I decided to write about all the questions I am asked by our customers (you) when I am on the store floor.
Let me know what you think. - Stew
10 CHANGES THAT HAPPENED AT STEW LEONARD’S IN 2020
Stew Leonard’s opened in 1969 and, at 15-years-old, I was there stocking shelves. I’ve never had another job and I’ve NEVER seen the changes that have occurred in 2020. Here’s what I see are the biggies:
Clean, clean, clean.
We have tripled our cleaning efforts. Triple cleaning at night (soap, bleach, and sanitizing) of our kitchens, meat room, registers, etc. Every night. Plus, cleaning blitzes during the day for high touch customer areas.
Two football fields of plexiglass!
It’s everywhere. At the registers, between you and the butchers cutting your steaks, at the deli service counter, in the fruit platter production area, bakery, pizza, BBQ, and even in our Team Members’ cafeteria. Sometimes it is hard to hear our Team Members when they help you due to the plexiglass barricades!
Plastic bags are out, reusable bags are in.
For the first time ever, we’ve seen a 30% decrease in our Stew Leonard’s plastic bags. So, what are shoppers using instead? Sales of our reusable bags have almost doubled and shoppers have used quadruple the number of paper bags this year over last!
Cash is out, credit cards are in.
Our credit card usage has jumped to nearly 95%. In 2019, only 4 out of every 100 customers were using a contactless payment like Apple Pay; this year, 12 out of 100 are using it! You want to leave the store without handling cash.
Curbside (cow side) pick up and delivery has exploded.
Last year, every week, we had about 100 customers use Cow-Side pickup, but this year we’ve had more than 1,000. Home delivery (shopstews.com) was about 800 orders per week in 2019; now it is about 5,000 orders per week. It is still growing like a weed.
Goodbye product sampling
and “pick your own.”
Bagels, loose pistachio nut bins, scoop your own coffee beans, olive bars, and product samples have all changed.
Our customers have gone digital.
Our paper circulars have been eliminated and all our specials are distributed digitally via email, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Tik Tok. Even our popular FREE ICE CREAM CONE with $100 purchase has been converted to points on our Stew Leonard’s mobile app. Showing a paper receipt at the ice cream window is no more… it’s now on your cell phone!
“Healthy” foods have skyrocketed.
I never would have thought that turmeric would be a great seller among our fruits and vegetables, but sales have tripled. It helps build your immune system! We’ve also seen a big increase the sales of our citrus fruits, spinach, almonds, sunflower seeds, chicken, and shellfish (you love our lobster tails). Plus, our organic and “Stew’s Naked” sales have doubled.
Everyone is wearing a mask … customers and team members.
Who could have imagined masks would be the next big essential accessory? We’ve sold over 100,000 masks since March and have become accustomed to wearing them.
My father visited the store once all year!
God bless my Dad who just turned 91 and would LOVE to visit Stew’s regularly. He especially loved busy days and would sit by the Rock at the front entrance and greet customers. But, at his age, he stayed home with my Mom and we delivered their food. That has NEVER happened in my 50+ years at Stew’s!
Send Stew your questions or comments for him to answer in our next Around The Store With Stew!
The big news in the food industry is…
That there may be an uptick in the virus this Fall. The WSJ published an article that has sent shock waves through the food industry. Will there be some panic buying again? I’ve been called by CNN and The New York Times. Just in case, we have been beefing up our inventories at Stew’s about 20% and, as in the past, I promise Stew’s shelves will be full. Stay calm!
How can you promise supply?
Most food stores buy through distributors but, here at Stew’s we buy most of our products direct from the farmer, fisherman, rancher, etc. We’ve been doing business with many of these suppliers (mostly families) for generations. They have promised me, “Stew, I have your back!”
Speaking of families...
We just spent the day at our 3rd generation family turkey farmers in Lehigh Valley, PA. Turkeys look terrific this year and we really look for those white feathers which means that they are keeping their barns clean. We inspected their entire operation. The turkeys are free range and we “hung out” with them for about an hour. The grains are grown on their farms, they are award winners for sustainability, and the turkeys are humanely treated (access to outdoors, clean barns, extra space, all natural feed and local). My definition of “local” is if can drive to the farm in the morning and, be home for dinner at night. I did that yesterday with 9 of our managers, my nephew TJ, and my daughter Chase.
