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[special foodservice section]
A Store of Principles
Stew Leonard’s kitchen director knows customers are ‘the boss’
By Abbie Westra || [email protected]
Oversees foodservice at Stew Leonard’s
Danbury, Conn., store
About Stew Leonard’s:
A family-owned and -operated grocer
founded in 1969, it carries only about
2,000 items vs. a typical supermarket at
48,750. Stores are located in Norwalk,
Danbury and Newington, Conn., and
ero: That’s the number of layoffs
Stew Leonard’s has had since
Eighteen: That’s the position this fourstore grocer holds in the 2011 Fortune
magazine 100 Best Companies to Work
For, a list it’s resided on for 10 years
Based in Norwalk, Conn., Stew Leonard’s is well known for its bulletproof
customer service, which is armored by a
foundation of very happy employees. A
3-ton granite rock at each store reveals
its mission: “Rule No. 1: The Customer is
Always Right; Rule No. 2: If the Customer
is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule No. 1.”
“It’s so simple it’s hard,” says Art Weiss,
director of kitchen operations at Stew
Leonard’s Danbury, Conn., store.
This mission is evident, and effective,
in the stores’ foodservice department.
Focus on employee growth leads to
continuing education at the Culinary
Institute of America, creative new menu
ideas and the chance to test them out on
customers. The focus on customer service
is manifest in 4 a.m. trips to Hunts Point
Market in New York for the freshest catch,
or more practical steps such as increased
healthy options and a no-questions-asked
refund policy—even if all that’s left of the
product is bones.
Weiss in many ways exemplifies the
company’s mission. For one, he’s been
there for 27 years. He also gets audibly
excited over a fresh shipment of green
beans, and is in humble service to the
“Stew Leonard might be writing our
paychecks, but it’s the customers who are
really the ones who pay our salary. They’re
the bosses here,” he says.
CSP spoke with Weiss about the latest
in the Stew Leonard’s kitchen, and how
the company’s mission influences his
» What does your foodservice
offering consist of?
When I first started, we just had one store
in Norwalk. I started with a little table in
the meat department. Some of the ideas
were from Mrs. Leonard herself and Mr.
Leonard’s mom. We started off with just
a couple of items, raw products that you
take home and finish. Now we have a wide
variety of food, from Indian to Americana
to Chinese. We have a hot and cold buffet with over 100 items daily, a full pizza
department, a sushi department and a
barbecue department. It’s beyond my
About 75% of what we have on the
food bar are our core items between all
four stores; the rest are specials depending
on the time of year. But because we’re all
in different locations, we also have regional
favorites. In our Danbury store we may
have more of a Portuguese flair, or Mediterranean. One of our top-selling salads
is tabouli; we have a hard time keeping
it on the shelf. They might try that in the
Newark store and it won’t do that well.
Our Newington store has a big Polish
population, so pierogies and kielbasas are
really big on the buffet.
There’s a lot of flexibility to try things.
If team members come up with an idea, we
try it. If it doesn’t sell, we stop it and go on
to the next thing.
Being a chef, it’s just like going down to
the market every day. In the morning I can
walk through the produce and say, “Wow,
look at the green beans; let’s try doing that
today. Some great peppers came in; let’s try
that. We’ve got some beautiful salmon; let’s
play around with that.”
We like to have fun and excitement.
Our kitchen is open to the public to see,
and every Saturday we bring out a big
steamship round and we have a chef
FUN FOOD: Employee happiness breeds customer
satisfaction at Stew Leonard’s.
carving it. I can’t believe the excitement
it causes when people see the red light
and know we’re carving something.
» Any flops?
I thought I had invented the best thing
since sliced bread. Macaroni and cheese
is one of my best sellers on the buffet, so I
thought, “Why don’t we make a macaroni
and cheese pizza?” To say the least, we’re
not selling mac and cheese pizza here at
the store. I thought for sure they were
going to give me a Nobel Peace Prize.
» How does the company’s
mission translate into your
We put a lot of emphasis on customerservice training. And we make fun out of
it. There have been times when customers
S e pt e m b e r 2 0 1 1
have come back with turkey bones and
said, “I didn’t like the turkey; I want a full
refund.” We’ll give a full refund, 100%.
Most team members that work with
me have been with Stew Leonard’s for 20
years. My kitchen manager has been with
the company for 23 years. He started out
as a dishwasher and now he oversees 45
to 50 team members.
» So how do you maintain that
Right now the economy is tough, and
commodity prices are going up. So the
daily challenges are to be able to put highquality food out at a great price, and not
taking the customers for granted. I see a lot
of retailers now cutting back on customer
service and refund policies. We refuse to
do that. If we have happy customers, we
know that will in turn help grow our sales.
If you take care of the customers, the customers are going to take care of you.
We try to balance between family and
work, and there are a lot of opportunities
for growth. We move people around a lot,
too; we do a lot of cross-training so you’re
not stuck working just one job day in and
Once a month we go down to Hunts
Point Market in New York City. I just went
down there two weeks ago, and for fun we
bought a couple of huge red snappers. We
steamed them with ginger and lemongrass
and put them on the buffet. In about an
hour the red snapper was gone. People
were lining up for it. We put a sign up that
said: “We were at Hunts Point at 4 a.m.,
picking up this snapper.” And here it is, 11
a.m. and it’s out for sale. What supermarket do you know where the guys can run
down to Hunts Point to buy fish to put on
the buffet? n