More than a business

Published 3:07 pm Saturday, June 19, 2010

To Kay McCloud, Brownlow’s Red Owl is more than a family business, it’s an identity for her family and the city of LeRoy.

Brownlow’s Red Owl is one of only two remaining Red Owl grocery stores along with Masons Red Owl in Green Bay, Wis. To mark the history of the chain, which spanned the Midwest until about 20 years ago, McCloud, has turned the store into a sort of Red Owl museum.

McCloud, manager of Brownlow’s, has been collecting Red Owl antiques for as long as she can remember because her grandfather and father owned the store before her.

“I think it’s important because it’s been in my family for 80 years,” she said. “My grandpa, he loved Red Owl. We always called him Mr. Red Owl when we were growing up.”

Many of McCloud’s collectibles are items she collected from the store over the years, and things from the shop’s basement.

Once she became the manager for her father, Robert Brownlow, about seven years ago, she’s continued her search for collectibles at antique stores and online though eBay.

“It’s hard to find stuff, because I always have everything,” McCloud joked. “I have a lot of stuff.”

She started with a small display at the front of the store, but her collection soon spilled over to shelves lining the walls around the store.

Along with the collectibles, she also has awards her father and grandfather received for their time with Red Owl. One sign recognizes her grandfather’s 50 years with the chain.

That tenure is one of the reasons there are still two Red Owls today.

Identity crisis

After the Red Owl chain began facing financial difficulties in the 1980s, Red Owl was bought out by wholesaler Supervalu Inc. in 1989. Many Red Owls were converted to Supervalus.

Brownlow’s was briefly affiliated with Supervalu but they soon went to a new supplier and took down all their signs. McCloud said there was about a four year span when they didn’t have any signs at the front of the store.

The story of how Brownlow’s became a Red Owl again is a bit Hollywood. When Academy Award Winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen returned to their home state of Minnesota to film “A Serious Man,” one scene called for a visit to a Red Owl.

When the movies producers called Supervalu Inc. seeking Red Owl items for the scene, the producers were told to contact McCloud. Prop workers on the film used many of McCloud’s items in the film, including a sign, aprons, vests and different spice tins. All the items were returned.

Even though Brownlow’s and Supervalu are no longer affiliated, the two made contact because of the movie. They worked out a deal for Brownlow’s to use the Red Owl name for a dollar a week starting around 2007.

Without her family’s decades of ties to Red Owl, McCloud said she likely wouldn’t have gotten the deal. The Masons Red Owl in Green Bay is still a part of Supervalu.

‘Something different’

Soon after, the Red Owl sign was put back up, and the store regained it’s former identity. McCloud began placing Red Owl knickknacks around the store soon after. She has a series of Red Owl signs displaying the different Red Owl logos dating back to the 1920s when the business started selling coal. She has feed sacks, spice tins and flower bags.

She has an advertisement from 1929 that lists every Red Owl in the country, including the a former store in Austin. McCloud bought the sign on eBay and joked that she “paid dearly for it.”

She said she’s spent more than a $100 on items on eBay.

Along with keeping the flavor of the store’s history, McCloud said the Red Owl name helps maintain the store’s identity and uniqueness, especially in an era when McDonalds, Walmarts and Applebee’s are prevalent in many communities.

“I just think it’s really important to have an identity,” she said.

That identity attracts customers from across the country, as McCloud said visitors often stop at the store on weekends. In the summer, campers from Lake Louise State Park will stop at the store for groceries and to see the store.

“It’s just something different. It’s something that’s unusual,” McCloud said.

Even before she took over as manager, McCloud started a web page in the late 1990s about the Red Owl store. The page has attracted calls from people as far away as California who call and ask to buy a T-shirt because they had a parent who worked at a Red Owl.

McCloud said a recent shipment of 40 Red Owl T-shirts sold out in a few weeks.

Running a small town grocery store is a difficult task, largely because of growing competition. Not only can shoppers stop at large chains like Walmart in Austin and Rochester, but many convenience stores and other shops now carry some grocery items.

The recognition of the Red Owl chain, which has been in the community for decades, is a big help, McCloud said. The city of LeRoy has been good for business, McCloud said, as they often buy food from the store for town festivals.

“It’s really important to me to keep it going because family businesses are really hard to keep going,” she said.

McCloud intends to keep the store a fixture in LeRoy, and she plans to add to her collection along the way.

McCloud is constantly adding to her collection, and she added two matchbooks this week. People from LeRoy also bring her things they find around their house. McCloud estimated her Red Owl collectibles could be worth $15,000 should she sell her collection on eBay, which doesn’t appear likely.

“I don’t know if it would bring that if I wasn’t bidding,” she joked.

There are a few Red Owl treasures at the top of McCloud’s wish list, specifically a Tonka Red Owl truck and a Red Owl ash tray made by Red Wing Pottery. She saw an ash tray sell on eBay a few years ago for more than $300.

“I’m always looking for anything I don’t have,” she said.