I went to Stew Leonard’s for the first time and the unique customer experience made me actually enjoy grocery shopping

Stew Leonard's store front
Stew Leonard’s store front Taylor Rains/Insider
  • I went to Stew Leonard’s for the first time and the experience made grocery shopping feel like less of a chore.
  • The store is full of appetizing food and interesting decorations, colors, displays, and animatronics.
  • The $US400 ($AU551) million business prides itself on its store brands, which soared 40% in sales during the pandemic.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Many people hate grocery shopping, including me. I have always dreaded the weekly run, but a family-owned supermarket chain in the Northeast added a little fun to the chore.
Stew Leonard's storefront in Norwalk, Connecticut
Stew Leonard’s storefront in Norwalk, Connecticut Miro Vrlik Photography/Shutterstock
Stew Leonards was founded in 1969 and is a chain of seven grocery stores in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. The iconic business is the world’s largest dairy store and brings in over $US400 ($AU551) million in sales each year
Stew Leonard's employees
employees Stew Leonard’s
Growing up in Florida, I never knew the supermarket existed, but I was pleasantly surprised with the unique in-store shopping experience when I visited the Newington, Connecticut location recently.
Stew Leonard's storefront in Newington, Connecticut
Stew Leonard’s storefront in Newington, Connecticut Taylor Rains/Insider
The first thing I noticed was the store’s rustic feel, almost like it didn’t belong in Connecticut. The wood building looks like a giant barn, complete with a silo, which is in line with Stew’s farm theme.
Inside Stew Leonard's
Inside Stew Leonard’s Taylor Rains/Insider
When I entered the building lobby, I saw a garden of flowers, plants, and pumpkins – right in time for the fall season. Also in the space was a photo booth and a rock that outlined the company’s policy of “the customer is always right.”
'The customer is always right' policy
‘The customer is always right’ policy Taylor Rains/Insider
Once inside the main building, I was immediately overwhelmed with the number of signs, colors, decorations, and displays.
Donut stand
Donut stand Taylor Rains/Insider
At the entrance sat a mouth-watering donut stand full of fresh pastries. Meanwhile, just past was a stage with five animatronic dairy characters that put on a show every few minutes. I’m sure they’re a hit with the kids.
Stew Leonard's animatronics
Stew Leonard’s animatronics Taylor Rains/Insider
After watching the show, I made my way to the produce section, which is the start of the store’s single long shopping aisle.
Produce section
Produce section Taylor Rains/Insider
Stew Leonards is set up like a roadmap, zig-zagging customers through each section of the store via an established path. While shoppers can exit the main path or decide to bypass sections, the store’s pre-arranged route eliminates aisles and streamlines the shopping experience.
Shopper in produce section
Shopper in produce section Taylor Rains/Insider
Walking through produce was a treat because of all the organic, fresh fruits and vegetables. In the section was the first of eight mini-shows that the store has set up, which are animatronic characters that sing for customers.
Fresh fruits
Fresh fruits Taylor Rains/Insider
The shows are activated by a big “push” button, which I obviously had to try. The banana was kiddish, but cute, though I’m sure the employees get tired of hearing the same tune every day.
Animatronic character
Animatronic character Taylor Rains/Insider
In addition to the singing banana, the store also had a parrot…
Animatronic character
Animatronic character Taylor Rains/Insider
a pig…
Animatronic character
Animatronic character Taylor Rains/Insider
and chickens.
Animatronic characters
Animatronic characters Taylor Rains/Insider
A unique service Stew offers that I have not seen anywhere else is the fresh fruit and vegetable stand, where employees will cut produce for customers to save them time at home.
Fruit and vegetable cutting stand
Fruit and vegetable cutting stand Taylor Rains/Insider
One of my favorite aspects of the store was the free samples. On the day I went, there was a vendor with flavored seltzer water and another with fresh pineapple, both of which were pretty tasty.
Samara vendor
Samara vendor Taylor Rains/Insider
One useful feature of the store is its in-house butcher. The butcher had all types of fresh-cut beef, like sirloin, ribeye, and filet mignon. I opted for the teriyaki steak tips and they proved to taste much better than pre-packed meat.
Employee prepares steak tips
Employee prepares steak tips Taylor Rains/Insider
The bread section was also impressive. Stew’s has in-store bakers that produce fresh bread every day, and the store had offerings that I had not seen at other supermarkets, like pre-cut ciabatta bites and pumpkin seed loaves.
Bread section
Bread section Taylor Rains/Insider
I was also intrigued by the fresh-made bagels, which come in all sorts of interesting flavors, like cheddar, rainbow, garlic, blueberry, and french toast.
Bagels Taylor Rains/Insider
Past the meat and bread is all of the international cheese, which is my favorite section. There was an entire wall dedicated to cheddar and a stand full of other types, like mozzarella, ricotta, and burrata. Stew employees produce over 500 pounds (227kg) of fresh mozzarella cheese a day.
International cheeses
International cheeses Taylor Rains/Insider
I also really enjoyed exploring the seafood section, which was full of fresh fish, like salmon, flounder, and shellfish. Every meat looked delicious and I was impressed with the quality of the salmon I took home for dinner.
Seafood section
Seafood section Taylor Rains/Insider
At the end of the shopping experience are a few places to pick up lunch or dinner before heading to check-out. Stew’s has a BBQ stand…
BBQ stand
BBQ stand Taylor Rains/Insider
a pizza stand…
Pizza stand
Pizza stand Taylor Rains/Insider
and a sushi shelf to choose from.
Sushi shelf
Sushi shelf Taylor Rains/Insider
Customers can buy some hot food to eat at home or take upstairs to Stew’s in-store dining area, which was what I opted for. I ordered the pizza combo for $US6 ($AU8), which came with two slices and a drink.
Eating pizza at Stew's upstairs dining room
Eating pizza at Stew’s upstairs dining room Taylor Rains/Insider
Throughout the store were all sorts of interesting decorations, like Mickey and Yoda doing aerobatics and an upside-down cow. The cow symbolizes the advice Stew got from his friends at Disney when coming up with marketing ideas: “gravity doesn’t matter.”
Upside-down cow
Upside-down cow Taylor Rains/Insider
Before check-out, I had to take a look at Stew’s Doggy Bar, which is full of unique treats. I grabbed the doggy pops for my dog Indiana, who gave them a 10/10.
Stew's doggy bar
Stew’s doggy bar Taylor Rains/Insider
Also before check-out is a gift shop with Stew Leonard’s swag…
Swag shop
Swag shop Taylor Rains/Insider
and a wall full of fresh-made soups. All of the options looked delicious and I ended up grabbing three, which are the perfect size for an easy lunch.
Soups Taylor Rains/Insider
Stew’s does not have self-check-out, which is my preference, but the line went quickly. For customers with only a few items, there are dedicated express check-out lanes.
Check-out area
Check-out area Taylor Rains/Insider
On the way out, customers can stop by the ice cream shop serving up unique flavors, like pistachio and apple pie. Pistachio is my favorite flavor and it did not disappoint.
Ice cream shop
Ice cream shop Taylor Rains/Insider
Stew Leonard’s prides itself on its store brands, which make up over 60% of its supermarket. According to Stew Leonard Jr, the private brand boomed during the pandemic, soaring 40% in summer 2020.
Stew Leonard Sr and Stew Leonard Jr
Stew Leonard Sr and Stew Leonard Jr Stew Leonard’s
Leonard Jr explained major brands sold out quickly during COVID, so people opted for alternates, which he sees as a good opportunity for customers to try the store brand. In particular, the company’s organic foods and citrus products did well during the pandemic.
Stew Leonard's store branded marinara sauce
Stew Leonard’s store branded marinara sauce Taylor Rains/Insider
Stew’s also had to buy products from restaurants because the store and national brands ran out. One five-pound bag of french fries it bought from a local restaurant and sold for $US5 ($AU7) was bringing in $US5 ($AU7),000 a week in June 2020.
Different brands of peanut butter
Different brands of peanut butter Taylor Rains/Insider
Stew’s success has been complemented by its eventful history. The supermarket was named the “Disneyland Dairy Store’ by the New York Times in 1983 and ranked in Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” list 10 consecutive years from 2002 to 2011.
Stew's farm fresh eggs
Stew’s farm fresh eggs Taylor Rains/Insider
Furthermore, it solidified its place in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1992 for having “the greatest sales per unit area of any single food store in the United States.”
Guinness book of world records plaque
Guinness book of world records plaque Taylor Rains/Insider
The supermarket was also a stomping ground for food celebrities like Martha Stewart, who bought ingredients from the store, and Paul Newman who asked Stew Leonard Sr. for help in launching his salad dressing.
Stew Leonard's cow named after Martha Stewart
Stew Leonard’s cow named after Martha Stewart Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images
Source: Inc
I am not surprised by Stew Leonard’s immense success and love from the local communities. Its unique in-store experience made grocery shopping actually enjoyable, and there is no doubt I will become a regular customer.
Stew Leonards
Stew Leonards Taylor Rains/Insider