Banjo playing robot dogs are singing Dixie over the frozen peas and the milk cartons are dancing. Kids and their parents are jam-packed at the petting zoo with live geese, sheep and goats. Cars are circling the huge parking lot like buzzards. Patience and the help of the sherriff�s deputy directing the bumper to bumper traffic will help you find a parking space. Employees dressed as cows, chickens and ducks stroll down the aisle. Free ice cream. Free helium balloons float through the popcorn scented air.
It�s not a theme park. It�s Stew Leonard�s -�The Disneyland of Dairy Stores�, or according to Ripley�s �Believe It or Not�- �The World�s largest Dairy Store�.
With two stores- the original in Norwalk, Connecticut and one in Danbury, Connecticut and a new store in Yonkers, New York, over 125,000 customers visit each week spending over $300 million a year. The Guiness Book of World Records lists Stew Leonard�s as the highest grossing store per square foot in the world. Most grocery stores sell about $500 per square foot. Stew Leonard�s sells $3750 per square foot.
Shoppers don�t just stop by Stew Leonard�s to grab a quick carton of milk. They come for the experience. Some arrive by tour bus. They drive oversized shopping carts down a single 20-foot wide aisle that meanders through the ten-acre complex like the yellow brick road.
Stew Leonard�s sells only about 1,000 different items compared to 15,000-20,000 at a typical grocery store. They usually stock only one brand of each item and buy direct from the manufacturer in huge quantities and pass on the savings.
Each year 500,000 pounds of butter, 5 million half gallons of milk, 1� million half gallons of orange juice and 500 tons of salad fly off the shelves. Over 100,000 pounds of Frank Perdue chicken is sold every week.
THE FARM FRESH FIVE, a state-of-the-art audio-animatronic robot quintet play to a packed house performing original songs about milk and about shopping at Stew Leonard�s. The child-sized musicians move their arms and legs and show realistic facial expressions. Members of the band include cartons of whole milk, skim milk, and chocolate milk. As well as a chorus of half pints, chickens and butter sticks.
Along with high-tech attractions there are plenty of low-tech shenanigans to amuse the crowds. A comic bard might walk up start singing �happy birthday�. A butter churn might be put on display with its output handpacked in front of the customers.
Deli staffers might ask children if they want to bite nose and eye holes into bologna slices so they can wear a cold-cut �mask�.
�We�ve got every single kid in the store running to get a piece of bologna now,� laughs Stew Leonard, Jr., head of the company.
�We call that a �wow� as in what I like to hear customers saying when they�re going through our store: ��wow�, that was fun!�
It all began in 1924 when Charles Leonard started bottling milk in an old barn and delivered it by horse and wagon. He became well known among his customers for delivering to new moms during the depression (even though some couldn�t pay).
Some kids dream of being president. Stew Leonard dreamed of being a milkman. The youngest of seven, he would get up at 4 a.m. and ride along on his father Charles�s milk route.
Charles died four months after Stew graduated from college. Stew and his brother took over the business and added modern homogenizing and pasteurizing equipment. They both delivered milk and knew every customer and their families.
Then, in 1968, the state built a highway through the dairy. Stew Leonard gambled he could get customers to make a special trip for milk by building a store around the dairy.
He was 38 years old. He mortgaged his house, dipped into the kid�s college fund and borrowed $482,500 from the Small Business Administration.
From the beginning, his store was different. Instead of many narrow aisles, Stew Leonard built one wide labyrinth so that the customer would come face to face with every item sold. In 1969, the year the store opened it consisted of seven items.
Among the items sold now at Stew Leonard�s are his friend, Paul Newman�s salad dressing and food products that he helped him launch.
Since he began, he has added on 27 times to the original store which now features a $1 million kitchen that turns out 200 salads and hot entrees daily, a barbecue department, and a seasonal garden shop.
