Children gather at the foot of the stage as animatronic musical duo Cindy Celery, a regal stalk holding a microphone, and Larry Lettuce, a leafy head playing a purple piano, warble cheerfully about Dole’s fresh vegetables. “They give you lots of energy that you need when you play,” the couple croons to the crowd. Parents of the tiny audience members are thankful for the mesmerizing distraction, providing them with a moment to focus on selecting produce before rolling along to the next show.
That’s the normal grocery store routine where I grew up in Southwestern Connecticut. Our neighborhood grocery store is the original Norwalk location of Stew Leonard’s, a place so brimming with superlative magic and kitschy robotics that the New York Times compared it to Disneyland in 1983 — and its idiosyncrasy has only grown since. Every food section has its own musical performance, from a singing Chiquita Banana to Clover the Cow, who moos with gumption at the push of a button. Real live animals are at the petting zoo in the parking lot (which is the case at most locations, except those in towns with planning and zoning laws that prohibit it).
Stew’s, as we locals call it, is a rustic, barn-like dairy store with a single one-way aisle that winds through the entire building (103,000 square feet, in the case of Norwalk). This design allows the shopper to walk past every single item and animated production, weaving through the all-consuming aroma of freshly baked breads and pastries to the chill of refrigerated cases of milk sitting next to a window that offers views of working conveyor belts in the on-site dairy plant. A few small shortcuts along the maze-like route were put in place for people who want to get in and out quickly, though I’m not quite sure why someone would want to rush such a singular experience.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting one of the six Stew Leonard’s locations between Connecticut and New York, it’s understandable to think the store sounds like a gimmick. In an era where Americans are more obsessed with their grocery stores than ever, a casual Stew’s visitor might share their visit on Instagram and extol its amusement-park qualities. But as Eater’s Jaya Saxena wrote, we want even our choice of grocery stores “to say more about us, to project a core truth about ourselves to anyone who cares to look.” And to shop at Stew’s says you appreciate homemade food, good deals, and the Americana-style congeniality that comes with a family-owned business — even, and perhaps especially, when it presents itself in the form of dancing puppets.
Stew’s pops its own popcorn, crafts its own pizza, and butchers its own meat, which can be cut to order. Prepared foods — soup, rotisserie chicken, poke, sushi — are all made on-site. Most astoundingly, Stew’s processes its own milk and with it makes its own mozzarella, ice cream, and butter. The giant red letters on the side of the grey building that read “World’s Largest Dairy Store,” are not hyperbolic advertising — they’re a true differentiator.
Stew Leonard’s began as a dairy. In the early 1920s, Charles Leonard founded a milk delivery company called Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk, Connecticut. His son, Stew Leonard Sr., took over the business when his father passed, which was right around the time his own son, Stew Leonard Jr., was born.
“Our little delivery milk dairy was right next to our house that I was born in. My father was basically running a milk truck at the time, delivering milk door to door,” Leonard Jr., now president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s, remembers.
In 1969, Leonard Sr. realized the impending fate of the milk delivery business — according to Department of Agriculture statistics, 29.7 percent of consumers had milk delivered to their homes in 1963; that figure was just 6.9 percent in 1975 — and decided to foray into retail. He moved his dairy plant to another location in Norwalk and opened a small store in the front. “You could actually look through the glass windows and see the milk being bottled. The store just filled up and flooded with customers,” recalls Leonard Jr.
As surrounding properties went up for sale, the Leonards purchased the land and expanded the store section by section, surrounding the dairy plant with more retail space. With the building additions came the introduction of locally sourced fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. The piecemeal extensions also made for a rather peculiar building shape, which prompted the one-way aisle solution.
The aisles would also soon be filled with an additional attraction. Inspired by family vacations to Disneyland and Las Vegas, the Leonards began to install animated entertainment in the late 1970s and early ’80s: bands of robotic milk cartons with smiling, doll-like faces perform songs as customers shop. By the early ’90s, Stew Leonard’s had a reputation for wild success: According to the Los Angeles Times, the Norwalk store was featured in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records for “selling $3,470 of merchandise per square foot of floor space — the highest sales volume in the nation.” One year later, Leonard Sr. would plead guilty for conspiring to defraud the federal government in an IRS tax fraud case; he’d ultimately serve 44 months in prison.
