Featuring “Flipping Willy,” a mechanical baker who swings from a trapeze above the in-store bakery department, Stew Leonard's newest location in Newington, Conn. offers all the bells and whistles of the company's original stores, plus some new twists in bakery.
Known as the “Disneyland of dairy stores,” Stew Leonard's long-awaited fourth location opened to rave reviews last year. “We haven't opened a store in eight years; we're not a chain,” said President and C.E.O. Stew Leonard Jr. in a New Britain Herald article about the grand opening. “We love people, we love food and we love fresh food,” added Founder Stew Leonard Sr. “Basically, it's fresh stuff, and that's what differentiates us from our competition,” he said.
The store is unlike other supermarkets in nearly every way, from its store layout to its animated merchandising techniques. Rather than display groceries in multiple straight aisles, one wide winding aisle directs customer flow through every department of the 113,000-sq.-ft. store. Animatronics are positioned throughout the store, bringing attention to each department and creating a fun environment for shoppers. At the Newington store, a parrot sings in produce, milk cartons dance above the dairy case and a life-size cow greets customers with a “moo” as they enter the store.
All the fanfare would only be a gimmick if Stew Leonard's did not have the fresh foods to back it up. The company's strategy for maximum freshness is to produce as much as it can at store level. Unlike traditional supermarkets that sell an average of 50,000 items, Stew Leonard's stores carry only 2,000 items, according to the company. However, 80 percent of those items are fresh foods, either prepared from scratch in the store or brought in daily. Its expansive in-store bakery department is a prime example of Stew Leonard's commitment to perishables.
Modern Baking visited the Newington store and spoke with industry observers to learn more about Stew Leonard's in-store bakery operations. The company declined to participate in the article.
Stew Leonard's was founded in 1969 as a small dairy store with seven employees. Still owned and operated by the Leonard family, the company today generates about $300 million in annual sales from its four locations and employs more than 2,300 people. Its other stores are located in Norwalk, Conn. (headquarters), Danbury, Conn. and Yonkers, N.Y.
Stew Leonard Jr. runs the business with his siblings Jill Leonard Tavello, Beth Leonard Hollis and Tom Leonard. The family's cousins Tom and Dan Arthur, run the Yonkers and Danbury stores, with Dan taking the helm at the Newington store.
$15 million renovation
Construction on the Newington site began in May 2006. The company spent more than $15 million to renovate a former Caldor department store building, according to company releases. Along with its full-service scratch bakery and state-of-the-art kitchen, other features of the store include a specialty cheese aging room and prepared foods area with seating, a café with coffee roasted in front of customers and an ice cream parlor offering soft-serve ice cream.
Like Stew Leonard's other stores, its Newington location centers around involving customers in the action of food preparation by allowing them to view production of everything from fresh mozzarella to kettle-fried potato chips. The bakery takes up about a quarter of the store. Customers enter the store to fresh donuts being prepared, sampled and sold from a donut-frying machine. Stew Leonard's apple cider donuts are one of its signature bakery products.
Along with the donut station, the in-store bakery is composed of three separate production areas: cake decorating, bagels and the main bakery. Cake decorators work in full view of customers in an open area behind low-profile showcases, allowing easy interaction with customers. The department promotes photo cakes as its specialty with prominent signage and sample cakes on display.
The bagel bakery houses a complete bagel production line, including a bagel former, kettle for boiling the bagels and a deck oven, operating in full view of customers. Bagels are merchandised in self-service bins lining the perimeter of the bagel shop and in 12-ct. packages. Varieties include poppy, onion, sesame, cranberry raisin, nine grain, apple cider, cinnamon raisin, plain, French toast and “everything.”
The main bakery production area incorporates transparent walls to shield the retail space from the manufacturing process, but customers have a view of the entire bakery production area. The complete bakery is equipped with a flour silo, horizontal and spiral mixers, automatic divider/rounder, sheeter, baguette moulder, automated bread system with intermediate proofer, proof boxes and deck and rack ovens.
The bakery is branded “Bethy's Bakery,” named after the founder's daughter Beth Leonard, who apprenticed at a bakery in Paris while studying French language and literature. Now executive vice president, she is credited with starting Stew Leonard's in-store bakery program in 1982 when she returned to the U.S. and suggested that her father begin producing and selling croissants in the stores.
Croissants were the first bakery product Stew Leonard's made. Today, the company sells more than 25,000 croissants per day among the four locations. During Modern Baking's visit, the stores created a special promotion around National Croissant Day. The store highlighted the products with a special sales display of packaged croissants in front of the store with a sign announcing that free samples were to be offered January 30th.
Stew Leonard's strategy of fewer SKUs, but a lot of product and large merchandising carries through in its bakery as well. The bakery specializes in key products that fit the company's “farm-fresh” mould. The stores offer house-made croissants, but they do not offer fancy tortes or gourmet pastries because that would not appeal to Stew Leonard's customers. Decorated cakes, donuts and pies, however, fit right into Stew Leonard's “all-American” country-style feel.
Active sampling ensures the sale
In addition to bringing the bakery action to customers, the company is diligent with active sampling. The Newington bakery featured a rice cake machine with a sales person out in front offering samples and demonstrating the new product. Similar to a popcorn machine, the rice cake machine features a county fair-like façade, and the rice cakes shoot through the machine with a loud “pop,” true to Stew Leonard's mission of creating a fun shopping experience.
The Newington store takes the food manufacturing action a step further by offering children's and adult cooking classes in a fully-equipped demonstration kitchen. Organized by themes, one class is a birthday party, where children make a personal pizza and a cupcake or cookie. Stew Leonard's continues to build on its success with new features that demonstrate the action of fresh food. The company has two more stores planned for Orange, Conn. and East Farmingdale, N.Y., but has not released a time frame for the opening of those two stores.
In-store baking should play a large role in those stores as well now that the company operates one of the nation's largest in-store bakery departments. Advanced far beyond producing its first croissant, Stew Leonard's bakeries have become integral to making customers part of the action.
AT A GLANCE
Headquarters: Norwalk, Conn
Number of stores/in-store bakeries: 4/4
Average store size: 118,000 sq. ft.
Annual sales: $300 million
Management: Stew Leonard Sr., founder; Stew Leonard Jr., president and C.E.O.; Jill Leonard Tavello, executive vice president, Beth Leonard Hollis, executive vice president; Tom Leonard, partner; Zita Sebastion, director of bakery and prepared foods
Product line: donuts, pies, breads, bagels, decorated cakes, breakfast pastries, cookies, rice cakes (Newington)
Primary production method: scratch/mix Major bakery equipment: bagel former, bagel kettle, flour silos, horizontal mixers, spiral mixers, sheeter, dough divider/rounder, automated bread machine with intermediate proofer, deck ovens, rack ovens, computerized cake decorating machine
Plans: open stores in Orange, Conn. and East Farmingdale, N.Y.
A SAMPLING OF PRICES
|Decorated cake, 8-in round||$9.99|
|Chocolate fudge ganache cake||$10.99|
|Country hearth bread, 20 ozs.||$1.99|
|Marble rye, 20 ozs.||$2.49|
|Blueberry pie, 9 ins.||$6.99|
|Cream pie, 9 ins.||$7.99|
|Apple cider donuts, 6 ct.||$3.99|