Tim Mulcahy wasn’t ready to give up on the Brennan’s Market brand that has been a part of Madison since the late 1960s.

So when Tim Culhane, who purchased the company in 2014 from Skip Brennan, announced in July that he was closing all five of his stores that were well stocked with fresh produce, cheese and other specialty food and beverage items, it didn’t take long for Mulcahy to begin contemplating a plan that would continue the well-known, but in recent years, under-performing brand.

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Brennan's Cellars

The Brennan's Market on Watts Road on Madison's Southwest Side opened in 2004 and closed in September, along with four other Brennan's locations. The store is scheduled to reopen Dec. 1 as a Brennan's Cellars but will use only 11,000-square-feet of the 21,000-square-foot building. 

Mulcahy, a longtime manager with Brennan’s who started with the company at its Monroe store when he was in high school, initially thought his off-shoot would be a cheese shop located in a strip mall somewhere on Madison’s Southwest Side. But the more he got into the project, the more he realized that the ideal spot for his new venture should be located in the former Brennan’s at 8210 Watts Road.

On Wednesday, he let the rest of the world know about his plans to use just over half of the 21,000-square-foot building for what he is calling Brennan’s Cellars. The store is scheduled to open Dec. 1 with a cheese department that is about the same size as the old store but with smaller wine, beer and produce departments.

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Brennan's Cellars

Part of the opening of Brennan's Cellars includes branding that recognizes the roots of the business.

The store will also include its own fresh meat counter that will be managed by a former Jacobson Bros. employee, a deli that serves prepared foods and in-store seating. Many of the employees have worked at Brennan’s for years.

“We’ve got a core group of people and a support network of people who really care about what Brennan’s was and we all share the same vision of what Brennan’s can be,” Mulcahy said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or flip the model upside down. With just some tweaks here and there we all agree this can be part of the neighborhood again.”

Agreement, backing

Mulcahy negotiated with Culhane for the rights to the Brennan’s name and has pulled in as an investor developer Fred Rouse, who is buying the building from Culhane. Cheese cutting, wrapping and aging will be done for Brennan’s Cellars at Fairplay Packaging in Monroe. Mulcahy also purchased 26,000 pounds of 3- to 12-year-old cheddar from Brennan’s to help beef up his initial cheese inventory.

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Brennan's Cellars

Empty gift baskets are stacked in the backroom at Brennan's Cellars on Watts Road.

In September, Brennan’s closed its stores and its warehouse in New Glarus. Wednesday’s announcement to reopen the Watts Road location comes just as the holidays approach. That will bring immediate opportunities for gift baskets filled with cheese, sausage and jams, including the wildly popular Sweet’n Hot Pepper Relish, now with a Brennan’s Cellars label.

In-store sampling will also return along with many of the same cheese companies but some vendors will likely change, said Thea Miller, part of the Brennan’s Cellars management team and a former employee of Brennan’s Market for over 20 years.

“We are trying to start small and we are trying to bring back the very best of Brennan’s,” Miller said. “If we did everything absolutely the same, we might be looking at the same future. We want to be smart moving forward but honor the tradition of Brennan’s.”

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Brennan's Market

Aaron Hubacher, produce manager at Brennan's Market on University Avenue, is seen here in July unloading a box of California yellow peaches. The company closed its five locations in September but a former manager has announced a plan to reopen the former Brennan's market on Watts Road as a Brennan's Cellars.

Brennan’s has a long history in southern Wisconsin. But in July, the company said flat sales were forcing it to close and sell its properties.

Since World War II

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 Eighth 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.

In 1967, Skip Brennan borrowed $10,000 from a bank to open a store in a Quonset hut on University Avenue in Madison. 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.

The Watts Road store was added in 2004 and, in 2009, Brennan’s opened a store near the Pabst Farms development in Oconomowoc.

The University Avenue location is being eyed for a mixed-use development by Realm Real Estate Development of Sun Prairie. The company has submitted plans with the city of Madison to construct a four-story building with 52 apartments and 8,100 square feet of retail. The other Brennan’s have been sold or are in the process of being sold, Mulcahy said.

It’s unclear what will occupy the 10,000-square-foot space that had been the fruit and vegetable departments at the Watts Road location but Mulcahy said he and Rouse want something that will mesh well with Brennan’s Cellars, which will have more of a focus on cheese than the Brennan’s stores of the past. That model could be expanded to other smaller locations, Mulcahy said.

“Right now we’re focused on today and the next two weeks, but we have to have various goals,” Mulcahy said. “The people I’m bringing on board want to see progress. You can’t stay stagnant.”

After high school, Mulcahy attended Madison Area Technical College and then began working at Brennan’s store on Northport Drive. He left the company for about five years but in 2004 returned when the Watts Road store opened. Mulcahy worked at the University Avenue location for eight years with the last three at Watts Road.

The store was empty Wednesday with the exception of wooden bins, some shelving and coolers. But over the next three weeks, about $500,000 will be spent on remodeling and inventory, Mulcahy said. The former vegetable and fruit department will be used by Brennan’s Cellars during this year’s holiday season but once a new tenant is found for the space, a new main entrance will be added for Brennan’s Cellars.

“This is the place to be for us but it is going to be different,” Mulcahy said. “People may be shocked when they walk in that there won’t be eight different kinds of plums for sale. And we won’t have eight bins of watermelon sitting outside the store. We’ll have most of that but it’s just going to be a little more efficient.”

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