How have YOU changed in the COVID environment?
At Stew’s we’ve noticed that YOU are…
- Making less trips and buying more on each visit.
- Definitely getting into cooking at home. We not only see increases in our butter, cream, spices, olive oil, broths, flour, and yeast (never really sold that much before!) but also pizza dough (can hardly make it fast enough) and sandwich bread. Also, simple recipes are heavily requested (that’s why I’m doing a cooking segment each week with one of our sale items).
- “Grab and Go” products are flying! Even though our buffets are closed, our chefs are busy packaging grilled sliced chicken, shrimp, salmon and steak. Things like coconut shrimp with mango salsa are rocking and a package of our meatballs are number 1!
- You are also going for the restaurant-quality foods. You still want to prepare that GREAT MEAL at home. Filet Mignon, Lobster tails, King Crab and more elegant wines have been very popular.
Toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer, hand wipes and cleaning supplies are still in high demand. It’s hard to get constant supply of the name brands (Bounty, Charmin, Clorox, etc.) but we’re finding the next best on the market
Fires are hitting wineries in Napa Valley and it’s scary.
I’ve been speaking to our wine makers and they are on pins and needles. The fire is approaching Napa and has already burned down some wineries. They are in the middle of harvest right now and have already said the 2020 vintage will be “smokey.” Some wine makers will not even release a 2020 vintage. Fingers are crossed.
As “CEO” I shouldn’t be working on this but, I am!
We are selling the grilled salmon in the store and my father has been complaining that it’s overcooked after he microwaves it at home. We cook the salmon to 135 degrees and the chefs assured me that it is still a little pink inside after packaging. Turns out the microwave instructions were wrong, and the salmon continues cooking after removing it from the grill. It’s all straightened out now and after spending time in our kitchen at Stew’s, my father is happy!
The little kid is coming out of me this week.
We love doing our hayrides at Stew’s every Halloween but, due to social spacing we canned the idea. Instead, we are doing a Drive Thru. You can tune your car radio and bring the family through our “maze” set up in the parking lot. I’m so excited and it’s FREE. CLICK HERE for more info.
At Stew’s, we can never forget the “dab” of chocolate.
I like to taste different flavors in ice cream, especially vanilla and chocolate. I ordered a cone from a local ice cream stand. Paid over $6 plus gave a 10% tip even though I ordered through a window outside. When my vanilla cone arrived, I asked for a “dab” of chocolate on top so I could get a taste. To my disbelief, she said, “No, that’s all you get on a large cone.” We have our big rock at the entrance of Stew’s: Rule #1, the customer is always right and, Rule #2, if the customer is wrong, go reread Rule #1! To be great at customer service we can never forget that little “dab” of chocolate!
On a personal note……..
I just became a grandfather again last week. My oldest daughter Blake and her husband Edouard just had a baby boy and his name is Axel.
First of all, thanks for all your responses to my last email. Here are a few answers:
Where are your famous LIVE lobster sales?
Although there has been an ample supply of fresh lobsters from Stonington, Maine, we’ve held off on our live lobster sales due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It always creates such crowds at Stew’s around the fish bar that we’d be unable to maintain good social distancing. Instead, we have been getting grab and go lobster tails and our customers seem to love them even more! They’re easy to cook on the grill and no mess!
What is the latest on shopping at Stew's during the pandemic?
At the beginning, customers were understandably nervous about shopping. With our wide aisles, it was easy to practice social spacing and we put up plexiglass barriers and made sure all our Team Members wore masks and gloves as well as instituted elevated cleaning practices throughout the day. Customers are now very accustomed to wearing masks, grabbing hand sanitizing towels upon entering, and they are courteous of social distancing. Opening an hour early for seniors has eased and only 20% of the customers are coming versus a few months ago. We’re not letting our guard down until there is a vaccine!
Things that have changed at Stew’s…..
- Our open food buffets have now been converted to “grab & go” meals that our chefs are preparing daily. We’re actually going to remove our buffets because I don’t feel customers will be comfortable until next year. Most popular are the Chicken Parmesan, Grilled Salmon with Mango Salsa, Meatballs and Mac & Cheese!
- Loose bagels are now pre-packed during the day as they come out of the oven. Best sellers are the assorted pack, multi-grain and rainbow bagels (kids love them!).
