Every now and then you drive by something while driving that you know in your heart is too odd to pass up. I had never heard of Stew Leonard’s before, but when we passed the Norwalk store, with its large cursive orange sign that looked like it fell out of the 1970s and an antique milk truck with a cow head sticking out of it by the entrance, I knew it was something special. Strange, perhaps, but special. I did not, however, know just how strange it truly is.
The Stew Leonard’s chain of grocery stores started as Clover Farms Dairy in the early 1920s, with a state-of-the-art pasteurizing and bottling plant. The tendency toward theatrical marketing was there early on: milk was delivered daily by dairy trucks like the one in front of the store currently, with mooing cow heads sticking out of the windshield. By 1969 milk trucks were obsolete, so the founder’s son, Stew Leonard, built their first retail store in Norwalk. According to their website, it was a “17,000 square foot store carrying just eight items” where “children could watch milk being bottled while mothers did their shopping in a farmer’s market atmosphere.” Now, the milk bottling is no longer in the store and they carry thousands of items, so you would be forgiven for thinking that Stew Leonard’s is not that different from usual supermarkets – but Stew wasn’t done revolutionizing the supermarket experience. Store employees wandered the aisles in cow costumes, and animatronics sang to shoppers about the joys of purchasing produce, leading to the nickname “The Disneyland of Dairy Stores”.
Those animatronics are still there now: there’s a milk carton band, two banjo playing dogs, singing chickens, and the “Cindy Celery and Larry Lettuce Show”. I can see where they’re great for keeping kids entertained while you shop, but they are, to me, more than a little existentially terrifying. There’s something bordering on suicidal about sentient lettuce telling you to eat your vegetables; it’s been a rough year but even I haven’t got to the point of serenading passersby about consuming my body. It’s hard not to picture some sort of Five Nights at Freddie’s scenario with uncanny valley milk cartons pursuing you through the grocery store after hours. Your mileage may vary.
Stew Leonard’s received recognition from former president Ronald Reagan, the Guinness Book of World Records, and was also named one of Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” for ten straight years. It also had some pretty wild controversies: in 1993, Stew Sr. and a few other top executives were convicted of running a computer program that skimmed sales. They smuggled $17.1 million in bundles of cash to St. Maarten, and were caught when customs discovered $80,000 Leonard had failed to declare. Half a million more was found in a safe in the home of one of the vice presidents, and the computer program was discovered inside a hollowed out book. Leonard Sr. was sentenced to pay $15 million in taxes, penalties, and interest, and was sentenced to 52 months in prison. It was at the time “the largest criminal tax fraud case in the country in which a computer was used to hide the evidence,” according to the IRS. Later that year the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection charged the chain with mislabeling and short-weighting products, with nearly half of the items checked in violation, as opposed to the average of 7.2 percent.
That drama is nearly 30 years old at this point though, and I enjoyed my visit. There’s a petting zoo out front, a café area in the front to grab a snack, and tons of store brand products, like string cheese called “Stew String” or whipped cream called “Stew Whip”. Watching people buy their groceries as though nothing was amiss while milk cartons warbled at them was entertainingly surreal. “It sounds like a place to get your groceries when you’re on drugs,” my dad observed, although I personally think that being in an altered state and unwittingly stumbling into a place like Stew’s might cause some severe psychological trauma. It’s definitely not your normal grocery buying experience, though – unless you live near a Stew Leonard’s and shop there regularly, I guess. It’s unique and strange, and I respect strange. I’d recommend stopping in to buy some snacks for the road if you’re in the area.
Matthew Christopher CT Norwalk Jul 25, 2021 Off The Path
Location: Norwalk, CT
Matthew Christopher Jul 25, 2021
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