Brennan's Market

Elliza Chen, of Portland, Oregon, feeds her 1-year-old daughter, Elliot Hubbard, a sample of pineapple at the Brennan's Market on University Avenue in Madison. The store and four others will close Sept. 30 due to lagging sales. Chen was visiting with her mom, who lives in Waunakee.

AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

Brennan’s Market simply became irrelevant.

The beloved company has been an institution in southern Wisconsin where it sold “chin drippin’” peaches from Idaho, blueberries from Michigan and cherries from Door County. The shelves are stocked with fresh produce, world championship cheese, and pickles, jams, mustards and spreads from Wisconsin companies.

Samples of cheese, fruit and vegetables are a staple at the company’s five stores, and its selection of beer and wine has helped expand its customer base.

But come Sept. 30, the five Brennan’s Market stores and its New Glarus production facility will close. The move will put 150 people out of work and bring to an end a 75-year-old company that found its business model out-of-date in a highly competitive grocery industry that offers up many of the same products and hundreds more that a Brennan’s does not.

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Brennan's Market

Brennan's Market on University Avenue at Capital Avenue, the second in the Monroe company's chain, opened in 1967. 

When the recession hit in 2008, the company, like most retailers, felt the effects. But as business began to climb for other companies as the recession faded, Brennan’s sales remained flat. And now, after nearly 10 years of struggle, Tim Culhane, who purchased the company in 2014 from Skip Brennan, has made the difficult choice to close the business and sell the assets and real estate.

“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,” Culhane said in a statement. “The growth of competition and new options for consumers has made Brennan’s Market business model unsustainable.”

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Brennan's Market

Aaron Hubacher, produce manager at Brennan's Market on University Avenue, unloads a box of California yellow peaches. The company has become known over the past 75 years for its fresh produce, especially peaches.

Brennan’s has stores at 5533 University Ave. and 8210 Watts Road in Madison and in Brookfield, Monroe and Oconomowoc. The Brookfield location is being sold but will not reopen as a fruit and cheese store. The other properties, including Brennan’s Cellars in New Glarus, where cheese is cut and wrapped, will all be sold, said Wayne Glowac, a company spokesman.

“Brennan’s did some work trying to find some replacement business that were similar in an effort to keep the employees (employed), and they couldn’t find anyone to match their model,” Glowac said. “There’s a lot of sadness. It was an incredibly well-run business with a lot of respect from their customers and their employees”

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Brennan's Market

Brennan's Markets hold scores of world-class cheeses, but over the years other grocery operators have significantly increased their cheese offerings, cutting into sales for Brennan's. 

Thick competition

The competition has been fierce in recent years.

In Madison, for example, Metcalfe’s Market has expanded to a second store with both locations stocked with high-quality cheese, fruit and vegetables. There’s been a Whole Foods in town since 1996, while Hy-Vee and Festival Foods have entered the market more recently. Willy Street Co-op has expanded to a third location and is eyeing a fourth, while Woodman’s Market now has three Dane County stores, and the Pick ’n Save stores are cutting prices after its parent company, Roundy’s, was purchased by Kroger.

In the Milwaukee area, high-end grocery operator Sendik’s has exploded with stores over the last few years and now has 19 locations that include three, smaller formatted Fresh2Go stores. Illinois-based Fresh Thyme Farmers Market has three Milwaukee-area stores and will soon open a fourth location.

The evolving and expanding grocery markets left Brennan’s grasping for market share, said David Livingston, a former Roundy’s executive who now runs a grocery consulting business.

“All of these high-quality perishable stores have the latest and greatest. It was very difficult for (Brennan’s) to compete,” Livingston said. “I think a lot of people forgot they were around.”

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Brennan's Market

Brennan's Market contracts with some of the best cheese producers in the world to make its private label cheeses like this green olive Havarti.

Monroe roots

The company’s roots date to 1942, when Frank Brennan opened an 8,000-square-foot full-service grocery store on the corner of Highway 69 and 8th Street in Monroe. A tornado destroyed the business in 1965, but the Brennans adjusted by selling fruits and vegetables from a 12-by-48-foot shed that would emerge as the model of today’s stores.

“The tornado was a special gift,” Skip Brennan said in a 2010 profile. “My father was an expert at making work fun.”

In 1967, Skip Brennan borrowed $10,000 from a bank to open a store in a Quonset hut on University Avenue in Madison. The structure and a neighboring drive-in, Dog ‘n Suds, were torn down in 1970 to make way for the existing store. He opened the company’s third store on Madison’s North Side in 1975; it closed in 2008. A fourth was added in Brookfield in 1988, after he was offered land on Bluemound Road from Madison-based car dealer John Zimbrick. Brennan, in the mid-1960s, took a class taught by Zimbrick at UW-Madison.

“I just admired the way he operated his company and treated his employees,” Zimbrick said in the 2010 profile. “The guy is just unbelievable.”

The Watts Road store was added in 2004 and, in August 2009, two years after he was paralyzed in a bicycle crash, Brennan opened a store near the Pabst Farms development in Oconomowoc.

But after the recession of 2008, business never returned to its pre-recession levels “and sales remained flat,” the company said.

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Brennan's Market

Laurel Hind, of Middleton, samples a piece of summer sausage Wednesday at Brennan's Market as she buys food for a Concerts on the Square picnic.

Cara Carper, the former executive director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and since June the executive director of the Green County Development Corp., said Wednesday’s announcement was shocking. Brennan’s has been a huge supporter of community events, serves as a tourist draw and is one of the city’s main retailers.

It’s unclear what the Monroe store and the New Glarus production facility will be used for once Brennan’s closes the doors, she said.

“It’s really a blow,” said Carper. “We really feel for the employees who work there and are going to be out of a job. Brennan’s does just so much for the town and this county. It’s going to be tough.”

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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.