Despite the scandal, Stew’s lovers remained fiercely loyal, allowing the company to grow. In 1992, Leonard Jr.’s brother Tommy opened the second store in Danbury, Connecticut, which was followed by a location in Yonkers, New York in 1999. The family debuted in Newington, Connecticut in 2007, Farmingdale, New York in 2016, and East Meadow, New York in 2017. In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Stew’s, the seventh and first New Jersey location is slated to premiere later this year in the Paramus Park shopping mall.
When you walk into the original Norwalk location through its doorless entryway, warm air blows down from the vent above. Once you’ve brushed the windblown hair out of your eyes, an inscribed, 6,000-pound slab of granite stands strikingly before you. It reads, “Rule 1 The Customer Is Always Right! Rule 2 If The Customer Is Ever Wrong, Reread Rule 1.”
Like the “World’s Largest Dairy Store” sign, this engraving is not hyperbole. Leonard Sr. instituted the policy in the store’s early days when he realized he had mishandled a customer complaint and wanted to avoid future incidents. The brand’s reputation for customer satisfaction fuels fans’ adoration. “We want to have the best for our customers, which is something that’s been ingrained in my head by my grandfather, who was a fanatic about the quality, and my father, who continued that passion, and that’s trickled down to us. We try to make or find the best out there,” Leonard Jr. says.
Turn right to begin your loop through the store and you’ll hit the expansive display of homemade carbohydrates that is Bethy’s Bakery. Upon returning from working at a bakery in France, Leonard Jr.’s sister Beth established her eponymous bakery, where she began to bake fresh butter croissants in the store. Now, her team of bakers fires up the ovens at 3 a.m. each morning to turn out fresh chocolate chip cookies, apple cider doughnuts, bagels, macarons, and more. Bethy’s sells corn muffin tops because everyone knows that’s the only part worth eating; it recently invented hamburger buns made with croissant dough. The bakery created half pies so shoppers wouldn’t have to commit to just one flavor.
“Obviously a lot of people told us we would sell less pie by offering half pies, but customers were asking, so we wanted to try it,” Leonard Jr. explains. “Sales actually went up. People wanted an assortment, so they ended up buying more.”
To further please the shopper, there are samples of Bethy’s baked goods, produce, dips, and more peppered throughout the store for tasting. In true Stew’s fashion, samples don’t come sans spectacle. Leonard Jr. is proud of a method he calls “show and sell.”
“If we get an 100-pound tuna in the store, we’ll bring that out in the aisle and cut it right in front of the customers and they’re just amazed by it,” he says. “We do lots of demos.” For this reason, it’s best to ignore the age-old advisory against grocery shopping while hungry — you could eat an entire lunch of morsels on toothpicks by the time you reach the register. Shoppers should save just a bit of room for dessert. For every $100 customers spend on groceries, they get a free cone of Stew’s homemade soft serve ice cream or frozen yogurt at the shop by the entry.
Stew’s is now a $400 million mini-chain, but is still family-owned, which might be why the enchantment remains. Rather than focusing on rapid growth, Stew’s has spent the past 50 years cultivating a devoted customer base and launching an extensive wine and liquor sister business that spurred out of customer requests for pairings and is supported by Leonard Jr.’s daughter Blake.
The company has also poured energy into helping develop new brands — it was among the first to carry now-massive products like Rao’s Homemade Sauce and Chobani. To continue to discover and cultivate new brands, Stew’s recently introduced “Stew’s Tank,” an open competition modeled after Shark Tank in which vendors have the opportunity to present their product to the Stew’s buying team for a chance to be sold in its stores. Stew’s supports all its vendors by never charging a slotting fee, a common practice among grocers to charge brands for shelf space and even specific placement.
The collective impact of Stew’s many unconventional practices is why I’m far from alone in my enthusiasm for the store. While animatronic dogs playing the banjo might not be practically suited for big grocery store chains, it would be nice if they strived for just a fraction of the charm of Stew’s. For now, I’ll have to settle for showing off my beloved Disneyland market to visiting friends with a trip around the original Norwalk store, vanilla soft serve wafer cone in hand, each time I’m home.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA.