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Summerhill’s Brad McMullen discusses e-grocery and holiday prep

Co-owner shares how the Toronto grocery chain has fared since the start of the pandemic and how it’s preparing for a possible second wave

It’s been six months now since the pandemic took hold in Canada, triggering massive changes to the way people shop for food. In April, the early days of the COVID crisis, Canadian Grocer reached out to Summerhill Market co-owner Brad McMullen about how he—and his full-service grocery chain in Toronto—had reacted and adapted to the massive changes. We decided it would be a good time to check back and see how things are going now.

Summerhill co-owner Brad McMulllen.

Summerhill co-owner Brad McMulllen.

How are things going now, six months into the pandemic?
I think people are still buying more and shopping less frequently, the orders are still definitely significantly higher than what it was before… I think it's come back a little bit. I can say our lineups have all but disappeared over the summer, and things are spread out really well.

What are they buying?
There's no panic buying and I would say we've noticed the baked goods have come back up, the prepared foods—a quick convenience item—is coming back. But I think people are still taking a little more time cooking. So a lot of these quick-serve convenience items have not hit pre-COVID numbers.

The launch of your online service was delayed from March until May.
There was a lot more that was not going to work for the website then I realized. It looked like it was ready to go and we could have launched but the back end, the processes were a lot more complicated. Once I got into it to understand what we were about to launch, we said okay we better wait before we do that. So yeah we had to make a lot of adjustments and tweaks.

But you created your own site?
We built it from scratch, which is a whole other thing that not everyone does.

Has online been more about delivery or pickup?
We do offer both. It was funny because I felt like we launched as the weather started to get warmer, and people started to become more relaxed. There was obviously unlimited demand for the online store , and then I felt that we launched the same week that unlimited demand had been met, or the interest had waned, so we were a little late.

Do you expect that to come back in the winter or as people get more nervous about COVID again?
And that was one of the prime reason why we pushed through. It wasn't even for summer, it's more for the unknown of what's going to happen. I'll never forget watching customers stand outside in the freezing cold in March with the rain and the wind pelting them. So yeah the service is essentially ready to go for the winter.

How do you plan for October-November?
You have to predict as best you can. We stocked up on our essentials to give us some lead time in case there is some shortages, as far our packaging and some ingredients that we foresee there could be some shortages.

It was so much more serious and unknown back in March, so I kind of feel like we could just go back into that mode. And I think we would be fairly well prepared based on everything that we did there.

The discomfort of the cold will be the only X factor that's out there. We've secured a bunch of heaters for potential lineups …. so we’re preparing to build shelters that are heated. That would be the one thing that we're preparing for that we didn't do in the past.

What about planning for the holidays?
We're preparing for it to be a regular holiday in the quantity of food that we will order, but what we're having to build in that is different is the flexibility to provide it in a different way.

Our catering department, for example, was closed and still is closed but we're known for our holiday dinners… if the guidance of the government is limit to gatherings of five people or 10 people or 15 people, we will just make sure to follow along those guidelines in our offering and then try to figure out ways that we can execute the huge amount of volume that we would typically do in a holiday.

It'll be impossible to put 2,000 people through our doors in a day… we know we can do a maximum of about 650. So we may have to have either pickup locations or deliveries, or limit the amount of orders that we can do.

But as far as preparing for Thanksgiving, we basically secured as much food as we would typically have, and we'll have to see how it goes. We know we may get stuck with overages, but we're going to invest in the holiday for customers.

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