Farm-to-table forefathers

Brennan’s Market may be closing its five stores for good on Sept. 30, but its legacy as a farm-to-table forerunner lives on.

The news just last week that Brennan’s Market would be closing all of its stores, along with a New Glarus production facility, on Sept. 30 came as a shock to many fans of its fresh produce, local cheeses, quality wines, and of course, “chin drippin’” peaches.

After 75 years Brennan’s just wasn’t able to compete in a crowded grocery marketplace any longer. But the store, which got its start in 1942 in Monroe as a full-service grocery started by Frank Brennan, and took on the shape more recognizable to customers today after a 1965 tornado leveled the business. The Brennan family re-opened as more of a permanent roadside produce stand, and they leave behind a legacy as an early proponent of the farm-to-table movement.

Farm-to-table has obviously gained attention in more recent years as a social movement that promotes serving locally grown or sourced food in restaurants, as well as consumers buying direct from the producer, which could be a winery, brewery, ranch, fishery, farm, or any other type of food producer. While it’s become a trendy movement, farm-to-table is something Brennan’s made a business model of decades ago, notes Wayne Glowac, a company spokesman.

Over the years, Brennan’s Market built personal relationships with its growers and producers to ensure the best possible quality from harvest and production to delivery. For decades, the Brennan family and staff personally visited and inspected every farm, orchard, vineyard, microbrewery, and cheese factory that they purchased from, including locations in the United States, Canada, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and Italy.

“Frank Brennan set the standard for Brennan’s Market 75 years ago when he learned that he could more effectively control the quality of the produce and cheese when he visited the farm or factory and got to know the people he was sourcing from,” explains Glowac. “Skip, Frank’s son, said, ‘You can learn a lot about the quality of a product based upon the quality of the operation and its owner.’ Building personal relationships with its vendors helped Brennan’s Market find and retain the best suppliers.”

It was a natural extension of the Brennan-family philosophy that prompted the business to continually educate its customers about where their products were coming from, Glowac says. Brennan’s also hosted staff dinners where suppliers were invited in to share their stories and their products, in turn educating staff who could then share this information with their customers.

“It showed that great, quality products don’t have to come from out-of-state or across the country,” says Glowac. “Wherever possible, Brennan’s Market supported local growers and producers, especially Green County cheese producers.”



‘I would never charge more because of a misfortune’

In the end, part of what may have done Brennan’s in was the company didn’t operate like a big business — the Brennan family and current owner, Tim Culhane, were just too nice.

Case in point: One one occasion, due to the sinking of a large container ship of Chilean wine, Brennan’s Market had a large selection of an in-demand style of wine, while other stores were sold out, Glowac notes.

“When asked if he wanted to raise the price, Skip Brennan said, ‘I would never charge more because of a misfortune. Whatever we do for our customers, both good and bad, will come back to us. Business, and all relationships, are a big circle and we work hard to have the good come back to us every day.’”

Unfortunately, that good will only goes so far.

Brennan’s Market saw a significant decline in sales during the recession beginning in 2008. When the economy rebounded, Brennan’s Market sales remained flat. The growth of competition and new options for consumers made Brennan’s Market business model unsustainable.

“As folks’ schedules got more compressed, taking the time to enjoy shopping and visit specialty stores became less frequent,” says Glowac. “People used to use time to make money, now folks use money to make time. As this trend continues, internet shopping and mega-store construction will continue to flourish.”

In a prepared statement, Tim Culhane, general manager/owner of Brennan’s Market, kept it classy. “Although we’re all saddened by the decision to close our doors later this year, we are sincerely grateful for the generations of loyal customers and our incredible partners.”

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