Growing up, Blake Leonard spent summers and holidays learning such crucial skills as how to swirl an ice cream cone or prepare a cappuccino for a guest. She spent much of her time at Norwalk, Connecticut-based Stew Leonard’s Farm Fresh Foods, the gourmet supermarket founded by her grandfather and expanded by her father, Stew Leonard Jr.
Those early years instilled a love for the family business. “It was just part of my family and I knew nothing different,” Leonard recalls. “I was here every summer and holiday working and it was fun. I learned something new in every department and I always loved interacting with the people on our team and our customers.”
It wasn’t until she was about 14 that her parents’ attention turned to wine, and with it, a whole new learning endeavor was underway. “I vividly remember we were all sitting around the dinner table one night and my dad was drinking a bottle of wine and he exclaimed: ‘This is the only thing on the dinner table that we don’t sell’,” Leonard says. “That was the impetus leading both my mom and dad on this exploration of learning more about wine. I remember that we started taking little detours on family trips to visit wineries. I have to say, my sisters and I didn’t find it to be the most exciting thing.”
But there were some unique perks to being the daughter of a retail powerhouse who was expanding into wine. “I have these incredible memories of getting to meet Jacques Lardière, who at the time was the winemaker for Louis Jadot,” Leonard says. “He taught my sisters and I how to spit wine across the cellar. Now, he could spit really far and we could barely spit at all, but he just made it really fun for us. As I got older I learned more about who he was and what a big deal that was. It’s a very special memory.”
Stew Leonard, Jr. founded Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1999. Currently there are seven stores that operate under the trade name “Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits:” three in Connecticut, two in New Jersey, and two in New York. Each store is individually owned and operated by family members. And Blake’s sister, Ryann, owns and operates Ryann’s Wines in East Meadow, New York. For her dedication to furthering the family business, and her success in doing so, Blake Leonard has been named a 2021 Market Watch Leader.
The Big Lure
Despite the childhood immersion, Blake Leonard says she wasn’t always on a path to join the family business. Her early adulthood experiences, though, always led back to wine. “My dad never put pressure on me to join the business, but his excitement and passion were always tangible, and that really stuck with me,” she says. “He encouraged me to try things, take risks, and explore. We actually have a rule that after you graduate you’re not allowed to come back for three years.” Instead, young adult family members are encouraged to “get a job elsewhere, learn what it’s like to have a boss and work alongside new people.”
Leonard says the policy gave her the freedom to figure out her own path—and it turns out it was wine. During college she interned at a couple of Italian wineries, following that up post-graduation with a stint at E. & J. Gallo, first in southern California then at Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa. She then returned to the East Coast to gain experience with various wine importers.
Those experiences were followed by graduate school at New York University, after which Leonard says she was excited to head back to the business. But she couldn’t just jump on board. She had to wait for an open position, per family policy. “It worked out well and I was able to rejoin the business in 2016,” she says.
The years away were an eye-opening experience, in part because of the companies she chose to join. “One common thread I saw as I was meeting other families in this industry was the multi-generational parallel that I had to them, and vice versa,” Leonard says. “Then of course there was their passion and love for what they do. I started making these great friends within the industry, and it was so exciting for me.” Leonard threw herself into learning more about wine, obtaining various qualifications and eventually becoming a certified sommelier.
Today, Blake and her father are the spokespeople for the stores operating under the Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits trade name, which total $100 million in revenue each year. Blake is a Stew Leonard’s vice president and, per agreement with each store, is available for consultation with each unit.
Her Own Stamp
“My dad and I worked very closely together,” Leonard says. “He’s still involved but he lets me do my own thing. I still feel like I’m figuring things out and learning every day.
“What I’ve tried to do is take what I’ve grown up in and what I know on the food side, and really apply that to wine,” she continues. “We’ve always focused on having a limited selection. I’ve tried to focus on doing the hard work for our customers, finding the best products in every category and making it easy for our customers to shop in our stores. Because of that, we’re able to have big displays of products that all of our teams have tasted and loved.”
Leonard is keen to demystify wine for Stew Leonard’s customers. “Wine can be so intimidating, even when you know a lot about it,” she says. “We want to take that guesswork out for our customers, and have them come into our store and shop and see it as a pleasant, easy experience. We want them to find what they’re looking for.”
Another key goal is to continue the company’s emphasis on its workforce, which numbers 300. “Putting people first is so important,” she says. “I’m so proud that most of the people we promote are from within. Some of our store managers have been here for 20 years now and they have this wealth of knowledge. They’re a huge value.”
Blake Leonard’s unique stamp on the business may come from her commitment to spotlighting women in the wine industry, both for her own personal development and in the wines promoted at Stew Leonard’s. She counts Marilisa Allegrini, president of Gruppo Allegrini, and Cristina Mariani-May, president and CEO of Banfi Vintners, as mentors, describing both as “wonderful women who have paved such great paths in the next generation of their family businesses. Plus, they’ve both also worked alongside their fathers.”
This passion has made its way onto the Stew Leonard’s selling floor, where recently about 20 wines with female winemakers were featured. Regarding all women in wine, she says, “I want to continue promoting them and building my credibility as a woman in the industry too.”
Catering To The Customer
Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits stores typically carry about 2,500 SKUs of wine and roughly 1,000 spirits SKUs. In Connecticut and New Jersey, where the stores are allowed to carry beer, anywhere from 500-800 SKUs is the norm. “When it comes to our selection, we want to stay focused,” says Leonard. “Our goal is to curate a really great selection of wines and spirits that over-deliver for the price point and really give value to the customer. We want to take the guesswork out. We spend a lot of time tasting product to really make sure that we’re bringing in what our customers are looking for.”
Pricing runs the gamut to cater to a broad swath of customers. “We’re based in the tri-state area but outside of cities,” she notes. “One second we’ll have someone coming in looking to spend $10, and the next second someone spends hundreds. We have wines and spirits at any price point, but for the most part we are getting a ton of people coming in just looking for that bottle that they’re going to open tonight or in the next couple of days, so the sweet spot is anywhere from $10 -$20.”
Wine still dominates at Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits, but not to the extent that it once did. Spirits have been on the rise for several years, led by Bourbons and other whiskies. “We’ve seen a huge surge in our Bourbon sales and we just want to continue doing more with it,” Leonard says. Currently, wine accounts for about 60% of sales in stores that have all three beverage alcohol types, and about 65% in New York stores that carry just wine and spirits. In Connecticut and New Jersey, spirits make up about 30% of sales, leaving about 10% for beer.
Recent trends indicate a continuation of that balance. “Spirits have seen a huge surge this past year with everyone making a lot more cocktails from home,” Leonard notes. “Tequila’s been the largest growing spirits category, with Casamigos ($55 a 1-liter) driving that. Wine has continued to be huge, especially Champagne last year and into this year. Both Veuve Clicquot ($49 a 750-ml.) and Dom Pérignon ($170) at a higher price point have really driven the category.”
The pandemic upended the typical selling strategies for virtually all retailers. At Stew Leonard’s, that meant a shift to more e-commerce, with curbside and delivery options for guests, and a change in promotional strategies. “As a retailer, we’ve always put a lot of our marketing dollars into flyers and print, and the pandemic forced us to go 100% digital,” Leonard says. The move has allowed for better connections with customers. “We make sure that we’re able to hit them with what they want to know in our emails, our social media and every other digital touch point.”
Also during the pandemic, Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits conducted a series of virtual tastings designed to engage customers. Tastings with some of the world’s wine superstars were interspersed with a heavy dose of celebrities touting their efforts in the world of beverage alcohol. In late spring 2021, the company ventured back into in-store events with a Norwalk, Connecticut store tasting featuring the actor Bryan Cranston and his Dos Hombres mezcal.
Mixing It Up
In 2019, the company began experimenting with a new store model in Paramus, New Jersey that combines the grocery store concept with the beverage alcohol component in a single store. “It’s been a huge success,” Leonard says. “Weekly we see about 40,000 customers coming through the doors and about 20% of them put wine or spirits in their shopping cart. One of my big goals is not only to continue expanding that footprint to other locations, but to get 40% of customers putting wine and spirits in their shopping cart.”
In the future, Leonard hopes to expand the overall number of beverage alcohol stores under the Stew Leonard’s banner. She also wants to pursue additional grocery and beverage alcohol combo stores. Right now, that’s only possible in one of the three states in which the company operates. “For now, we’re just thinking about New Jersey,” she says. “My family in California would love to have a food and wine store out there, so we’ll see. Maybe that’s my big plan down the road.”