Still Growing Strong: Stew Leonard Jr.

Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s family-owned and -operated, farm-fresh grocery stores.

We profiled you in 2008. What’s been happening with Stew Leonard’s since then?

The biggest change you can see since 2008 is in the economy. Filet mignon, lobster, and great wines were flowing back then, but since that time, all retailers have had to adjust. Our customer count has been growing, but the amount people are spending has not. We’ve added new products and introduced customers to new, inexpensive-but-delicious wines (like Argentina’s Malbec). We’ve focused on the basics like customer service, quality, lots of product samplings, and making the store fun.

Where are you now?

We’re traveling to all the farms and introducing lots of local products from family businesses. It’s a fun part of my job—especially visiting the vineyards! Customers are also really concerned about eating healthier and saving time in the kitchen. We’ve been adding marinated grilled chicken, and we hired the executive chef from Mohegan Sun. Also, our Naked products are really growing. Stew’s certifies that the animals are antibiotic- and hormone-free.

Where are you going?

We’re planning a new store in Long Island in 2013 and want to keep growing for our people. We were one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to work for (for the 10th year in a row) and now want to become one of America’s top health-conscious companies in the future. We are giving free physicals to all our people and even their spouses. We’re teaching our 2,000 team members how to live healthy lifestyles. People have to eat and drink, and Stew’s wants to be the best at helping people do that. It’s something we love to do.

How is the industry evolving?

It seems to be going back to the way my grandfather began. He went to the local farm to pick up his milk. The cows were never given any growth hormones or antibiotics. He’d bring the milk to his dairy and bottle it fresh. He’d do the same thing the next day. Today, customers are demanding the same thing—fresh food that’s purchased locally and the animals are grown “the old-fashioned way.”

Customers are looking for healthier foods and would like more “prep” work done. They like to take home a beautiful juicy steak and then add a marinade or sauce, but it's the one our chef prepared. Customers want to assemble their food rather than chop and dice for hours.

This year we sold thousands of free-range turkeys from Pennsylvania (less than 100 miles from the stores), hormone and antibiotic-free, from a family farm with all corn and soybeans grown on site. We then had our chefs stuff the turkey with a fresh herb and fruit marinade. All you had to do was pop it in the oven for four hours. That’s what customers want today.