Stew Leonard's Full of Free Samples and Animatronics

A Stew Leonard's employee makes fresh chicken wings.
A Stew Leonard's employee makes fresh chicken wings. Photo by Jeff Evans

Why are these people all eating ice cream cones? It's a blustery Saturday in February on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington. The kind of day that's not cold enough for snow but windy enough to make you zip your coat higher and pull your scarf tighter.

And yet there are a half dozen people walking through the parking lot of Stew Leonard's licking soft serve cones.

I didn't get it.

But I had yet to enter Stew Leonard's, a family-owned grocery store that is self-described as "the Disneyland of dairy stores."

Birds pop out of clocks, milk cartons dance and butchers sing. Push any of the red buttons throughout the store and some sort of animatronics puppet will jump out of its hiding place. Fun for the kids but I can imagine it gets pretty old if you work there all day.

At Stew Leonard's the "Free Sample" is everywhere.

First stop, an apple fritter. Next, a slice of spinach-and-cheese bread. Then, on to fresh squeezed orange juice, bagel slices, sweet potato chips, chicken salad and cheddar cheese balls.

Shoppers meander around the store, which from a marketing perspective, flies in the face of most supermarket layouts.

It has no straight aisles.

People wind their way past snowflake rolls from the in-store bakery, bins of grapefruits at the "Farmers Market,'' a wall of chocolate and refrigerators of quiches and cakes. The cheese case offers store-made mozzarella. The fish department looks like a trawler is tied up out back and is unloading fresh cod, salmon and crab. Tortillas are made at the tortilleria.

The fresh meats and poultry neatly arranged in refrigerated cases look mouth-watering but if you don't want to cook yourself, keep going and you come to the "already prepared foods'' section. Whole chickens slowly turn on rotisseries and the gourmet food court offers soup and salad bars and a cafeteria-style buffet.

Did I mention the sushi?

In short, for most people this is not where you go to do your normal weekly shopping. Stew Leonard's is a mecca for impulse shopping.

Walk by the strawberries and you can also pick up shortcake and whipped cream. At the dairy case, the strawberries and cakes are next to the cream. At the bakery, the cream and strawberries are next to the shortcake and biscuits.

It's marketing genius, really.

The workers are friendly, you can go back for as many samples as you like. Everything is neat and beautiful and appears color-coded.

Forgot to grab a loaf of the crusty bread you passed when you first came in? No worries. You'll come across five more displays of bread before you leave. Plenty of opportunities to pick up something without backtracking.

This is where you go when you want to buy someone an extra special chocolate cake. Or you are looking for a gourmet cheese platter to take to a party or have a hankering for fresh fruit slices. Or you have an urge to fill up a plate to-go at the cafeteria style food center, or ladle out a bowl of soup or grab some Stew Leonard's chips and salsa.

The first Stew Leonard's opened in Norwalk in 1969. It was an extension of the Norwalk Dairy Company, founded by the Leonard family in 1920. There are now Stew Leonard's in Danbury and Yonkers, N.Y. The Newington store opened in April 2007 and Stew Leonard's is planning additional stores in Orange and East Farmingdale, N.Y.

It's also the first location with a 200-seat mezzanine dining area, so you don't have to wait to get home to start gorging on the goodies.

In January, for the ninth year, Stew Leonard's was listed in Fortune magazine among the "Best 100 Companies to Work For.''

"We are really proud of that,'' says Mehgan Flynn, marketing director.

Stew Leonard's has $300 million in annual sales and one company rule: "The customer is always right." Actually there's a second rule. It says "If the customer is ever wrong reread Rule 1."

While the store strives for culinary excellence, Flynn says people come for a variety of reasons, some that have nothing to do with the food.

"Families come here for entertainment,'' she says.

And why not? Between the animatronics, the free samples, the freshness of the food, what's not to like?

Oh, and all those people eating ice cream cones?

The cones are free when you spend a minimum of $100.

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