Wegmans and Stew Leonard’s – family friends for decades – are set to become rivals at CT

Their family friendship has evolved over the years as their grocery stores have grown, but their relationship could be tested when Stew Leonard’s and Wegmans become direct rivals for the first time.

But if Wegmans receives approval to build a two-story, 95,000-square-foot store on Richards Avenue in Nowalk, the two families say it won’t affect the relationship they’ve built over the past four decades.

“The food industry is a wonderful business: you work with great people and sell great food that makes people healthy,” said Danny Wegman, president of the Rochester, NY-based chain. “The bad side is when you have to compete with a great friend like Stew Leonard. The Leonard family is pretty special.

Stew Leonard Jr. said the affection between the two families was genuine.

“Danny and his wife came to my house and we visited their stores several times,” Leonard said. “Danny and I are around the same age and we share a lot of stories about trying to run a successful business in your father’s shadow.”

As the family businesses grew over the years, the Wegmans and Leonards were not direct competitors. The families, however, deny what some grocery industry insiders believed was a gentleman’s agreement between Wegman and Leonard to avoid opening stores in a common geographic area.

Danny Wegman said that never happened.

He remembers visiting Leonard decades ago and leaving with a promise: “We’re coming to Connecticut.”

“Instead of being mad, Stew said, ‘Danny, it’ll be fine. These things happen all the time,'” Wegman said. 30 years. But with what we know of the Leonard family, they’ll be great.

But not only is Wegmans coming to Connecticut, he’s opening in Leonard’s backyard.

The “big upstairs powwow”

Charles Leonard, right, started Clover Farms Dairy in 1921. His son, Stew Leonard Sr. helped deliver milk and, at age 21, took over the business when his father died.

Courtesy of Stew Leonard’s

The Leonard family has been rooted in Norwalk since Charles Leonard opened Clover Farms Dairy in 1921. His son, Stew Leonard Sr., helped deliver milk and, at age 21, took over the family business when his father died. dad.

Stew Leonard Sr. eventually opened the family’s first store bearing their name in 1969. The 17,000 square foot Norwalk store offered only eight items and remains the family’s flagship location on Westport Avenue.

In 1987, Stew Leonard Jr. took over the family business, which now has seven stores in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

A few years before Clover Farms Dairy opened, the Wegman family business was born in upstate New York.

John Wegman opened the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Co. in 1916 and his brother Walter joined a year later.

John Wegman opened the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Co. in 1916 and his brother Walter joined a year later.

Courtesy of Wegmans

In 1916, John Wegman opened the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Co., and his brother Walter joined a year later. The store marked the beginning of Wegmans Food Markets. Walter Wegman’s son Robert took over the business in 1950 and ran the business until his death in 2006.

Since the death of his father, Danny Wegman has led the company with his daughter, Colleen, as president and CEO, and his other daughter, Nicole, as senior vice president. The family now has more than 100 stores in seven states.

Stew Leonard Jr. smiled and laughed last week as he recalled Robert and Danny Wegman’s visit to his store in Norwalk.

“They brought some of their managers and we had this big powwow upstairs,” Leonard said. “Afterwards, we all went downstairs and there were queues at the cash registers. I remember Mr. Wegman saw this and turned to me and said, “You better get to those lines now.”

Leonard said that despite the closeness between the families, “we don’t share confidential business information.”

“What we’re talking about is cool things they do with their people or something as simple as where they buy their hand sanitizer,” Leonard said. “Different retailers have different philosophies, but I’ve found that family businesses are more accepting of helping others. For me, I like helping other businesses that help the communities they’re in. I don’t like not the corporate freaks who just want to come in and make a profit.

A member of the Leonard family who is part of the company’s management team got his start at Wegmans.

After graduating from Salve Regina College in Rhode Island in 2011, Leonard’s nephew, Jake Tavello, spent two years in a management training program at Wegmans.

“They had just opened their first Massachusetts store in Northborough,” said Tavello, who is now vice president of stores at Stew Leonard. “They welcomed me with open arms and it was cool to see how much they care about and invest in their employees. Even 10 years later, I still stay in touch with some of the people I met the low.

‘Room for both of us’

For some, last week’s announcement came as a surprise given that last summer Wegmans officials said they had no plans to move to Connecticut.

But Marcie Rivera, a spokeswoman for Wegmans, said the chain was quietly looking for the right place to open its first store in Connecticut.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities, but we don’t comment on specific sites unless we’ve negotiated a lease or purchase agreement,” Rivera said. “We started looking for a location in Connecticut because we get hundreds of requests for a store in the state every year. This site matched the criteria we were looking for when choosing a new location, including size and population density.

Leonard, who has faced opposition when trying to launch some of his stores, said he expects it will take around two years for Wegmans to open in Norwalk.

“They have to go through planning and zoning in Norwalk and I think that’s going to be a real challenge in terms of traffic issues,” he said. “It really depends on the city’s acceptance.”

The Norwalk Conservation Commission will begin considering Wegmans’ proposal at its meeting on Tuesday. Plans call for the demolition of three buildings on the 11 acres of land on Richards Avenue between Connecticut Avenue and Interstate 95.

The property’s owner, MBI Inc., is believed to be moving to Norwalk, though company officials have not commented on its move or Wegmans’ plans to develop the plot.

Burt Flickinger, CEO of New York-based Strategic Resource Groupsaid that while Wegmans and Stew Leonard both target high-net-worth customers, he sees the chains as “complementary to each other.”

“They should turn each other’s volume up,” Flickinger said. “Stew’s is so unique that consumers will do much of their specialty shopping there and then head to Wegmans to fill the majority of their shopping lists.”

Leonard said his stores typically only sell about 2,300 items, while a large Wegmans can stock up to 80,000 items.

But Flickinger said that although Stew Leonard’s has far fewer choices, “they are the low-cost leader in what are known in the industry as the power categories: milk, cottage cheese, butter and eggs.”

“That’s where they really shine,” he said of Stew Leonard’s.

By contrast, much of Wegmans’ product selection includes private labels or store brands, which Flickinger says have higher profit margins.

Leonard said he believed “there is room for both of us in Norwalk”. He pointed to the Westchester County family store where sales are “still growing” in Yonkers, NY, about 15 miles from a Wegmans, which opened in 2020 in Harrison.

Leonard compared the grocery store rivalry to a boxing match.

“Both fighters are in the ring the entire boxing match,” he said. “And then when it’s over, they give each other a big hug.”

[email protected]