Stew Leonard’s builds “buffer stock” as COVID cases surge ahead of Thanksgiving
By Neil A. Carousso
NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Stew Leonard, Jr. is stocking up for a second wave of the coronavirus. He and his suppliers do not want to be blindsided like they were in March.
“They’re all anticipating at least a 20 percent increase in buffer stock,” Leonard told Joe Connolly and Neil A. Carousso on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight, sponsored by BNB Bank.
The second generation owner of Stew Leonard’s supermarket chain headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut said he did not predict cleaning products, paper towels and toilet paper would be in short supply when the pandemic hit the United States eight months ago, but now, he is prepared as the virus surges in a majority of states with hospitalizations rising, too.
“Our backrooms are stuffed right now with product and we’re buying as much Bounty and Charmin as we can get right now,” Leonard told WCBS 880.
He’s been reflecting on his father’s advice from when he took over the family business in 1987 – 18 years after Stew Leonard, Sr. opened the original store.
Leonard, Jr. told Connolly and Carousso his father advised he pay attention to his customers and “be really nice to your suppliers,” because they are providing the quality product shoppers expect.
“I’m calling them up and I’m on my knees. I owe a lot of favors right now,” Leonard laughed. “You know ‘Game of Thrones’ where the guy said I have to bend a knee? Well, I’ve had to bend a knee a lot here.”
He said he is informing his suppliers – local farmers and fisherman among them – that he is still in business and they are his priority.
“Sometimes there might be a hiccup and they need something delivered and I’ll have some of our people go and deliver it to them because they’re in a jam,” he said, adding, “I would expect our suppliers to do that for us, too.”
Leonard told WCBS 880 it is imperative business owners in the food industry listen to their customers because they have no data to indicate how to prepare for Thanksgiving this year.
“The only way you’re going to get a little handle on it is if you really just say, ‘I’m going to talk to five customers a day,'” he advised. “They’ll give you a feeling of what it’s like, whether they want delivery, whether they want curb side, how they’re shopping, what their Thanksgiving’s going to be like.”
Leonard surveyed thousands of his customers and found 9 out of 10 are having small Thanksgiving dinners this year with immediate family in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. That influenced his decision to reduce his typical order of large turkeys weighing 24-25 lbs. by 20 percent; he bought 20-25 percent more smaller turkeys that weigh 15-16 lbs.
Stew Leonard’s has seen a 600 percent increase in online orders in the outset of the pandemic as the supermarket implemented “triple cleaning” procedures and got rid of in-store buffets and bagel trays to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While families save on eating out and entertainment because of the pandemic, there is more demand for quality ground beef and wine at Stew Leonard’s.
“They want to still make that restaurant-style meal at their house so we’re seeing our porterhouse steaks (and) our filet mignons (are) incredibly high in sales, and also, all of our prime beef that we offer at Stew Leonard’s has gone up tremendously,” Leonard said.
He tells WCBS 880 he has not raised prices in the pandemic. In fact, he gave his employees an extra $2 an hour in the first months of the crisis. He is restoring that boost ahead of the holidays plus Leonard is giving his workers an extra week’s salary at year’s end.
Watch Joe Connolly and Neil A. Carousso’s conversation with Stew Leonard, Jr. above or listen to it on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight Podcast.