All the Right Mooooves
Stew Leonard, Jr., proudly presides over his family’s dairy farm turned food-and-wine-store empire, which now comprises four food and eight wine stores in three states.
What’s your fondest childhood memory of the family business?
When I was really little, my dad was a milkman. He put big cow heads on the front of his trucks and bought horns that ‘mooed.’ Our slogan back then was, ‘You wave, I’ll moo.’ I’d ride in the milk truck with him, we’d pull up to someone’s house to deliver milk, and the kids would run out to wave. My dad would say, ‘Okay, Stew!’ and I got to pull the lever, and a loud ‘moo’ would come out of the front grille. It was fun.
Describe a typical workweek.
I try to make it to each of our four food stores once a week. Basically, I just like walking around the store, meeting customers, and talking to all the different team members. I love to be on the floor with everybody. And then I travel a lot to source our products. Like Wednesday, I’m going to Florida to meet our corn farmer. I was just in Wisconsin last week to meet some of our cheese farmers. My job is pretty much walking around the store, and eating cheese, corn, and drinking wine. I try not to spend time on a lot of administrative things. We have some great people to handle that.
Is it surreal to have your name plastered seemingly on everything? Not everyone gets a Thruway exit named after him…
My kids open the refrigerator and everything says ‘Stew Leonard’s.’ It’s like, ‘You mean other people don’t have their names on all of their milk cartons?’ Honestly, I don’t know if that’s even my name anymore. I look at it more like our logo and our brand.
Your business was even immortalized in an episode of The Sopranos.
I didn’t watch that evening, but my phone was ringing off the hook. I’m not sure how we got referenced in their script, but a lot of the cast shops here.
What would customers be most surprised to know?
How much of a family atmosphere it is behind the scenes; it’s not very corporate. People would probably be shocked by how decisions are made.
What is your most popular store-brand item?
Our signature item, our tenderloin of beef. We get it from Kansas. Everybody just loves that tenderloin.
What’s your most recent big hit?
Probably our rice cakes. We didn’t know what was gonna happen. We put them out and—poof!—they took off.
On the flip side, can you give an example of a surprise flop?
We tried vitamins—and we tried and tried and tried. Finally, we folded our tent.
What’s your own personal favorite item?
It depends on whether I’m on or off my perpetual diet. The fresh mozzarella—I could stand there and eat a whole ball of it when I’m off the diet. When I’m on the diet, my favorite thing is my mom’s marinara sauce.
Fortune has named Stew’s one of the 100 best companies to work for. What’s the key to having a happy operation?
Number one is whom you hire. There’s a great saying we have: ‘I’d rather hire passion on fire than knowledge on ice.’
The second thing is you have to really develop trust and respect with everyone, and that’s where people’s values come into play. I don’t want anybody who’s going to cut corners or try to fool anybody.
Lots of appreciation and recognition is important. Some places never say anything good about anybody, except maybe once a year when you’re doing their review—if they even do one. We have appreciation dinners, Christmas parties, summer picnics, monthly get-togethers. The whole idea is to recognize some of the great things being done around the store. That’s a daily job. What gets rewarded gets repeated.
And the last thing is the growth of your people. Eighty-five percent of all management in the company are people who are promoted from within. You have to offer internal upward mobility. If you say to someone, ‘You’ll never be more than X,’ that’s pretty de-motivating.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not, The Guinness Book of World Records, and Fortune, among others, have all recognized Stew’s. That’s a lot of acclaim for a local chain.
It’s all very gratifying, but this business keeps you humble. We’re dealing with farm-raised products: I can look at an ear of corn or look at a cherry and say, ‘Wow, that’s good,’ but I can’t guarantee that every single one of them is gonna be great. So this business is not something you can throw on autopilot and walk away from. You’ve got to be in there every day, watching it closely. And the other thing with Stew Leonard’s is we’re local. If I go down to Philadelphia, they’ll say ‘Stew who?’
Has the recession affected you?
It’s definitely impacted us. Customers are trading down in what they’re spending. Last year, Opus One—which is a hundred-dollar bottle of wine—would sell out through the Christmas holiday, and you couldn’t get enough of it because it’s in limited supply. Well, guess what? This year, we still have it.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
To keep the focus of the business in the right spots, and not waver too much. For example, in a tough economy like this, there are a lot of expenses that we could cut.
We spend a lot of money on a big summer picnic for all our people, we bring everybody to Rye Playland and rent the whole place out; we have a huge Christmas party with shrimp and filet mignon every year, we give scholarships out, we do these appreciation dinners, we do matching for their 401(k)s, and offer great health benefits. Even in a tough time like this, it’s important that we don’t eliminate those things that are important to our culture and our values. We’ll weather the storm and get through it.
What are your plans for the company’s future? Do you envision a day when someone in Philadelphia won’t say, ‘Stew who?’
At this point, we don’t have any big expansion plans. My father’s always said put all your eggs in one basket and watch the basket. That’s when we had one store—now we have four. I feel very fortunate that we aren’t in any big expansion mode. But down the line, I could see the company doubling in size. How am I going to take that young person and get him to go on his first cruise someday if we don’t provide more opportunities?
You took over the family business from your father. Any thoughts on who will take over the reigns from you one day?
Well, I’m fifty-four, so it’s definitely something we have to think about. We have a group now in their early twenties— in our family there are thirteen grandchildren of my parents, and they’re all very excited about the business. But we’ll have to look at if they would be ready in their early thirties when I’m sixty-four. In a ten- to fifteen-year period, we’ll have to see if there are any qualified family members. And if there aren’t any qualified members, we’re not going to force one of them to get involved. We do have a family rule that you’ve got to work outside the business for at least three years after college, or two years if you get a master’s.
How did your “Bags Around The World” start?
My dad began that. A customer named Coleen Blanchard came into the store in 1974 and handed him a photo of her holding up a Stew Leonard’s bag in front of Red Square in Russia. My father tacked it onto the bulletin board in the store. He wrote underneath, ‘One of our great customers, Coleen Blanchard.’ A few weeks later, someone brought in a picture of a bag they held in front of the Great Wall of China, and then someone else went to Egypt and climbed up on a camel with a Stew Leonard’s bag. All of a sudden, we had this huge collection put up on the walls of our stores—and now we have them on our website.
Photo by John Rizzo