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Brick & Mortar: Larry's Market
A Beloved Brown Deer Tradition

BY NAN BIALEK
PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

July 2019

Dale Curley

There must be something special about Larry’s Market in Brown Deer, because the people who work there, like the customers, just keep coming back for more.

Take Dale Curley, for instance. He started delivering groceries for Larry’s when he was a junior in high school. Now he and his wife, Debbie, own the place.

The “Larry” of Larry’s Market is Larry Ehlers, who began to work in what was then a tiny corner grocery when he was a young man. He became the owner in 1970. And when neighborhood grocery stores started to fade with the rise of supermarkets, Ehlers looked for ways to make his market stand out.

“Larry began offering different things that you couldn’t get at another store,” says Sarah Seymour Cruz, brand and creative director at Larry’s Market. Things like fresh flowers, frozen “grab and go” items and, after a trip to Europe, the artisan cheeses that made the market famous. He curated products and introduced services to turn Larry’s Market into one of the first specialty food stores in the area.

When Larry, who is now 95, retired, his son, Steve, took over the store. Curley knew Steve, of course. While he was a student at UW-Milwaukee, Curley continued to work at Larry’s Market, waiting on customers and working in the kitchen with a chef who had trained at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, NY. Curley was inspired to train at the Institute himself. He came back to Wisconsin in 1990 and began working for a dinner train before becoming a private chef for a railroad company for 13 years.

“Steve Ehlers was my friend; I’d known him since I was in high school,” Curley says. So when Steve asked him to come back to the store, Curley enthusiastically agreed. He served as the Larry’s Market chef for 17 years. When Steve lost his battle with cancer in 2016, the Curleys felt compelled to buy the business.

“My wife and I felt the risk is worth it because I knew all the people here and we knew the tradition here and we didn’t want to see the store close,” he explains. “We just felt we had to do it.”

The Curleys have kept those traditions going strong. Customers have always been impressed with Larry’s Market’s customized gift baskets, especially during the holidays. Cruz notes that one corporate customer orders 1,500 gift baskets for the holiday season.

Personalized service is the store’s hallmark — evident in the little touches that turn up in its catering presentations for occasions from weddings to business breakfasts.

“We deliver, set it up, and all trays have fresh flowers on them just to make it look really beautiful,” Cruz explains.

Inside the store, customers look forward to traditions like Hot Dog Thursdays, which always feature a specialty dog. Unique cheeses, such as the ski-hill-inspired melted treat called raclette, keep customers smiling.

“Another thing we’re really well-known for is our pot pies,” Cruz says. “We have 19 varieties, and, seriously, we can’t keep them on the shelves. We have elk pot pie, duck, lamb, pheasant and staples like chicken and beef, but my favorite is French pepper steak.”

Like Curley, Cruz worked at Larry’s as one of her first jobs and came back years later when she was asked to handle the holiday gift operation. She says a lot of the store’s key staff members “have had a connection to Larry’s for many years.”

Curley says his staff genuinely cares about Larry’s Market customers and the business, and for that, he’s grateful. “We are really proud of the fact that we have such great people,” he beams. “It’s all teamwork and it makes the business thrive.”


This story ran in the July 2019  issue of: