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A turn at Summerhill

Running this family-owned independent Toronto grocery is amazingly like making a success of a mid-sized Canadian farm, which is why co-owner Christy McMullen is rarely standing still

Chicken pot pie is on our radar the moment I arrive. I’ve heard raves about it, and it’s not long before I spot it. When I pick one up, I quickly understand something about this store’s reputation.

At over 1.5 kg, this not your typical meat pie. Nor is this your typical store.

Summerhill Market co-owner Christy McMullen later tells me more about the chicken pot pie. “Everything is done on site,” she says. That includes the flaky puff pastry, dicing the vegetables, picking the chicken from the bone, and more.

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Father and son on their farm

McMullen says she has customers who come from the other side of Toronto to get these pies. She laughs as she recounts a customer who took one to a family member who had moved to Calgary and had a craving for a Summerhill Market chicken pot pie.

McMullen’s grandfather opened Summerhill Market in 1954 in Rosedale in what is now the heart of old Toronto. At the time, it was 2,500 square feet. Today, the store has grown to 10,000 square feet and has carved out a reputation for prepared foods. There are approximately 800 foods prepared in-house. Of the 250 employees, 110 work in the kitchen.

McMullen and her brother, Brad, co-manage the business. Their father, Bob, is still involved part-time, helping with tasks such as researching new equipment. While Bob still owns the business, they are currently in the process of moving ownership to the next generation.

In your blood

McMullen started working in the store when she was 10 years old and continued all the way through high school.

She left the family business for university, and then worked as a chartered accountant in Canada and overseas. She says that time away was an important step to getting to where she is today — back at the family business.

“They can be really challenging,” she says as she talks about family businesses. Working elsewhere helped her to make sure that this is where she wanted to be. She knew she would come back, though. “It’s in your blood,” she says.

McMullen has been on the board of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG) for eight years, and in October 2018, became the chair. She is also on the board of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a horticultural research centre in southern Ontario.

“You can get Diet Coke anywhere,” says McMullen. But that still leaves huge room for a retailer who listens to customers.
photo: Anne de Haas

These networks help her a lot. “It’s been a great experience,” she says, talking about meeting independent grocers from other parts of the country who aren’t competitors, people she can compare notes with. It’s also a good opportunity to connect with companies that service the grocery industry, such as consumer packaging companies.

At Summerhill Market, getting a piece of the retail pie has meant… making a really good pie. McMullen says Summerhill Market has had to differentiate itself from chain stores. High-end prepared foods like the pie is one way to stand out. Now, more than a grocery store, Summerhill Market is a destination for busy people who want really good prepared food.

Store tour

McMullen walks me around Summerhill Market and tells me about what they do — and what they do differently.

We start in the produce section, where one of the first items to catch my eye is fresh peas that are already shelled. The fresh figs look good too, and the employee laying them out can describe the colour inside and the taste.

McMullen says they have a produce buyer at the Toronto Food Terminal five days a week — and he tastes the fruit and vegetables before he buys.

The produce section also has prepared food items such as carrot curls, cut fruit, and “pressed juices” in a rainbow of colours. When I ask about the juices, she says, “You get your vegetables all in one drink.” The display is colourful and the names are engaging: orange power punch, mean green, and detox mojito.

McMullen stops at a large cooler in the produce section which she calls “the bunker.” They use this area to highlight special items. The idea, she explains, is to catch customers here in the produce section at the beginning of their shopping trip, before they’re tired.

One of the features in the bunker is a “restaurant pop-up,” where they feature food from a local restaurant for the month. The restaurant pop-up is curated by a Toronto food writer who promotes it on Twitter with the hashtag #SummerhillxRestoPopup. Today they are featuring a local Argentinian restaurant call VOS. McMullen says the restaurant pop-up gives them something new for their customers and creates a buzz.

photo: Anne de Haas

Next to the restaurant pop-up are prepared individual sliced turkey dinners with cranberry sauce, green beans, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and sweet potato. On the other side of the bunker is a shelf with the cheese of the week. This week it’s a Canadian cheese from Quebec, Le Riopelle de l’Isle.

