Stew Leonard, founder of grocery store chain, dies at 93

Jani Avery

Stewart Leonard Sr., the founder of the eponymous grocery store chain, died on April 26 at the age of 93.     

The founder of “Stew Leonard’s” had dealt with pneumonia. He was checked in at Lenox Hill Hospital when he died, holding the hand of Marianne Guthman Leonard, his wife of 70 years.

“I wish I hadn’t had to write this,” son Stewart Leonard Jr. wrote in the chain’s newsletter, adding that his father “always had an inspirational insight offering hope and a brighter future.”

Leonard Sr. was born on Dec. 1, 1929, in Norwalk, Connecticut. He opened his first supermarket, a retail dairy store, in the same city 40 years later. The original location spanned 17,000 square feet and housed a bottling plant for customers to watch milk being bottled during their shopping trip. 

“My dream ever since I was a little boy was to be a milkman,” Leonard Sr. told The New York Times in 1983.

Over 50 years since the first Stew Leonard’s opened, the family-owned grocery store chain has opened seven locations across Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, boasting a net worth of more than $600 million annually and employment of more than 2,500 workers.

The 1983 article published by The New York Times referred to the grocery chain as the “Disneyland” of dairy stores with then-groundbreaking daily specials, farm animals in a petting zoo, a wishing well, balloons, a “sheriff” as the head of its security force and colorful plastic shopping bags.

Fortune magazine named Stew Leonard’s as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Business Insider also called it “truly America’s best grocery store” in 2015.

While the grocery chain has had its upsides, it has seen rough times with members of the Leonard family engaging in tax-related schemes.

Three years after retiring around 1990, Leonard Sr. served 44 months out of a 52-month sentence in a federal prison, pleading guilty to tax evasion and being accused of short-weighing customers.

In a plea bargain in July 1993, Leonard Sr. agreed to pay $15 million in taxes, penalties and interest.

Despite the crimes, customers swear by the grocery store chain, remaining part of its loyal customer base mostly due to Leonard’s customer service policy: “Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1.”

Leonard Sr. is survived by his wife, their four children, 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. A memorial service for him was held in Norwalk on May 1.