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04/16/2021

Summerhill temporarily closes commissary due to COVID cases

Despite safety measures, dealing with the third wave of COVID, and the more contagious variants, is a challenge, says co-owner Brad McMullen

Toronto boutique grocery chain Summerhill Market has all but shut down its commissary, which produces the popular prepared foods and meals sold across its four locations.

The decision, which was announced Thursday, came after a number of positive cases were identified recently at the location.

“It has become apparent over the past week that the third wave has been too challenging to provide a safe work environment for our staff and their families,” said a statement on the Summerhill Instagram account.

“It was probably one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make, but probably also one of the easiest,” said Summerhill Market co-owner Brad McMullen of the move to temporarily close down the facility.

The prepared food and meals made at the commissary represent a significant percentage of Summerhill’s sales and draw people to their stores. “It’s probably 25% of the volume of sales, but I’d say it’s like 40% of the reason why people come in our stores,” said McMullen.

The commissary, which normally operates with about 120 people, was open on Friday morning but with a very small team of about 17—people who have, for example, been vaccinated or have self-isolated.

Speaking with Canadian Grocer on Friday, McMullen said they were still unsure of what they’d be able to make with such a small team. “We’re just trying to figure it out,” he said.

Over the course of the pandemic the commissary had isolated COVID cases, but safety measures and protocols in place, and the fact the 120 employees were spread across different rooms and sections of the facility, meant they were able to ensure the virus was not spreading through the workplace and co-workers were safe, said McMullen.

But, this third wave, and the more contagious virus variants, is proving a greater challenge. “We take so many precautions here and we've gone so far with so few cases during the pandemic, it’s just this last wave is just hard to get a handle on,” he said. 

About a week ago, Summerhill started rapid testing everyone coming into the commissary. If a person tested positive they were sent home and their work team was sent for the more precise PCR nasal test. Through that testing they caught additional positive cases.

“That was the part that sent me reeling, no symptoms, no issues, they were doing everything properly on their way into work and out of work” said McMullen. “After that, we had a couple more positive cases that were inexplicable to us, we decided it just didn't feel like a safe workplace anymore… In the past we felt like it was. We just don't really understand it, is part of the issue.”

McMullen said increased staffing and production would depend almost entirely on increased vaccinations. “I understand there's certain priorities and the health care workers and personal support workers should be first,” he said. “I think that grocery store workers are hopefully up soon, I think it's important for us and hopefully we're next up on the list of people that can get vaccinated.”