- There’s been a big increase in “immunity building” and flu fighting foods. Sales of our lemons, limes, oranges, turmeric, and our organics have doubled.
- Leading brands of cleaning supplies (Clorox), paper towels (Bounty) and toilet paper (Charmin) are still in limited supply. It feels like that as soon as they arrive, they are gone! We are relying on secondary brands with the same quality. I did make a quick decision during the panic buying days. I ordered a truckload of toilet paper (I was just happy to get some for our customers) and realized it was ONE PLY. A customer wrote me complaining and I sent them a gift certificate!
- Home delivery and curbside (or we like to call it cowside at Stew’s!) has been a big trend. Everyone wanted their food delivered or waiting at the curb at Stew’s. That business has dropped in half but has stabilized. It now represents 10% of our daily sales.
- Customers are also spending more per shopping trip. They are coming less frequently and have larger orders.
How is the supply of food now?
This has stabilized. I just spoke to one of our ranchers in Kansas and he said that things are back to normal. They have plenty of supply and we can put our Filets, Ribeyes, Porterhouse, and Strip Steak on sale now. Check out our sales at www.stewleonards.com Produce is flowing and there is an abundance of local products. We have over 100 items from local farms and fisherman as well as beef and chicken suppliers. A big hit is the fresh cut watermelon.
Prime vs. Top Choice?Richard Baker, who runs Saks Fifth Avenue, loves food (he was even a chef!) and stops by Stew’s to stock up. One day he was asking me the difference between a Prime graded Tomahawk Ribeye and a Top Choice grade. We had dinner one night and did a blind taste test. Conclusion? You don’t need to pay the extras $5/lb for the prime! The TOP CHOICE WAS PREFERRED!
Martha Stewart’s coffee pods at Stew’s.
She just launched her pods (22 pods for $11.99) and invited my daughter Chase and I over to her house for a taste test. She first started shopping at Stew’s over 35 years ago when she launched her catering business. She was a “double cart” customer! Martha is the real deal and loves food. Her kitchen is filled with the latest trends in cookware. The only thing was there was another brand of organic milk in her refrigerator! I gave her a Stew’s organic milk to put next to it!
Fun with the Bon Jovi family!
Jon Bon Jovi’s son, Jesse Bongiovi, has a great Rosé wine called Hampton Water. It is a top seller at Stew’s Wines. They curated it from Southern France - it’s crisp with nice fruit aromas. Jon and Jesse were playing “wine pong” while promoting Hampton Water and they commented on our meat at Stew’s. Yes, a steak (and maybe ice cream) does go well with Rosé - especially Hampton Water!
I’m coming to Stew’s for an ice cream!
Sunflowers from Schmidt Farm on Long Island
This is a great family that is supplying us with beautiful sunflowers. If you want a treat, try their horseradish sauce made fresh on their farm in Riverhead, N.Y.
Stew, why no mask or gloves?
I did this video in the store with the Mighty Blueberries and a few customers called me out. I took my mask off since I was properly social distancing and I had just washed my hands. If I do a video with the mask, it’s sometimes hard to hear my voice on the video.
How’s my Father and Mother doing?
My Dad is 90 and my Mom is……. younger (is that okay to say, Mom?). They are both healthy and my father has an idea a minute. Right now, he’d like us to expand our line of Stew’s chocolate bars. Guess what I’m working on today?
- Local Native corn - Really sweet and I love to grill it.
- Mighty Blueberries – Only the extra large are selected and they have a nice balance of sweetness and tartness. My father just tried them for the first time. Addictive!
- Watermelon chunks- I’ve been lazy and just get the chunks. Watermelon is at its peak sweetness right now.
- Flank steak – This is probably one of the best value cuts for the flavor. I used to marinade it in our Chimichurri sauce, now I add it afterward. Much more flavorful!
- Tito’s with frozen cherries – Cherries are amazing right now, and I pit them and then smother them with Tito’s vodka, and they go in the freezer overnight. Presto. Great frozen-type cocktail to enjoy on the patio.
- Rosé wine – Hot summer days go perfectly with a chilled Rosé. Very light with hints of berries reminiscent of Southern France.
- Sour Dough Bread – This has been the talk of the Covid-19 stay-at-home bakers. You don’t need yeast, so it gained popularity. All over the news and reinvigorated my taste buds. We have a “starter” that is over 35 years old and gives you a rich flavor. Nice and chewy too. I get the darkest one I can find (love the crust) and, it’s baked fresh every morning.
