It’s a typical Saturday morning in early spring; rain splatters across my windshield, the wind nudges my car this way and that but I couldn't be happier. I’m on my way to the grocery store. But not just any grocery store; I’m off to Stew’s. Stew Leonard’s that is. If the task of grocery shopping seems to be a laborious task standing between you and your next spin class then you could use a trip to Stew’s. You don’t even have to be a foodie to appreciate the experience. I mean, who doesn’t love the whir of a coffee roaster, the flickering flames of the rotisserie or singing sticks of butter (oh yes, you read that last one correctly). Welcome to Stew Leonard’s of Yonkers.
Before it became the chain it is today, Stew Leonard’s began as a family run farm and milk delivery business in the early 1920’s. Now, almost a century later, they operate four grocery stores and nine wine stores in the tri-state area. The business may have grown but the focus never stopped being about customer convenience and experience. As I wait for my friend and guide Christie, I poke around the produce at the front of the store and reminisce about trips to Stew’s as a child. I would sample fresh pineapple and nosh on popcorn, pet some cuddly livestock and giggle excitedly at animatronic chickens warble away about life on the farm. Ah, the stuff childhood memories are made of.
I’m snapping some pictures of an attractive asparagus display complete with packs of peeled garlic and tubs of crispy onions when Christie arrives. “This is an impressive display.” I remark to Christie. “I know, it fits right into the Stew’s motto, ‘Pile it high and watch it fly’. Everything the customer need is at their fingertips.” Most grocery stores would probably agree, keep your displays full and product will sell. But, more often than not, you find yourself in the regular grocery store only to discover the produce section is severely picked over and it's not even noon. Not at Stew’s. Product is constantly replenished: towers of apples, bundles of broccoli, and heaps of greens hardly ever deplete.
What is depleting is my energy. I haven’t been caffeinated yet and it’s starting to show. We round the corner from the produce and I’m hit full force with a glorious java scented wave. “I love that our customers walk in and the coffee roaster is one of the first things they see,” says Christie. Amen. I need me some joe. All of Stews coffee beans find their way to the roaster at the front of the store and most, if not all, customers find their way to the coffee counter. “Wow, what a great way to start your grocery shopping,” I say as I pour myself a generous helping of hazelnut iced coffee (spring IS coming). FYI, this hazelnut coffee will put any coffee shop to shame. While filling her own cup Christie says, “Our other motto is ‘If it’s not a show, it’s got to go.’ What’s more of a show then a giant coffee roaster?” She’s not wrong. Neither is Stew’s. When you walk into a store and hear the buzz of the coffee roaster, see stacks of brightly colored produce before your eyes, and smell freshly baked bagels you have to admit it is in fact a show of epicurean proportions.
And that’s just the beginning. Stew’s layout is the foundation of the experience. Unlike traditional grocery stores, Stew's abandons the concept of aisles and instead is set up on a one-way track. It might seem blasphemous and is downright irritating to some but it really is convenient (and a smart business tactic to boot). How else would you ensure customers see every product and, perhaps, try something new? And you should want to try something new at Stew’s. Retract that. With samples offered every day of the week you will try something new. Christie explains to me that Stew’s stays on top of food trends (house made pretzel rolls and quinoa bread) and will occasionally draw inspiration from their employees (various empanadas and jerk patties), which keeps customers coming and employees invested.
We continue on and peruse the bakery section where I make a bee line for the apple cider donuts. All donuts at Stew’s are baked but those suckers are still plunked into hot oil and plunged into sugar. I stand there transfixed by the machine and don’t balk at the chance to try one warm and fresh out of the fryer. It’s gone in two bites and all that remains are granules of sugar on my lips. Oh yeah, these are coming home with me.
A distant foghorn echoes as we turn the corner and reach the seafood department. Ice stretches the perimeter where whole fish lay neatly in rows and spindly crab legs rest in a delicate version of shellfish Jenga. Impressive for sure but it wasn’t always like this. Years ago, much of the seafood was prepackaged and sold on regular refrigerated shelves. Aside from a toy lobster on the trapeze it’s not exactly a show. A customer suggested it might be more convenient if they channel a true seafood shop and display everything on ice and thus, a new tradition was born. Since I’m allergic to almost everything here we scoot along but someone please, please, please try the Cajun craw fish mix for me.
We continue downstream and pass by rows of various homemade soups and spinning meats on what may be the largest rotisserie collection I have ever seen. While many items like these are made in house, a fair number are bigger, more familiar brands. I comment on this to Christie and she informs me that some of those big name companies got their start with Stew’s. I’m sure you’ve heard of Newman’s (as in Paul) products and Bear Naked granolas. Both found their beginnings at Stew’s. I wonder out loud why Stew’s chose them. Christie hazards a guess that, like Stew’s, they began as family run enterprises. When she points out some dog biscuits that an employee created for her own dog now being sold in the store, I have to believe she’s right.
Stew’s is more than a grocery store; they truly believe in creating a positive and convenient experience with food for customers of all ages. They may be built with the body of a wholesaler but inside beats the heart of a mom and pop store. It’s a unique and delightful experience that will occasionally flutter to the surface of your memory but will always linger in your stomach. Until the next dish, ciao!