Published on: January 20, 2016
by Kevin Coupe
Having shopped at the original Stew Leonard's in Norwalk, Connecticut, almost weekly for the past 32 years, I'm used to the seeing the rock whenever I walk up to the front door.
The rock, of course, is the enormous boulder on which Stew Leonard's has inscribed its two rules - "the customer is always right," and "when the customer is wrong, reread rule number one." That boulder has been duplicated in each of Stew Leonard's stores ... in Danbury and Newington, Connecticut, and Yonkers, New York. That rock has seen Stew Leonard's through good times and bad, and reflects the philosophical foundation for this family-owned company that has become iconic for its idiosyncratic approach to retailing.
Yesterday, I drove out to Farmingdale, New York, on Long Island, to get a sneak peek of the newest Stew Leonard's, scheduled to open today. And as I waited for Stew Leonard Jr. to join me - he'd kindly offered to give me a tour of the new store - I looked around for the rock ... but all I saw was a familiar outline covered by a dark cloth. The rock, it seems, would not be seen until it was curtain-up for the entire store ... which strikes me as a good metaphor for the kind of retailing that Stew Leonard's is bringing to the flat, shopping center-laden, middle class suburban community that has at various times been home to people such as Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda and Joe Pepitone.
Stew Leonard's is all about the curtain going up, about creating as theatrical a food shopping experience as you're going to find. And in this new store, Stew Jr. told me, an effort has been made to pull the curtain away from much of the food preparation work, doing things like moving bakery and pizza ovens, as well as the extensive display kitchen, closer to the sale floor than in other stores so customers have a better sense of where their food comes from.
Stew Leonard's hallmarks all are there - the roughly 40,000 square foot sales floor has about 2,000 SKUs, mostly fresh and private brand, so that the consumer gets a highly curated shopping experience. Instead of hundreds of varieties, brands and sizes of soup, for example, Stew's sells maybe a dozen - chilled, fresh, and carrying its own label. Differentiation is taken very seriously here ... there is a concerted effort not to be "me, too" ... and it is critical in a market that already is served by ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Trader Joe's, Costco, Whole Foods and a variety of small independents and specialty food retailers.
(A note here. As a longtime regular Stew's customer, I can testify that I can't get everything there. But I can get what I need there, and if I do fill-in shopping elsewhere, Stew's has remained my main shop. FYI...Amazon has become number two.)
Fresh foods are enormously important. The biggest, most dramatic spaces are given to the bakery, meat, seafood and prepared foods departments ... and one can best understand how important this is by watching Stew Jr., company founder Stew Leonard Sr., and assorted other family members sampling the store's pizzas and comparing them to those made by a local and popular pizza parlor. This is serious business, and this is a family that is highly granular in how they approach the details of the business. Is the crust thick enough, the sauce tangy enough, the cheese in the right proportions? And Stew Sr. keeps driving home the point: none of this matters if it doesn't taste great. (Not good. Great.) He is relentless.
I think the Stew Leonard's team is aware of the fact that this store won't be a slam-dunk; even getting it to the point where the doors are opening has been anything but easy, taking more than a dozen years to find the right spot and get the stars aligned. There's lots of competition, and Stew's may not be as well known in Farmingdale as in other markets that it has served. But the company has enormous discipline about how it approaches marketing and merchandising, maintaining that delicate balance between being effective and efficient, making sure it is always playing its own game rather than being lured into playing the other guy's.
I also was impressed with the degree to which Stew Jr. seemed totally relaxed yesterday. (Or at least created the appearance of relaxation.) He spent more than an hour with me, walked around the store chatting with employees and vendors getting ready for the grand opening, posing for pictures and making it all seem effortless. But maybe once you've worked for more than a dozen years getting a store ready, the day before the opening actually is the only time you get to relax. A bit.
One of my favorite features is totally cosmetic and completely new for Stew Leonard's - a cow hung upside down from the ceiling. Stew Jr. takes a lot of pride in this cow, and he pointed to a sign explaining the rationale behind it. It seems that the Stew Leonard's design team visited with Disney's Imagineers when putting together the store, and one of the things they emphasized was that "good design begins with the premise that gravity doesn't matter."
In other words, it is critical not to be earthbound by proven, traditional ways of doing business ... because that's not where the magic happens. And so, Stew's folks hung a cow upside down - a reminder to its own team not to be earthbound, and to customers that the store they are in has different aspirations.
There are two themes we talk a lot about here on MNB - the importance of storytelling (both Chelsea Ware and Michael Sansolo have had columns about that this week alone), and the importance of differentiation, especially by bricks-and-mortar stores competing with the online experience. Walking through Stew Leonard's, I got the sense that it exemplifies both themes ... it tells a compelling story about fresh, quality food, and it presents its products in a differentiated atmosphere that cannot be duplicated online.
The new Stew Leonard's is worth seeing ... it is an Eye-Opener.
- KC's View: