I stumbled upon the Disney World of grocery stores completely by accident. After a tiring day of moving furniture into my new apartment, the family friends who helped my parents and me with the move wanted wine. It was understandable. We had already passed Stew Leonard’s while driving around Yonkers looking for a restaurant, but since it just looked like a giant barn from afar we hadn’t thought much of it. Nevertheless, we trekked back upon the recommendation of a waitress at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (New Haven-style pizza that gets my seal of approval).
The view of Stew Leonard’s from the parking lot is deceptive. It could easily pass as your average hardware store with its front gardening area and sprawling warehouse-like space. To enter, though, is to completely forget where you are and even why you came. Just inside the doors, doughnuts with flavors like maple bacon and Fruit Loops welcome shoppers with very specific tastes. Then, instead of grid-like aisles, the store’s wares wind around the building in a maze, encouraging customers to pass through every section.
This could feel like being forced to enter the gift shop at the end of a tourist attraction, but my group found it quite relaxing. The wide, curved set-up looked like a colorful walking trail and we all got lost along the path. My father and our friends gawked at the squids and other sea creatures displayed over ice. I became rapt with the baked goods and my mother picked around the fresh produce. Animatrons of farm animals and giant signs picturing celebrity fans of the store (such as Dr. Oz and Bobby Flay) dotted the landscape. The wine section happened to be closed for the night when we arrived, but we soon found a giant wall of beers, wine coolers and the like in the middle of the maze. It was comparable to finally arriving at Oz, as we all smiled at the thought of finally getting our hands on a bit of booze to ease the moving stress. As a little finale, a miniature train traveled back and forth on a rail perched over the cash registers. I wondered how many 6-year-olds felt frenzied joy over that while their parents tried to check out.
As we left, I felt a strange longing knowing that I won’t be able to return to Stew’s for a long time. Westchester buses don’t cross paths with the store, so it’s a car trip or bust if you’d like to pay the place a visit. For me, Stew’s was a tiny bit of escapism in a place that could easily be just another errand. No grocery store can match its childish, uninhibited whimsy.