13 reasons why Stew Leonard's is actually the best grocery store in America

Business Insider has had love affairs with a number of regional and national supermarket chains over the years. Kroger has an awesome loyalty program. Wegmans has a walk-in beer locker.

But anyone who has ever set foot in Stew Leonard’s — a regional grocery chain based in Norwalk, Connecticut — know that it’s miles above the rest.

The supermarket, which has three locations in Connecticut and one in Yonkers, New York, recently announced that it plans to open a fifth store on Long Island in early 2016.

Stew Leonard’s puts a major emphasis on customer service and the in-store experience, and big chains could learn a thing or two from studying its model.

Here’s why Stew Leonard’s is truly America’s best grocery store:

1. It has a simple, ironclad policy when it comes to customer service.

At the entrance of every Stew Leonard’s store is a giant slab with the company’s customer service credo carved in: “Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1.”

It’s hard to argue with that kind of philosophy.

“Customer service is excellent, thanks in part to the extensive training given to associates,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm Conlumino.

2. It has a great in-house brand.

Stew Leonard’s sells a ton of products under its own label, from breakfast cereal to frozen meals. The store is best known for its dairy products, which arrive fresh daily and are packaged with the label: “You’d have to own a cow to get fresher milk!”

Unlike traditional grocers, which can carry tens of thousands of items, Stew Leonard’s only stocks around 2,200 products “chosen specifically for their freshness, quality and value,” according to the company.

3. There are perks for big spenders.

Stew Leonard’s may not offer a traditional loyalty program, but it does have one fun perk for big spenders — a free cup of coffee or scoop of ice cream for every $US100 spent. That should keep any grumpy kid (or grown-up) from losing his cool.

4. The bakery is amazing.

Stew Leonard’s sells a bigger selection of baked goods than your average specialty bakery. Breads, pies, and cookies are baked fresh every day. Top sellers include croissants, cookies, and bagels, but there are also unique items like apple cider doughnut holes and “jumbo muffins.”

The bakery also makes photo cakes for birthdays.

5. The chocolate chip cookies are made with a tiny bit of salt.

This is simply the best way to make cookies, and these treats alone are worth the trip to Stew Leonard’s, even if you don’t live nearby.

6. It’s a fun place to take your kids.

Free ice cream aside, Stew Leonard’s does a great job of turning grocery shopping into a fun family experience. There are animatronics throughout the store, including a country band of singing milk cartons and and a crooning Chiquita banana.

During the warm weather, there’s also a petting zoo and hayrides at certain locations.

7. The company takes good care of its employees.

Stew Leonard’s has regularly been named one of Fortune’s “100 best places to work in America,” and has a 4/5-star rating on job review site Indeed. The store also offers scholarships to employees, and, according to Conlumino’s Saunders, it also “has a profit sharing scheme which helps to motivate staff and ensures they are invested in giving good service.”

“You can’t have a happy customer unless you have happy people,” CEO Stew Leonard Jr. told Business News Daily in 2012. “It really starts there. I’d never ask anyone at the store to do something I wouldn’t do or haven’t done … You’ve got to pay them well and given them good benefits,” Leonard said. “You can’t hire great people and try to pay them minimum wage.”

8. The produce selection is enormous, fresh, and well-priced.

Stew Leonard’s puts a major emphasis on produce, which is the first thing customers see when they walk into a store. The company has also promoted its image as a fresh food market, and it has become “a destination for fresh produce,” said Saunders.

There are also great deals on produce to be had.

9. There are so many free samples, you can practically eat a free meal while you shop.

Instead of traditional supermarket aisles, Stew Leonard’s is set up like a maze, similar to IKEA. The layout may be a drawback for people who are just running in to buy a quart of milk, but it means lots more opportunities to try the free samples set up around the store.

On a recent visit, there were at least four stands set up around the store serving samples like meatballs in tomato sauce, cookies, and fresh pineapple.

10. Stew’s wine and liquor stores are in a league of their own.

Like Trader Joe’s, Stew Leonard’s has wine and liquor stores that are separate from its core grocery business. The nine Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits stores are independently owned and operated, and offer huge selections at great prices, as well as online ordering.

In 2011, Wine Enthusiast named Stew Leonard’s “wine retailer of the year.”

11. The butcher shop is also incredible.

Stew Leonard’s is known for its cut-to-order butcher shop, which sells only meats from farms and ranches that are hand-selected by the company’s buying team. Prices are low, and the butchers are helpful and knowledgeable.

12. Stew Leonard’s is up with the latest food trends.

Quinoa bread? Guacamole made with kale? “Magic pop” rice cakes? The grocery store is constantly adding products to its own line to keep up with popular food fads.

13. You can also just buy a full meal without doing any food shopping.

Stew Leonard’s offers a half-dozen different buffets and salad bars, as well as fresh barbecue during the summer months. There are also dozens and dozens of prepared meals on the stores’ shelves, from sushi to lobster rolls to calzones. It’s a great value even for those who don’t know how to turn on an oven.

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