The announcement came in the summer of 2017 that Brennan’s—a well-known, deeply rooted local retailer—was going to be retired, joining a long list of establishments now nothing more than memories in the annals of history.
But Tim Mulcahy, who had been overseeing the sole remaining Brennan’s on Madison’s west side, had other plans and wasn’t ready to give up on the concept. After closing for a brief period in the second half of 2017, Tim and a team of other veterans within the company reopened the Watts Road store in the same building, but with a smaller footprint.
Most of Tim’s professional life has been spent at Brennan’s, which has roots as a retailer stretching back to World War II. His first job was at the company’s flagship store in Monroe; over time, he transferred to other locations. “I had that connection in Monroe,” Tim says. “It was always in my mind that I would work at Brennan’s one day.”
Tim managed the Brennan’s on University Avenue for eight years before assuming the same role at the still-open Watts Road location in the years leading up to the closing announcement. “I always felt a sense of ownership. I felt pretty connected to the Brennan’s family,” Tim says. “It was a pretty tight-knit group.”
Contemplating career ideas as the closing announcement was made, Tim says, “There were other options, but they just didn’t seem as appealing. This just seemed like the right thing to do.”
While Tim had the desire to keep the Brennan’s name alive in the Madison marketplace, a number of pieces had to come together for his vision to become reality, including securing the rights for the name from previous owner Timothy Culhane, who purchased the stores in 2014 from Skip Brennan. Tim also brought into the fold developer Fred Rouse as an investor of the new enterprise.
Tim points out that the new-era Brennan’s never would have been able to launch without having longtime veteran employees in the mix, including management-level staffers with keen knowledge of some of the specific departments. “To make this work, I knew right away I would need certain people along for the ride. They made the transition possible.”
Since reopening the store, Tim and his team have been operating under the revamped name Brennan’s Cellars, but plans are in motion for a transition back to the original moniker, Brennan’s, along with a remodel and other tweaks.
The changes underway are a sign of Tim’s philosophy to hold true to much of Brennan’s legacy while making adjustments as necessary. Reverting back to Brennan’s is designed to avoid confusion and will coincide with a refreshed branding effort. “We’re looking at a more efficient use of our space. Every area of the store is going to get a fresh facelift,” Tim says. “But we’re not looking to reinvent the wheel.”
Many of Brennan’s classic touches were featured at the west side store, including the product assortment of signature fruits, wines, and cheeses. Many of the retailer’s popular fruit favorites, such as the chin-drippin’ peaches and supply of Michigan blueberries and Door County cherries, remain front and center at the new store. Also in the mix are locally produced coffees, Amish-made products, and a bakery.
Frequent visitors to the original Brennan’s stores knew samples of some of the fruits, cheeses, and other products were in abundant supply. Tim has been continuing the practice. “There’s a certain kind of sensory experience when you’re food shopping.”
While Tim is looking to maintain much of Brennan’s original spirit, the ongoing tweaks have been introduced since the doors first reopened nearly two years ago. Meat and deli operations, which were outsourced in the old business model, have now been brought in house. “For this to be successful, we had to put our own spin on the departments. It gave us the flexibility to have our own operation.”
The revamped meat and deli area features such new touches as a classic fish fry on Fridays and a daily rotating assortment of made-from-scratch soups. The new deli and meat area also features seating for customers looking to make Brennan’s a lunch stop.
In its nearly two years in the revamped model, Tim has been pleased with the community’s response and aspires to continue building on the longstanding trust behind the Brennan’s name. “When I began working at Brennan’s, my bosses would pitch right in. I’ve always been attracted to that—rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. That work ethic was instilled in me, and it continues with our group today.”
Regardless of any pivots, Tim adamantly says there is one core mission that will continuously remain front-and-center at Brennan’s—the relentless attention to customer satisfaction, which has grown increasingly important as a number of businesses, including grocery retailing, have gone through widespread metamorphoses. “This has always been a customer-focused business,” he says. “Customers have always been held in very high regard because you can lose them.”
Tim believes the new Brennan’s is holding true to the mantras of prior eras based on the response he’s received the past few years. “I’ve always thought this location was in a good corner of town for what we do because we are more of a destination store at some level.” He adds, “Business has been good, but we’re always looking for ways to improve, and we’re going to continue to do so.”
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.
8210 Watts Road
Madison, WI 53719