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Stew Leonard Sr. Dies at 93; Founded ‘Disneyland of Dairy Stores’


Stew Leonard Sr., a folkloric retailer who expanded his namesake stores into merchandising meccas replete with petting zoos and mechanical singing farm animals, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 93.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his son Stewart Jr. said.

Mr. Leonard opened his original store in Norwalk, Conn., in 1969 as a destination that promised fresh milk because it was built around a bottling plant. “You’d have to own a cow to get it sooner,” his advertisements proclaimed.

Bryan Miller described it in The New York Times as the “Disneyland of Dairy Stores”; “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” called it the “World’s Largest Dairy Store”; and it earned a place in the Guinness World Records for having the highest dollar sales per square foot of selling space.

In 2015, Business Insider praised Kroger’s customer loyalty program and Wegmans’s walk-in beer locker, but it concluded that anyone who had ever set foot in Stew Leonard’s “knows it is miles above the rest.”

The magazine listed 13 reasons Stew Leonard’s was “truly America’s best grocery store.” The first was its customer service policy: “Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1.”

More than 50 years after the first store opened, Stew Leonard’s has expanded to encompass seven locations earning $600 million annually, and it remains family-owned and operated with an enormously loyal customer base.

Mr. Leonard became Frank Perdue’s biggest wholesale chicken buyer. He arranged with a distributor friend to bottle Paul Newman’s salad dressing. The stores’ chief criterion for employment was an exuberant smile. To keep prices low, the stores have stocked only about 2,000 items — grocery basics — about 3 percent of what chain stores sell.

In 1986, he was presented with a Presidential Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence from Ronald Reagan.


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