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Stew Leonard Sr., CT founder of iconic food retailer that bears his name, dies at 93

Stew Leonard in 2022
Stew Leonard's
Stew Leonard in 2022

Stew Leonard, Sr., the founder of a food retailer that now spans three states, died Wednesday. He was 93 years old.

Leonard passed away following a brief illness at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, according to his obituary.

Stew Leonard’s has been called the "Disneyland of Dairy Stores" because of its country-fair atmosphere, with costumed characters and animated entertainment throughout the store.

A graduate of Norwalk High School and of the University of Connecticut’s School of Agriculture, Leonard first worked for his family’s dairy business at Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk.

But in the late 1960s, “Stew realized the milk delivery business was going the way of the iceman,” according to his obituary. “His dream was to build a retail dairy store where children could watch milk being bottled, while parents did their shopping in a farmer’s market atmosphere.”

In December 1969, Stew Leonard’s opened its doors at its first location in Norwalk.

The store was 17,000 square feet carrying just eight items, according to the company. Today, Stew Leonard’s has become a $600 million family-owned and operated business with seven locations spread across Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

Local leaders expressed their condolences Thursday.

“To Norwalk, Stew Leonard's is much more than a grocery store," said Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, in a statement. "It's part of our community, a way of life, and a place people can go and feel welcomed by employees who always have a smile on their faces.”

Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, recalled his memory of being welcomed by Leonard as a child.

“When I was probably six years old, Stew was at the store and I ran to him like he was Santa,” Duff said, in an emailed statement. “He kneeled down to say hi and then asked if I liked jelly beans, stuffing a bag in my coat pocket. Stew always loved his customers of all ages.”

Today, Leonard’s company employs around 2,500 workers.

During his career, he accumulated numerous business awards and was also the author of a memoir about his life.

But his store also had problems with law enforcement.

In the late 1990s, Leonard served 44 months in prison for tax fraud. Leonard and three executives pleaded guilty to skimming more than $17 million from the family’s Norwalk store. The case involved destruction of records and bags of money smuggled to the Caribbean, according to the New York Times. The paper described the case at the time as “the largest criminal tax case in state history and the largest computer-driven tax-evasion case in the nation.”

Today, the company is run by Stew’s son, Stew Leonard, Jr. with help from his siblings Tom Leonard, Beth Leonard Hollis, and Jill Leonard Tavello. Five of his grandchildren have also joined the business.

The memorial service and burial will be private, according to the company. A celebration of life will be announced at a later date.

This story has been updated.

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