Mourners remember Stew Leonard Sr., founder of regional grocery store chain that bears his name
Mourners came from far and wide Monday to attend a public wake for Stew Leonard Sr., the founder of the eponymous grocery store chain after his death last week at the age of 93.
Craig Makowsi, 51, who came all the way from Newington, was one of them.
“I was able to purchase my house early on when I was 21. And I've really made a great career for myself and my wife and kids,” Makowski said.
Leonard Sr. died on April 26 after a brief battle with pneumonia. He was lauded by state and local officials for the success of the company and his generosity.
But others like Makowski, and his son, Stew Leonard Jr., said Leonard made a major impact due to his personal kindness and said he would be missed terribly.
Leonard Sr. was born in 1929 and founded his first store in Norwalk in 1969. The company grew, buoyed by its reputation for customer service and pioneered the concept of experiential retail, the stores showcasing animatronic fruits and vegetables and also featured live farm animals as attractions. It was considered to be the "World’s Largest Dairy Store."
Makowski started working for Stew Leonard's at the original Norwalk location in 1987. He’s still working there, albeit at the Newington store.
While many retailers are criticized for their low pay and poor working conditions, Stew Leonard’s has been praised by local politicians and employees for paying well.
A review of open positions on the company’s website shows positions paying above the state’s $14 minimum wage.
When asked how Stew Leonard’s compares to other jobs, Makwoski couldn’t answer.
“That's a tough question, because it's the only job I've ever had," he said. "I started when I was 15. And I'm still here. I've worked with a company for 36 years and it's all that I know.”
Others, such as Grace Clements, said Leonard Sr. was generous with her family as well.
Clements’ mother worked at the salad bar for the Norwalk location for years. While others got their start with an application, Clements said her mother got her job partly because she already knew the Leonard family.
“She started on as a nanny for the children and doing different things. And she went and he hired her and she was working at the salad bar,” said Clements.
But while many praised Leonard Sr. for his warmth and kindness, his company was not without controversy. Leonard was sentenced to prison in 1993 for tax fraud.
His store was also charged with overcharging customers for certain grocery items during that same time period. He stepped down from his position as CEO in 1987.
He later faced a lawsuit over the death of a man riding in his boat which was settled in 2014.
The company was also sued by a former employee in 2022 who alleged the CEO, Stew Leonard Jr., routinely made racist, sexist and anti-Semitic remarks.
Many well wishers however, did not speak ill of Leonard Sr., his son, Stew Leonard Jr., said he had one last thing to give to him before his father was buried.
“I just spent three hours in the studio this morning recording my last song from my father.
"I wrote a song for him. And, I'm going to put it in his casket with him,” Leonard Jr. said.