Monday, May 1, 2006

Thea Miller brings it all together as product manager of Brennan's Market

Bringing it all together: Thea Miller, Product Manager of Brennan’s Market
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in ANEW Magazine, May 2006
Column: Around the Table

Related recipe: Red Sangria

Remember that 1976 cooking show, “In the Kitchen With Thea”? Of course you don’t. It was never televised.

“I would stand at the counter in our kitchen that overlooked our living room and host a show to an imaginary audience,” recalls 34-year-old Milwaukee native Thea Miller. “I have a few pictures, but this was before video cameras so I have no idea what I said – though I must have thought it was important. I have always loved food.”

Today, Miller is the product manager for Brennan’s Farm Markets, southern Wisconsin’s highly regarded purveyors of specialty produce, wines, cheeses and beers purchased directly from farmers and artisans around the world. Owner Skip Brennan does most of the globe-trotting and deal-making involved with acquiring new products, but it’s Miller who brings it all together. Some of her duties: doing the research that leads to new finds, helping small producers learn the intricacies of international export, handling PR and educating each employee about new products, so they can pass on the Brennan’s enthusiasm to the customer.

For someone whose passion for spreading the good word about good eats is literally lifelong, it’s the perfect occupation.

Miller started at Brennan’s while a history major at Mount Mary College. Her mother, a fan of the grocery with the old-timey feel and distinctive selection, talked her into taking a summer job at the nearby Brookfield store. “I planned to leave at the end of the summer,” says Miller. “Labor Day weekend came and went, and I’m still working at Brennan’s.”

VVK: What do you enjoy most about your job?
TM: I get to work with my favorite things: wine and food. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world meeting with our winemakers and producers, learning firsthand what they do.

Last April, I traveled to New Zealand and worked at Daniel Schuster’s winery during harvest. He is the producer of Kiwi Gold [Brennan’s first private label wine], a fantastic wine. I got to pick Pinot Noir grapes and run them through the destemmer. And learn about winemaking from a pioneer of New Zealand wine and an international wine consultant.

It was fun and very educational, but a lot of hard work. I was covered in grapes by the end of each day and exhausted. I might have snuck a few to eat, too. I can’t wait to get that vintage in!

VVK: Tell me about your involvement with the private label wines.

We started the program about six years ago. For a number of years, Brennan’s has carried exclusive wines, meaning that if you can buy it at Brennan’s, you cannot buy it anywhere else. The private label program goes further. In 2005, we launched five new lines from all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia, Chile and California. Each line includes several varieties.

We like to work with small family-owned wineries. These little guys don’t have the production to supply big importers, so they normally wouldn’t make it to the U.S. Once a winery gets the stamp of approval from Skip, the task of getting the wine here goes to me. This involves building and maintaining a relationship with the supplier, making sure labels meet government requirements, educating our staff, making signs and tasting notes and coordinating visits from suppliers.

I brainstorm ideas for label names, work with our designer, write back labels, provide support materials for each lineup – like brochures and tasting notes – and work with staff at each store to launch and promote new wine. It’s a great feeling to know that words I wrote are on thousands of labels out there in people’s homes.

VVK: What’s been your biggest challenge?
TM: Keeping balance with all of our producers, projecting, promoting and selling to meet everyone’s needs. When you have things coming in from around the world, you can’t order and have something show up the next day.

VVK: What are some foods that Brennan’s has led the way in introducing?
TM: Skip found Island Grove Olives at a farmers’ market in Tasmania. Wendy, the owner, was selling her vacuum-packed olives there. Skip drove back to her grove and convinced her to sell her olives to us. Now she sells them all around the world.

VVK: Any flops that should have been a sure thing?
TM: We carried a sparkling juice called “Uva Uva” around 1998. The company was founded by gentleman and his daughters, and they bottled it champagne style. It was hands down the best product on the market. At that time, our exclusive grocery program was very small and the owner of the company was trying to compete with lower price rather than separating from the pack. He started selling to the big wholesale stores. Unfortunately, he went out business. Today, with the strength of our sampling program, I know it would be a great seller for us and wish we could find a product like it.

VVK: How do you compete with the mega-warehouse grocery stores?
TM: People are looking for great service and great food. The big key is having both and differentiating yourself from the pack. We sell products that the big guys don’t. We seek out the best from the little guys like us. We have a story behind every product we sell, whether it’s an orange, a pistachio or a bottle of wine.

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