And while everyone has their favourite supermarket, a few stand above the rest — and I’d heard Stew Leonard’s was one of those.
The grocery store has locations in Connecticut and New York, but having grown up in New Hampshire — land of Market Basket — I had never set foot in one.
But with all the hype from Connecticuters, I was pretty curious. The supermarket’s reputation for customer service and quality precedes it, and I had heard rumours of animatronic singing produce. I had to check it out.
With the moniker “the Disneyland of Dairy Stores” — given by the New York Times back in 1983 — I knew I was in for an experience. But I had no idea just how delightful it is to grocery-shop at a Stew Leonard’s store.
I got a chance to visit the original Stew Leonard's store in Connecticut, located right on Route 1 in East Norwalk.
Immediately upon entering is 'The Rock,' a three-ton hunk of granite with the company's two rules of customer service literally written in stone.
There's a soft-serve ice cream stand in the entrance, too -- and it was crazy busy even at 11 in the morning. Clearly, this was no ordinary grocery store.
There's no typical aisle set up, either: Navigating Stew Leonard's is like going through IKEA. The coffee department is at the beginning of the journey -- here an employee roasts the beans. The store offers freshly roasted beans in a ton of flavours.
Stew Leonard's makes rice cakes in-store, too. I've never been a fan, but let me assure you: these are not your ordinary rice cakes.
Stew Leonard, Jr., is the current president, and his daughters are part of the company too. When they opened in 1969, there were 7 employees; today, there are more than 2,000. There are currently four Stew Leonard's stores, with a fifth on the way.
Stew Leonard's prides itself on being involved in the community and maintaining a friendly work culture. And the pride is deserved -- they've been on Fortune magazine's '100 Best Companies to Work for in America' list for 10 consecutive years.
The employees were all super friendly, and many were producing food in front of customers' eyes. For example, the store makes fresh popcorn all day in a bunch of flavours.
And the samples … so many samples. A grocery store that makes their own kettle-style potato chips in store? Sign me up.
For the discerning foodie shopper, there are plenty of interesting and healthy options throughout the store, from quinoa bread to their signature 'kalemole' -- guacamole with kale.
I certainly wasn't expecting the animatronic band 'Stew's Farm Fresh Five' to be performing all day, every day above the yogurt section. The animatronics are a major part of the store experience, and make shopping with kids a lot more pleasant.
Plenty of quality produce here! The company deals directly with the suppliers to make sure customers know exactly where their produce is coming from.
They even make their own fresh mozzarella in store, selling over 250,000 pounds of it per year. I could see why -- it was superb.
The place was also part-science museum. In the fruit section, there's even an observational beehive that's home to nearly 50,000 honeybees. It's one of the largest observational hives in the world.
Stew Leonard's really wants to make sure you know where your food comes from -- check out this live lobster cam. They sell over 1 million pounds of lobster every year.
More animatronic country singers. These guys were jamming to their hearts' content above the ice cream area …
To tempt me even more, after the ice cream was the buffet. Everything from mac n' cheese, to hot wings, to sushi prepared in front of you; it was quite the spread.
Tucked away from the hubbub of the hot food is the oasis-like Wishing Well. Keeping with the company's commitment to community, all the change thrown into the well is given to a different charity every week. It adds up to more than $25,000 a year.
Outside, there's a separate farmer's market-style produce area, as well as the Burger Barn, where burgers are grilled fresh.
Stew Leonard's Wines and Spirits is across the street, and it's quite impressive on its own. Like Trader Joe's, Stew Leonard's has wine and liquor stores that are separate from its core grocery business.
The wine and craft beer offerings were particularly extensive The nine Stew Leonard's Wines & Spirits stores are independently owned and operated. In 2011, Wine Enthusiast named Stew Leonard's 'wine retailer of the year.'
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