Stored Wisdom

Three Grocery Stores, Three Family Dynasties



1

Stew Leonard’s

Year Opened: 1969
Starting Point: Dairy Farm/Farm Stand/Petting Zoo in Norwalk, CT
Stores: 4
Generations in Business: 3

Though the Leonard family had been farming Hudson Valley soil since the 1600s, they hadn’t achieved the Brahminhood of other early New English colonists. Says Stew Leonard, Jr., of his family’s origins, “My father had a dairy farm and a milk truck. He had a milk-bottling line and delivered the milk to his customers’ houses. He was the milk man—and my job, starting when I was a kid, was to unload the truck when he came home from deliveries. These were heavy crates of empty glass bottles.” His reward? “He gave me a quarter!”

   Realizing that milk deliveries were quickly becoming obsolete, Stew, Sr., also opened a dairy store in Norwalk, Connecticut. The sale agreement for the property, purchased in 1967 from its previous owner, Hazel Schultz, stipulated that the senior Leonard must retain Schultz’s beloved farm animals. The elder Leonard agreed, discovering, much to his surprise, that many young suburban families, at a loss with what to do with their children, visited the goats, sheep, and other farm animals before stopping into the store. And with Leonard, Sr.’s dairy connections, selling ice cream was a given. A visit to Stew Leonard’s became a family treat.

    Further developments were inevitable: the Stews were still operating the dairy route, and, sometimes, Stew, Jr., recalls, “a farmer would say to my father, ‘Look, I’ve got all this leftover corn—or squash, or peppers—why don’t you take it and see if you can sell it?’” Soon, fresh, local produce joined the family’s dairy store.

   But the Stew Leonard’s rubber really hit the road on a Leonard family trip to Disney World in the mid- ’70s. According to Leonard, the young family (Stew, Jr., his brother, Tom—who went on to own his own eponymous stores near Richmond, Virginia—and sisters, Jill and Beth) noticed the success of a costumed Mickey Mouse wandering the park. Says Leonard, “We thought, ‘Why don’t we get a cow walking around the place, shaking hands?’” On the same Disney visit, the Leonard kids saw musical clockwork figures drawing a crowd. “This was when you heard ‘It’s a Small World After All’ wherever you went at Disney.” Soon, Stew Leonard’s first robotic installation,“Sally at the Piano,” made its debut.   

    And the other Stew Leonard’s innovation, a track-like, one-aisle design that cannily forces all shoppers to walk by each item? “Basically, that was just the store layout,” he says. The original Norwalk building was small—about seventeen thousand square feet—so we ended up building two extensions that made the store sort of L-shaped.” The single-aisle design was the most efficient way to direct crowds.

    And, at a time when few grocery stores delved into preparing foods onsite, Stew Leonard’s was exploring this novel revenue stream. “My grandmother happened to make this really good clam chowder. It started with us saying, ‘Why don’t we sell Grandma’s chowder?’ That worked, so we thought, ‘Why not Mom’s pomodoro sauce?’ and it just went from there.” Today, the company employs 2,200 people and brings in $341 million a year.

    Though Leonard grew up under his mother’s edict not to talk about the business at home, conversation inevitably turned to the store. “It was the biggest challenge not to talk business at Thanksgiving.” The Leonard family still tries to separate work and their private lives. In fact, its members have created what Leonard calls a “handbook” that stipulates a three-year waiting period after college before newer generations can join the business. “You gotta go out and get a job!”

    In that vein, Leonard’s daughter, Blake Leonard, pursued the Accelerated Wine and Beverage Program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, California, after graduating from college. She became a certified sommelier and worked for Gallo Family Vineyards. Along the way, she befriended Beatrice Landini, scion of a winemaking family, and together the pair decided to produce BLBL Wines. Soon, you’ll find BLBL Wines at Stew’s vineyards in Viticcio Estate in Tuscany, and it's already at Stew Leonard’s Wines.

    The Leonards are clear that they wouldn’t want to sell the family business. “We think of the business like Grandma’s wedding ring. We just polish it up, and hand it down to the next generation.”

2

Fairway Market

Year Opened: 1954 Starting Point: Fruit and Vegetable Stand on Broadway
Stores: 8
Generations in Business: 4

The Glickberg history is urban. In fact, the origin of Fairway Market is, literally, on the streets of New York. In the 1930s, Nathan Glickberg operated a fruit and vegetable stand on Broadway, which he expanded with other stands along the thoroughfare. In 1954, street vendor Nathan partnered with his son, Leo (who was raised in his father’s fruit and vegetable business), to open an actual store under a permanent roof.

