Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Stew Leonard's, the great big dairy/super-grocery in Norwalk, CT. The Leonard family started milking cows for profit way back in the 20's, but the first superstore opened up in 1969. Customers would come for low prices on milk and cheese, and were treated to the sight of a bottling plant right smack dab in the middle of the store. The store added all kinds of crazy crap to keep the kiddies entertained, including singing animatronic animals, along with real ones in pens, and ice cream treats.
A second store was added in Danbury somewhere along the way, but it eluded my attention until they opened their location in Yonkers and started putting circulars featuring their amazingly cute logo in my Sunday paper. This I had to see for myself.
I pestered Feldy about going for a look, and he finally broke down and drove me there in a borrowed car. To make the trip seem more worth our while, since neither of us really wanted to do much shopping, we sought out a slice of pizza at Catanias, which was rumored to cook up a mean pie.
Stuffed with red pepper-topped slices, we pulled into the parking lot at Stew's, and tried to find the best sign to park under. Although the lot is no bigger than that at a relatively small Wal-Mart, the light posts are topped with cartoon foodstuffs drawn with popping-out eyeballs, ostensibly to help you find your car after spending the afternoon shopping. The cheese looked vaguely sinister, but otherwise they were all just as cute as could be. We found a spot under a carton of milk and headed for the shopping carts.
To my dismay, the real farm animals were nowhere to be seen, apparently they only come out to play during the warmer summer months. We had to go in without getting to pet a single sheep or gentle-eyed cow.
We pulled a giant cart out of the row, and I was impressed that it came equipped with a cup holder. Apparently this isn't such a novel idea, although it was the first time I had ever noticed such a thing. Plastered all over the place are signs declaring that Stew Leonard's main concern is making sure customers are happy. In fact, their credo is carved into the "Rock of Commitment" at the entrance. The implication is that they consider customer service to be of Biblical importance.
Upon entering the store, we came upon a wall covered with snapshots of folks holding plastic Stew Leonard's bags in various locales around the world. All the usual suspects appeared, including a man in front of Wrigley Field in Chicago and a woman smiling near the Eiffel Tower. One guy sat astride a camel in Kenya, proudly displaying his bag. My personal favorite shot, though, showed a woman being attacked by pigeons in a square in Buenos Aires. She should have known better than to fill her bag with birdseed.
Unlike most groceries, Stew Leonard's corridors twist and turn, leading shoppers past all of the goods, rather than allowing them to choose which aisles to browse. This set-up had the effect of making the store feel plenty crowded, and caused some shoppers to be particularly pushy. I could understand their frustration at getting stuck behind a family gawking at Bossy the Cow as they tried to get their hands on the few items they needed. These customers didn't look too darn happy.
The first department in the maze, the "World's Largest In-Store Bakery," treated us to the first of many free samples - slightly stale cookies. There we also saw one of the much-touted animatronic animals, a cow who didn't seem to be doing much. In fact, none of the critters scattered about did much until we made it to the produce section, where a banana dressed like Carmen Miranda twitched and squawked a Caribbean number. So far, I was unimpressed.
Past the display of Mrs. Leonard's salad dressings, featuring a picture of Mrs. Leonard on the label, a la Newman's Own, we hit the main attraction, the dairy department. An unbelievable amount of milk sat chilling on the refrigerated shelves, along with enormous amounts of cheese and thousands of little cartons of yogurt. On top of the milk, the "Farm Fresh Five," a family of musical cows, sang E-I-E-I-O and did their robot dance. I seemed to be the only person paying attention to the dancing bovines. Even the littlest kids in the aisle appeared surprisingly indifferent. Bossy the cow, whose head stuck out of what appeared to be Snoopy's doghouse, attracted a little more attention, probably because she was at a more kid-friendly level and had a button that made her head bob up and down and moo.
Around a corner, Wow the Cow, a teenager dressed in a spotted cow suit, pretended to help out with the mopping duties. He tried half-heartedly to ham it up a little bit, but the guy pushing the mop was in no mood to play along, and Wow came off more like a mime on valium than a lovable, huggable farm creature wandering the store to the joy of young and old alike.
Dave picked up a few items along the way, but almost abandoned them, because the few bucks he would save on cereal didn't seem worth a long wait in line. Like all mega-stores, shopping there makes the most sense if one needs to stock up a giant cupboard. Before we could ditch the cart, though, a teenager directed us to an open checkstand, so our fears were allayed. Aside from the free cookies, the nonexistent wait was the only sign of superior customer service we had come across.
On the way out, I felt a little bit cheated. I had expected the store to be charmingly kooky like Wall Drug in South Dakota, but it felt more like a TGI Friday's at the mall. To be fair, by the time they built the store in Yonkers, the Stew Leonard's formula had already been established. I imagine the original Norwalk location feels more organic, with the odd dancing animals and goofy signs thrown together in a more slapdash manner. The store I had just left appeared to be just going through the motions, and the shoppers seemed either uninterested or downright annoyed by the knick-knacks and gimmicks. Still, I had to give them credit for trying to make the drudgery of grocery shopping just slightly more entertaining.
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