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Independent minded

As co-owner of Toronto’s venerable Summerhill Market, Christy McMullen wears many hats.

Ask Christy McMullen how she feels
about the grocery business and she’ll tell you it’s “in her blood.”

It’s a sentiment you often hear from independent grocers with deep roots in the business. McMullen grew up in the grocery store her grandfather Frank opened in 1954. Back then, the small, 2,500-sq.-ft. store located on a quiet street in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood served as a community hub. Summerhill Market remains so today, although a lot has changed. The Rosedale store has grown to 10,000 sq. ft. and is well known for its specialties and top- notch prepared foods, created in-house by an army of kitchen staff. McMullen and her brother Brad now oversee the Summerhill operation, which includes a second store (on Mt. Pleasant Ave.) and a floral boutique. A third store, located in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, is also in the works and is scheduled to open early next year. On top of all that, a 30,000-sq.-ft. commissary is under construction. “We’re definitely in growth mode,” says McMullen.

If running a growing grocery business wasn’t enough, McMullen will soon be adding to her workload. In October, she will take on the role of chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG); she’s just the second woman to hold the position at the organization that represents some 4,000 independent grocers across the country. We recently caught up with McMullen—who was also a 2015 winner of Canadian Grocer’s Star Women in Grocery awards—to talk about everything from Summerhill’s famous chicken pot pie to the need for a more level playing field in the grocery industry. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Although you grew up in the grocery business, you did step away for a bit, correct?
Yes, I guess it was important to my dad that I go out into the world and try something else, so I went to university and became a chartered accountant. I worked abroad for KPMG for years and learned what it was like to work for someone other than the family. It was good experience, but I think I always knew I would return to the grocery business.

What’s the key to Summerhill Market’s success?
Listening to our customers has been a big part of it. Our long-term customers aren’t afraid to tell us what they want and they’re pretty knowledgeable and well-travelled; if they see something somewhere they’ll ask us to bring it in and we’ll try to get it. Another thing we’ve really focused on is making things as convenient as possible for our customers, whether it’s providing grab-and-go foods or hollowing out pumpkins for Halloween. Being an independent, it’s important to always come up with new ideas; some work, some fail, and when they do fail you learn from them and move on.

Can you provide an example of this?
Hmmm. Well, a few years ago we introduced a holiday turkey dinner service that failed miserably. We had angry customers that had to wait in very long lines at the store. It wasn’t good. We miscalculated how long it would take to pack up the boxes. Everything was fine in the days leading up to the holiday, but the day before we got hit with a lot of orders to fill and we couldn’t catch up. We knew we had to repair the relationship with those customers so we sent out an apology in an email and offered them a free chicken pot pie. We also learned from the experience, worked through the process and the following year all went well.

You mentioned grab-and-go foods. Summerhill got into home-meal replacement (HMR) quite early, right?
Yes, it all started with our chicken pot pie 30 years ago so we’ve been at HMR a really long time. Today it’s a really important part of the business.

What do you like most about your job?
I like that I never know what each day will bring. The grocery business is so different from one day to the next. One day I might be negotiating a million-dollar loan from the bank, the next day I’m helping Hugh Jackman carry groceries out to his car, or I might be outside directing traffic—every day is something new.

How do you attract great staff?
Staffing is a definite challenge in grocery, as staff can be very transient in this business. We try to promote people from within and we also like to let managers have some ownership over their work, so we’ll give them opportunities to test out their ideas and see how they work. We’re not afraid of failure.

In the larger grocery industry, what are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen over the last few years?
Just how many new players are out there now. Competition is coming from everywhere: Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes, meal kits, Costco has really improved its food offering and, of course, Amazon. And then just the focus on fresh has become so important and the knowledge of consumers now is so great—they really want to know about their food and the products they buy.

How do independents best tackle the changing retail landscape?
Wherever they can, independents should find their niche and be amazing at it. The chains do many things well but they don’t focus on some of these things, like service, as well as independents. And, of course, the other thing about independents is that they can respond very quickly and make changes in their business.

What’s the most interesting trend you’ve seen lately?
The biggest thing right now is plant-based diets—there’s so much happening in this area. We’ve recently hired a vegan chef and some of the recipes she’s developing taste better than the traditional versions. With people looking so closely at their health, I think it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Probably to join the CFIG board. In terms of professional development and building relationships with others in the industry, and learning best practices has been valuable—especially because grocery is so different from other industries. It’s nice to share with others and see how they operate their businesses.

What would you say are the top issues facing independent grocers today?
Fairness. It’s not a level playing field; for example, independent grocers’ property taxes are high in comparison to the chains. We paid over $250,000 in property tax for a 10,000-sq.-ft. business, whereas a nearby chain paid $80,000 for 40,000-sq.-ft. store—a big discrepancy. It’s grossly unfair and it’s an issue we are passionate about; we want to get the word out, because people don’t know. And then there are credit card fees, which are higher for independents.

I think another issue that’s going to become more important is plastic packaging reduction. We’re getting a lot of heat from our customers to reduce plastic. With a lot of prepared foods comes a lot of packaging, and we’re frantically trying to come up with a solution that will help reduce our use of plastic while keeping the food safe. Another thing we’re seeing is governments falling over themselves to attract Amazon’s headquarters. Amazon is cutting into all of our businesses; it’s important to understand that with independents the money stays in our communities, and that’s not the case with Amazon.

READ: Toronto the only Canadian city in the running for Amazon’s second headquarters

What does the future look like for independents in Canada?
I think there are tons of opportunities for independents; we just need to level the playing field.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s September/October 2018 issue.

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