The milk processing plant is glassed in so customers can watch cartons whiz by at 150 per minute. Whole fresh milk is delivered every morning from Stew Leonard�s farmers. It is processed and packaged immediately for sale. They claim it is so fresh that it lasts for weeks in the refrigerator. Stew Leonard�s has a slogan: �You�d have to own a cow to get fresher milk!�
They also process their own orange juice and sell more of it from one location than any store in the world.
All of Stew�s children have joined the business.
A firm believer in nepotism, he also has 22 relatives that work in the stores and half of the employees have relatives working there, too.
Stew Leonard says, �I can hardly believe it. To be a hero in your own thing, that�s the dream of an entrepreneur.�
Unfortunately, not all has been rosey. In 1993 Stew Leonard plead guilty to income tax evasion for skimming over $17 million dollars in cash during the 1980s with an elaborate computer program that reduced sales totals on a item by item basis.
A top IRS official called it a �crime of the 20th century.�
Even so, Stew Leonard�s fall from grace didn�t hamper business.
Chiseled into a three ton hunk of granite at the entrance of the Norwalk store, a rambling gray barn like building:
Rule 1�the customer is always right.
Rule 2�if the customer is wrong, re-read rule 1.
Stew Leonard�s mission is to give the customer what they want. If you prefer fish on ice instead of packed in plastic and styrofoam? They�ll build a fish bar across the aisle and still charge you the same price. You can buy your berries already boxed or loose so you can pick out your own.
There are free samples to eat at every turn. There are sandwiches, salads, and meals ready to take home everywhere.
Stew Leonard�s customers stuff his suggestion box with more than 100 comments a day. Some show up on Sundays to give their opinion at monthly meetings with management.
�Big Business always makes it sound so complicated. You don�t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to care,� said Stew.
Stew Leonard Jr. likes to tell employees the tuna fish story. ,P. �I unwrap one of our tuna fish sandwiches, and this package of mayonnaise rolls out. I figure the sandwich has enough mayo already. So I call Bill Hollis, my deli manager, and tell him, get rid of the extra mayo, it�s expensive.�
�So next week, I open a sandwich, the Hellman�s pops out again. I call Bill again, and he says, you gotta talk to Mary Ekstrand, she makes the sandwiches. I call Mary, who says, �Sorry, Stew, the customers want the extra mayo, so I�m packing it again.� You know my reaction? Bravo, Mary!�
Hang around the customer service counter where cheerful employees soothe the disgruntled. A woman complains of stale coffee beans. When had she bought them? Two years ago. She got a refund.
A shopper brought back a Christmas tree in March. It had dried out. They got a refund.
A woman once asked for and got a refund for 20 pounds of shrimp. Later, a worker discovered she�d never paid for them.
�My hardest job is not to catch her, but to keep those people on the customer service desk from getting a bad attitude,� says Stew Leonard. �I know I�ve got to get cheated once in a while, but don�t tell me about it.�
The large sales and loyal following, combined with cheerleading management style that stresses teamwork, advancement, and fun have made Stew Leonard a small business superstar. Business people come from all over to study the store. They even have regularly scheduled business training seminars to teach others their business principles.
Stew Leonard�s is loyal to its customers and its customers are loyal to them.
In 1974, a customer had her picture taken in front of St. Basil�s cathedral in Moscow holding a Stew Leonard�s bag. She sent it to Stew and he tacked it up on the wall. Since then they have received over 7000 pictures of customers with their Stew Leonard�s bags standing in front of such spots as the Taj Mahal to the Great Sphinx to the Grand Canyon.
One couple, who are skin divers, sent a picture of themselves underwater in the Bermuda Triangle holding their Stew Leonard�s bag.
A bride and groom included a Stew Leonard�s bag in their big event.
They received a letter for a final example of an ultimate loyal customer.
I am a funeral director .... and am writing to tell you of an event which happened recently.
An elderly woman passed away and requested that some of her most cherished personal belongings be buried inside a Stew Leonard�s shopping bag within her casket. He relatives stated that your store was her favorite shopping place.
Being a patron of Stew Leonard�s myself I noticed the correspondence from your customers, a felt I should share this story with you