And… there are chicken pot pies in the bunker too. McMullen explains we’ll see them again in a moment in the prepared food area. The pies are here to catch shoppers early in their shopping trip.

We make our way to the meat counter, which has thick steaks and choice roasts. There is as much marinated meat as there is fresh meat. “It’s a big portion of what we do,” says McMullen. Pointing to a marinated, deboned chicken stuffed with apple, she explains, “One of the big things is the deboned chicken with marinade.”

In the prepared-food coolers there is a wide variety of dishes. Along with more common fare such as soups, pasta salads, meat pies, and mashed potatoes, there are dishes such as braised beef linguine, gluten-free mushroom pizza, and spicy sausage and rapini orecchiette.

McMullen says that they are focusing on international prepared foods, pointing to what she explains is a Thai dish in a ready-to-go bowl labelled Khao Soy Noodle Bowl. The Summerhill Market website advertises, “We take our pad Thai seriously. Our pad Thai is hand-tossed with rice noodles, jumbo shrimp and garnished with fresh chopped green onion, lemon and cherry tomatoes in a house-made traditional Thai sauce.”

In the next aisle are the prepared vegan foods. A recent vegan addition to the menu is BBQ jackfruit — something that can be used to make a pulled-pork-style sandwich.

We put on hair nets as we tour the upstairs kitchen. It’s humming. McMullen explains that until they recently opened a 30,000-square foot offsite preparation facility, the kitchen upstairs operated 24 hours a day. There is an executive chef and four sous chefs to develop recipes and oversee the kitchens.

Being an independent

The “fresh perimeter” of the store — the area with produce, deli, meat, and prepared goods — takes up a lot of the store. It’s more than most grocery stores. McMullen explains that as an independent, it’s not a level playing field — so they play a different game.

Chain stores can charge product listing fees and can ask for price cuts. An independent can’t. As we walk through an aisle with soaps and detergents, McMullen explains, “We can’t get them at the same price the big chains get it for.” So soap and detergent selection is minimal.

That goes for other common packaged goods too. There are just a few types of Campbell’s tinned soup. There’s an ED Smith tinned pumpkin — but it’s got the same amount of shelf space as a lesser-known brand of organic tinned squash.

The “fresh perimeter” of the store — the area with produce, deli, meat, and prepared goods — takes up a lot of the store.
photo: Anne de Haas

“You can get Diet Coke anywhere,” she says as we walk past store-made goods, pointing to homemade eggnog. “Our chips are made on site too,” she says. She adds that she is lucky because her clients have the disposable income to pay for prepared foods and specialty items.

McMullen says there are other challenges to being an independent. For starters, it’s hard to get financing. Then, when it comes to building, there is a lot to learn. “You have to be a master of everything,” she says, as she talks about permits, contractors, and designers. “Chains go in and build out a store in three months,” she says.

McMullen’s advice for small business operators is: “Listen to your customers.” More than that, she says, try to develop a relationship with them. She says it can be difficult when they give you bad news — but listening to that bad news is critical. Right now she gets lots of pushback from customers who want to see less plastic packaging, and she’s taking it seriously.

Looking ahead

McMullen has seen lots of trends come and go. Some stick. “Our customers always like local,” she says, adding, “I think local is here to stay.” She wishes that she could get local produce items later into the season.

The demand for prepared food is strong. While the chicken pot pies are a staple, the menu of prepared foods continues to evolve. McMullen talks about a growing menu of plant-based foods developed by the vegan chef who they recently hired. She also sees growth potential with international foods. And, in general, having “healthy” food made with whole ingredients.

Summerhill Market is in growth mode. In 2011, they opened a second location four kilometres away when her uncle retired and they bought his store. While not as big as the flagship store, it’s on a busy street.

They doubled the size of the flagship store parking lot over the past year, no small feat in an older, densely packed neighbourhood where they had to buy neighbouring buildings.

Looking ahead, they have a new store slated to open in spring 2019 in the Annex, a vibrant downtown neighbourhood near the University of Toronto.

I leave with a chicken pot pie. McMullen laughs and says, “I don’t eat them anymore.” She’s eaten a lot of chicken pie, and she has a lot of other prepared-food options to look forward to.

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