- Local L.I. Sound Clams – All I do is put these on the grill. Within 5 minutes you’ll see they open up and are done. Brush with melted butter and enjoy.
- Yasso frozen Yogurt bars – These have been the downfall of my diet, and they are only 100 calories each. But, I might eat 3 a night! Mint Chip is my favorite followed by Choc Fudge Brownie, then Pistachio. Yum.
- Grilled hamburger with American Cheese – Over Memorial Day and 4th of July, this is probably the most popular item at Stew’s. Our beef is ground daily, and I just can’t resist adding a generous amount of American Cheese.
Where’s the beef?
Big national news story. Here’s what I told CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and ABC. There are cattle ranchers all over the country. The Mid-West is full of them (“if you folded a map of the U.S. in half, that’s where I’m standing!”). These are great people, have great families and proudly wave the U.S. flag. Pure Americans, many of whom took over the ranches from their parents and grandparents. Cowboy hats, boots and big belt buckles. You get the idea.
Yeah, but what’s that have to do with my steak?
One of our favorite ranchers is Fred Wacker from the Cross Four Ranch in Miles City, Montana. He has 35,000 head of cattle that are out chewing on grass right now. His closest neighbor lives over a mile away. Fred needs to get his cattle to a bunch of different meat packing plants, but they are telling him they can’t take all the cattle he wants to supply. Why? These plants have been hit with the Covid-19 virus. They are at 70% capacity due to quarantines, new elevated cleaning procedures, and re-engineering their workplaces. Thus, a shortage of supply.
Remember Economics 101?
When there is an increase in demand (Memorial Day is coming, grills will be full of burgers) and a shortage of supply, prices will rise. That’s what we’re faced with now. The meat packaging plants say that they will be at 80% capacity in a few weeks and 100% in a month from now. We are already seeing an easing of beef prices.
Yeah, but the news says the food index has increased to historic levels.
I’ve been in the business for 50 years and seen all sorts of market swings. After all, we’re in the commodity business. But, I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THE LAST TWO MONTHS! There have been huge swings in prices like the egg market. Back in 2018 the extra large eggs at Stew’s were $2.29 a dozen. In 2019 they dropped about $1 a dozen and our chicken farmer in Pennsylvania was not making any money. Then, in March and April the price shot up again in the $3 plus range. Now, in May, they are back down in the $2 range. Our farmer increased his flocks and now, there are plenty of eggs. What’s the big deal? Across the board, we have not raised prices at Stew’s. Milk is still $2.99 a gallon, my sister’s bakery hasn’t changed any prices, fruits and vegetables are following the market, and Stew’s is very competitive. Yeah, meat prices will increase (Ground beef $3.99 lb. last year, this year $5.99 lb.), but other than that, the prices are the same. I feel this food index does not account for the wild ride we have had in March and April (restaurants and schools closings along with people working from home). Hang loose, prices are now beginning to return to normal levels. And as our rancher Fred says, “I HAVE PLENTY OF CATTLE!”
So, how can you say your shelves will be full?
We don’t buy much from the big packing houses. We mostly are buying from smaller, family-owned farms and have had relationships for 20+ years with most of them. Just like any good customer, they have assured us that we will get what we order. So far, so good. We haven’t had to put any limits on any fresh products, and the daily deliveries are continuing. We’ll have plenty of meat for Memorial Day weekend!
I’m talking to our buyers every day. Here’s what they are saying:
Produce: Citrus sales have tripled … why? There have been recent studies released about the health benefits of citrus against the flu and colds. Oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit have been rocking. Also, Ginger and Turmeric have been on fire. I just put some olive oil, garlic and turmeric on some Halibut the other night and it was delicious. Cherries have just started in California and, we’re working on a deal to sell them at $5.99 this week. I love cherries! And, we have some Organic Blueberries for $4.99 a pint. Watermelon and cotton candy grapes are a great deal and sweet. We’re excited about the season so far.
Shucking corn … no more.
We’ve noticed that loose corn sales have dropped due to Covid-19. Customers want the peeled corn that is packaged. It’s just as good and the crop is moving from Florida to Georgia right now. Weather is warming.
