Smoked Gouda cheeses, tomatoes, rosemary, bacon, and butter. Stew’s always has everything I need.
Then there’s the food samples. You can easily eat a full lunch for free. The day I visited there were samples of foot long hot dogs, baked beans, ceasar salad, gazpacho (spicy delicious), fresh mozzarella and roasted tomato crostini (delectable), wild blueberry buckle, and Cro-Dos.
Cro-Dos are Stew’s answer to Dominique Ansel’s pastry creation Cronuts. It’s basically a pastry that’s half croissant and half doughnut. Stew’s is selling their Cro-Dos for $3.99 for a package of two.
In addition to supermarket items, Stew’s has a large area full of steam tables where you can select your own take out foods — everything from turkey and stuffing to Chinese and Thai food. In warm weather, they operate Stew’s Hoedown outside, where you can grab a freshly grilled burger, or lobster dinner for $15.99.
And then there’s The Sopranos and the Jerry Seinfeld factor. Stew’s got a shout-out in an episode of The Sopranos, and Jerry Seinfeld featured the store in a Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee video with David Letterman.
So why do I feel guilty when I shop at Stew Leonard’s? Two words — my husband.
He refuses to shop at Stew’s on principle and wants me to stop too. He’s bothered by the store owner’s history. In 1993, Stew Leonard, Sr. was convicted for tax evasion for diverting $17 million from his Norwalk store to the Caribbean islands. The scheme was elaborate. Over the course of 10 years he set up a certain cash register as a dummy to keep cash off the books. He was caught in a stupid move, trying to bring a briefcase with more than $10,000 to St. Maarten. The conviction caused Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, who once lionized the business, to vociferously condemn Stew Leonard.
There were other troubles for the Leonard family over the years which pissed off my husband. Accusations were made by the state that Stew’s was shortweighting some of its products — charging more than their actual weight. Son Tom Leonard, who managed the Danbury store for a time, was embroiled in numerous skirmishes with the law and was sent to a federal halfway house for skimming cash from a hot dog stand in front of the Danbury store.
Then last year, a Westport woman filed a civil lawsuit, accusing Stew and Tom Leonard of the wrongful death of her husband. He was killed while riding on Stew Leonard’s powerboat, Stew’s Special, during a small craft advisory near St. Maarten. The Leonards delayed the case by requesting for a change of venue, which was denied. The case is scheduled to be heard early next year.
My husband has a point. Not good stuff. I agree. But I don’t like to throw my money away and my regular grocery store is mediocre at best. The produce at the local Stop & Shop is garbage. Garlic so old and black, it’s inedible. I do have a nearby Trader Joe’s and that’s fantastic! But I can’t do an entire shopping there, not enough selection. A Whole Foods is going to open in Danbury in the fall, and that may cause Stew’s a run for its money.
But Stew’s has savvy business operators. I bet they’ll find ways to deal with Whole Foods. When Stew Sr. was convicted of tax fraud, I agreed with my husband to boycott Stew Leonard’s. But then the store took out a huge ad in all the local newspapers with a coupon for a free half gallon of milk. Sadly, that’s all it took to get me back.