Stew Leonard Sr., founder of a regional grocer, dies at 93

NEW YORK (AP) — Stew Leonard Sr., who founded more than 50 years ago a dairy store that became a regional grocery powerhouse under his name with locations in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, died Wednesday at a New York hospital after a brief illness.

Leonard Sr. was 93 years old, according to the company, based in Norwalk, Connecticut.

A graduate of Norwalk High School and the University of Connecticut’s School of Agriculture, Leonard Sr. first worked for his family’s dairy business at Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk. In the late 1960s, he realized that the milk delivery business was becoming a thing of the past, and so he decided to build a retail dairy store where children could watch milk being bottled while parents shopped in a farmer’s market environment.

In 1969, Stew Leonard’s opened a 17,000-square-foot store carrying just eight items. Leonard Sr. was viewed as a marketing genius in the business community for unusual gimmicks at his giant dairy store. Dubbed the ″world’s largest dairy store″ by Ripley’s ″Believe It or Not,″ it included a live petting zoo, dancing milk cartons and banjo-playing mechanical animals.

It has now become a $600 million family-owned and operated business with seven locations and more than 2,500 employees.

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.

But Leonard Sr.’s success was tarnished by a prison sentence for tax fraud. He pleaded guilty in July 1993 to using a sophisticated computer program to skim $17.1 million off the store’s books and served 44 months in prison.

Leonard Sr. leaves behind his wife of 70 years, four children, and 13 grandchildren, according to the company statement.

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