    The first store, at 74th and Broadway, was nothing like a modern supermarket. “It was a ‘superette,’” says Dan Glickberg, executive vice president and Leo’s grandson, making him the fourth generation in the business. “It sold basics to people in the neighborhood.” The Fairway name was taken from a small toy factory that the family also owned.

    Leo’s son, Howie, was the one with entrepreneurial vision. He drew from his grocer’s background, his C.W. Post education, and seven years in finance as a stockbroker, to bring the small store into Manhattan food-world prominence. He joined the business in 1974, and by partnering with Harold Seybert and David Sneddon, the Glickbergs were able to expand. They accessed the large space next to the original store and began to tailor their merchandise to suit their increasingly sophisticated clientele. Delicacies, ethnic foods, a great cheese department, and butchers: Fairway (like its competitor Zabar’s) morphed from basic grocery store to gourmet store.

    More stores followed. Harlem. Plainview. Red Hook. Paramus, New Jersey. But when Howie Glickberg’s partners wanted to retire, the Glickbergs’ path came to a fork. Says Dan, “My father is very debt-averse, and his partners were both older. First one, then right after, the other, wanted to retire—to be bought out. That’s when Sterling stepped in.”

    Currently, Sterling Investment Partners own a controlling interest in the Glickberg empire. But Dan is unfazed, seeing it not as a loss but an opportunity. “With Sterling, our future is limitless.” Since the new partnership, Fairway has opened, on average, a new store every year, and Howie Glickberg still retains his position as CEO of the company. Visitors to the Pelham Manor store will often see Dan overseeing operations. Though this 28-year-old Westchester native graduated from Trinity College with a BA in English and writing, you will find the young Glickberg regularly demo-ing Fairway products on morning news shows. Recently, he cooked on the air with Mario Batali on NBC’s New York Live.

    Did they talk about the business at home? “No, my dad wouldn’t allow it.”

3

DeCicco Family Market

Year Opened: 1974 Starting Point: An Italian meateria in the Bronx
Stores: 8
Generations in Business: 2

The DeCiccos’ start in the grocery business was almost accidental. Brothers John, Joe, and Frank DeCicco had emigrated from the grim, post-war world of De Sica’s Italy. They came from the impoverished south, from Reggio Calabria. The brothers landed in the Bronx, with two of them getting work at Jubilee Market, a small, Katonah Avenue neighborhood store serving Irish families. One DeCicco was the delivery boy while another worked as a butcher.

    Jubilee’s owner, Gene Alongi, mentored the DeCicco boys, yet he eventually lost the store to the IRS for failure to pay his taxes. Which is when John DeCicco, recently out of the National Guard, approached the IRS and offered to pay the previous owner’s tax debt in return for the store. Eventually the IRS agreed. The new owners expanded with another outlet, stepping in when a large supermarket chain threatened to take over a neighborhood store (and crush its competitors). One more in the Bronx followed, then, in 1984, the brothers expanded into Westchester with a Pelham location, taking over an A&P. The DeCiccos also took over an ailing ShopWell in downtown Scarsdale—and then Cross River, New City, Brewster, Ardsley, and Jefferson Valley.

    Pushing a cart through a DeCicco, you’ll still see evidence of the DeCicco family’s origins. Not only do the shelves and deli case still reflect their Italian roots, but excellent produce and meat are still this supermarket’s pride. Of the original trio of brothers, Frank and John were both butchers, and John, Jr., 33, and Joe, Jr., 26, also are licensed in that trade. These young cousins (along with Frank, Jr., 35, and John’s other son, Chris, 31) started bagging groceries when they were younger than 10, and it’s Chris, John, Jr., and Joe, Jr., who opened the company’s largest and most elaborate store in Ardsley.  Today, the family employs 500.

    When working on an international business internship in London, John, Jr., became fascinated with the craft-beer scene there. His passion is shared by his brother and cousin, and shoppers will notice DeCicco’s shelves hold an almost archival number of beer brands. The Ardsley DeCicco was the first (and, still, only) Westchester grocery to offer beer growler refills at in-store taps. And in an almost-too-perfect ode to their old and new store identities, the DeCiccos paired with Scott Vaccaro of Captain Lawrence Brewing Company (see "Money Talk," page 72) to brew two beers using ingredients from Campagna and Calabria.

Julia Sexton is a food writer and restaurant critic living in Westchester whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Her blog for Westchester Magazine, "Eat. Drink. Post.," won the national City and Regional Magazine Award for Best Blog.

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