More people are eating fish
We’ve seen a spike in our fish sales since everyone is cooking at home. They are exploring more types of food; fish is one of them especially. We just featured lobster tails (used to go to the restaurants) for $4.99 and are coming back with the same deal this week. We also have some Salmon Steaks from the Bay of Fundy in Maine for $7.99. And, Barnegat Light, N.J., scallops for $12.99. I brought these to Martha Stewart’s house (my one delivery this year!) and she was thrilled with the size and freshness.
Meat – We committed to 3 trailer loads of filet mignon (whole tenderloin) at $8.99. Our butchers will cut them into any size steak your heart desires. One of the best meat values out there for Memorial Day.
Garden Center- “People want to brighten their lives!” Hanging baskets, New Guinea Impatiens, and Geraniums are selling brisk. Growers are telling us that we’re past the cold snaps so, customers are letting loose in their yards. We can’t get enough vegetable plants.
Cheese and Deli – We’re waiting for a drop in the cheese market. When there is an abundance of milk, byproducts are butter and cheese. We’re still waiting to hear what Italy is going to do about the Reggiano Parmigiana prices. Sit tight. We also noticed a big increase in the pre-sliced and packaged cold cuts and cheese. The key is FRESH CUT EVERY DAY!
Bakery – Kids are home and our bread sales are strong. My sister Beth is baking 10,000 loaves a week. The bakery crew even agreed to adjust their schedules so they can practice social spacing at night (a crew now comes in at midnight!). Bagel sales have dipped since you can’t “pick you own” anymore. Oh well. When will we ever go back to the old way?
Lastly, our good friends at Rao’s. We’ll have their sauce at $5.99 for the large jar. I called Ronnie up at Rao’s and was hoping we could sell their meatballs at Stew’s. His response, “fuhgettaboutit!”
Are people drinking more?
With the restaurants closed, it’s hard to measure, but we have certainly seen an increase in cocktails. What’s hot? MARGARITA’S are popular along with Manhattan’s, Old Fashioneds, and Mimosa’s. Also, a huge jump in boxed wine.
How’re your Dad and Mom?
This is one of my most asked questions on the store floor. My Dad is 90, healthy and sharp as a tack. I talk to him and my Mom daily, and he always has an idea. Hope I have those genes!
My friend visited a restaurant in Florida with his family and loved the experience. Why?
Even though Stew’s has never closed, I feel we have had to reopen over a dozen times. Why? Gov. Cuomo has new executive orders. So does Gov. Murphy in N.J., and Gov. Lamont in Ct. We’ve had to be nimble and react quickly.
Florida is slowly reopening. My friend brought his family to a restaurant and 1) Was really impressed by how clean it was. Also, they were visibly wiping things down during his meal. Go to the bathroom and, there was a Sani-wipe available upon your return. 2) They took social spacing seriously; every other table was being used. 3) Their team was well trained about the virus (masks and gloves). 4) You could tell there was great communication between the owner and the staff. When he left, his family said, they were very nice, made us feel comfortable, and we would love to go back. That’s how we’ll reopen America. Wait a minute? How was the food?
My favorite customer service story this week is …
Stew’s does all its home delivery through Instacart. Their people shop our store and then deliver to our customers’ homes. It’s really become popular since many people do not want to leave their homes.
Now the juicy part.
Rebecca received a phone call from a long-time Stew’s customer who just tried home delivery. She placed a $300 order and complained about the service. She was downright nasty. Did Rebecca lose her cool? No, she calmed the customer down and then offered a gift card to make her happy. The next day, I get a phone call from this customer APOLOGIZING for the way she spoke to Rebecca. She said she used to be a relocation manager for a Fortune 100 company and had rude clients, too. She hated those people but, after sleeping on it, realized she was that person to Rebecca.
A happy ending …
I found Rebecca in the store and personally thanked her for winning over a customer. She said thanks and said this customer just placed another order for even more and was very happy. Isn’t that what customer service is all about?
I started to smile and then my heart sank when …
I spoke to good customer, Karen, who just volunteered for the Connecticut Food Bank. She told me that the families were so happy with the Stew’s Chicken Chili that she was giving out. I smiled. Then she said that people were lined up for half a mile, and at the end of the day, the shelves were empty again. She said it was sad to see families so desperate for food standing there with their young children. My heart sank. But we’re putting together another trailer load of food for the food banks now. Don’t worry, I’ll be smiling again … briefly.