The University of Texas at Austin
  • Alumnus builds eclectic business off the grid

    By Rose Cahalan, The Alcalde
    Published: Sept. 29, 2011
    Alumnus Andrew Bretch co-founded an eclectic business venture in Columbus off Highway 71.Photo: Rose Cahalan

    This article originally appeared on The Alcalde’s Web site.

    It doesn’t look like much from the highway.

    Drivers passing through the sleepy town of Columbus, smack-dab in between Austin and Houston, might easily miss Industrial Country Market.

    A few solar panels, a greenhouse, and a big metal building are all that’s visible from the road. From afar, the place looks like a solar company, or a small farm with a hippie bent.

    But if you turn off Highway 71 onto the market’s dusty gravel driveway, you’ll quickly realize it’s something different. Colorful glass bottle “branches” sprout from recycled tree sculptures; a stone labyrinth created by a local Boy Scout troop invites contemplation.

    Industrial Country Market, an eclectic business venture co-founded by alumnus Andrew Bretch is a lot more than a country market. It’s also a solar-power education center, an art gallery and informal school, and a wacky playground of sorts. There’s nowhere else quite like it.

    Step into the 6,000 square-foot “non-general general store,” as Bretch calls it, and a quick stop for a soda and snack becomes something else entirely. The huge store is equal parts country kitsch, hipster art gallery, and old-style hardware store — and that diversity is what distinguishes the place from every other highway stop-off. Do you need a locally made giant frog lawn ornament that really croaks? You do now. Screws, nails, cheap plastic containers and all manner of hardware and home gadgets are piled up in the back. Jewelry handmade by Texas artisans sparkles in a corner. There’s even a complete mini-ethnic grocery store within the store — offering everything from Indian curry pastes to South American spices.

    Though it’s right next to the highway and just down the road from a power plant, the place is completely off the grid. Bretch, his wife Anna, Bretch’s parents, and a few friends have built an array of solar panels and generators all by themselves, and stylish aqueducts and water basins stand waiting to collect hundreds of gallons of rainwater. A generator runs on biodiesel trucked in from a Chick-Fil-A.


    A greenhouse at the Industrial Country Market. The whole property is off the grid. View more photos of the Industrial Country Market on Flickr. Photo: Rose Cahalan

    “We want this to be a fun place where you can get a little of everything,” said Bretch. “And that includes educating people about green technology. The whole place is powered by just the sun, wind and rain.”

    Even the restroom is an educational experience. I shuddered involuntarily at the phrase “compost toilets,” which usually means a putrid outhouse — but was pleasantly surprised. They were some of the most immaculate restrooms I’ve ever seen, and certainly the nicest ones to be had along I-71. You’d never guess that the fully-flushing toilets were the compost type, and the walls are papered with old computer chips for a stylish steampunk effect.

    Outside, koi dart around lazily in a big pond and burbling fountain. A few steps away is a butterfly garden and an area for outdoor movie screenings. A small building houses an art gallery and classroom, and another garden is composed entirely of sculptures made from recycled objects. There’s a bike-tire chandelier, a fountain made from a giant knot of garden hoses and all manner of abstract art pieces. The whole place feels like the result of a child, a carpenter and an artist let loose in a junkyard.

    In reality, it’s the longtime dream of Bretch’s parents, Dan and Michele Bretch. His father was a high school shop teacher and electronics store owner for years; he always dreamed of starting another business in his retirement. So he enlisted Bretch, an artist who studied advertising at The University of Texas at Austin, to help. Bretch’s wife, previously an administrative associate in the Department of English, came along for the ride, too. They’re all completely self-taught — Bretch watches a lot of YouTube tutorials on solar power.

    Industrial Country Market has been open for about one year, and the Bretch family always has more projects in the pipeline. When asked what they were planning next, Bretch’s reply is nonchalant: “A golf course, a biergarten, an animal farm with goats and chickens, and an adult playground with swings sized for grown-up legs.”

    • Quote 2
      Glenda Stevens said on March 2, 2012 at 5:41 p.m.
      Off grid power is the way of the future. Becoming more and more popular and as prices and ease of installs becomes more attainable we will see more people taking it up. It just makes ense to harness a renewable that is so present as solar.
    • Quote 2
      George Bennet said on Oct. 14, 2011 at 8:10 p.m.
      Sounds perfect.
    • Quote 2
      Bill said on Oct. 6, 2011 at 8:21 a.m.
      Thanks for this article. I've driven past this place often and never knew it is "open for business." They need to make it more obvious.
    • Quote 2
      Joanna said on Oct. 5, 2011 at 8:24 a.m.
      So cool! Can't wait to stop by and check it out :)
    • Quote 2
      rj32 said on Sept. 30, 2011 at 5:02 p.m.
      Sign me up!!
    • Quote 2
      CindyM said on Sept. 30, 2011 at 3:48 p.m.
      I've been to ICM. It's a fabulous place with something new every time I stop by. There's nothing like it I've ever seen anywhere. Next time you're on Hwy 71, don't just drive past... stop in, say Hi and treat yourself to a real experience.
    • Quote 2
      Sally Williams said on Sept. 30, 2011 at 3:48 p.m.
      Those Bretches are a very clever bunch. I think ICM is the best place to spend an afternoon, have fun and learn a lot.
    • Quote 2
      Nadav said on Sept. 30, 2011 at 12:27 p.m.
      That sounds like a really cool place. Definitely a spot on the map for my next trip to the USA. Nadav
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