A Store of Principles

Stew Leonard's kitchen director knows customers are the boss.

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

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Zero: That’s the number of layoffs Stew Leonard’s has had since 1969. 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 straight.

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 customer.

“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 department.

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 wildest imagination.

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 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 department?

We put a lot of emphasis on customerservice training. And we make fun out of it. There have been times when customers 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 positive momentum?

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 day out.

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?  

Name: Art Weiss

Current Duties: 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 Yonkers, N.Y.

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