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There's something about Summerhill

How Toronto’s Summerhill Market has built a loyal following, one chicken pot pie at a time

IN Toronto’s tony Rosedale enclave, nestled among stately multimillion-dollar homes, sits a grocery gem: Summerhill Market. From the outside, its rustic facade welcomes those who happen to stumble upon it. But for regulars it’s a place to get good, old-fashioned home cooking, such as Summerhill’s famed chicken pot pies, and gourmet treats, such as this year’s Canadian Cheese Grand Prix winner, Louis d’Or, a firm cheese made from organic milk in Quebec.

These days, Bob McMullen, the patriarch (or “chairman” as his son refers to him) of the family business, leaves most of the day-to-day running to his two children, Brad and Christy. It gives McMullen plenty of time to do what he enjoys most: treasure hunting for the latest and greatest foods to introduce to customers. “Dad comes in two or three days of the week; and he’s involved in the bigger-picture issues,” says Brad, explaining in a nutshell how things work around the store.

Though it’s become something of a foodie landmark in Toronto, Summerhill started from humble beginnings 57 years ago. Brad and Christy’s grandfather, Frank, opened the small grocery store upon the advice of his brother, who happened to own a meat shop down the street. Brad joined the family business in 1996, two days after graduating from university. “My dad convinced me it was a good place to be, and I looked up to him as a business role model, someone I wanted to be like,” he says. Meanwhile, Christy, a chartered accountant, moved back to Canada from Bermuda to join her brother and father, in 2003.

For the two siblings, going into grocery was a natural move. And they’ve had the freedom to try out new things. Mistakes, says Brad, have provided the best lessons. “ is a great challenge, and we can make this store whatever we want.” He adds: “If I wanted to do something different, I’d just do it, and I’ve been able to do everything I wanted to make the business better.”

CHRISTY AND BRAD McMullen offer a vast array of home-style prepared foods to shoppers, plus unique services like pumpkin carving and The elder McMullen sees prepared floral arranging

The McMullens have turned Summerhill into more than just a grocery store. They’ve perfected the art of selling prepared foods to busy urban professionals who don’t always have time to cook. And they’ve done it all within a compacted environment. The Summerhill building is 28,500 square feet spread across three storeys. Up top, staff in the 6,000-square-foot kitchen whip up 600 different types of prepared foods. With typically limited big-city parking space, Summerhill employs parking lot attendants to direct traffic.

Today, Summerhill puts a huge emphasis on prepared foods. They take up about one-quarter of the space on the store floor. The elder McMullen sees prepared floral arranging items as the key to Summerhill’s current success. “If we didn’t have the fresh, we’d be out of business,” he says, matter of factly. Indeed, it seems the fresh perimeter keeps encroaching on the grocery centre of the store as customers seek out time-saving options from their neighbourhood grocery store.

The McMullens started doing prepared foods in the mid-1980s. At first it was pizzas, then they added what has become their most popular take-home staple: chicken pot pies. Some 300 pies are sold daily. In addition, there’s a smorgasbord of foodie delights: African yam soup, turkey watercress club sandwiches and Summerhill orzo salad.

“That part of our business has grown, and is the fastest growth area,” says Brad. Summerhill Market’s basement and third floors have been renovated and expanded over the years to make room for the growing prepared food business. As Brad says, Summerhill sees itself as a neighbourhood extension of its customers’ kitchens.

Summerhill's kitchen staff

SUMMERHILL'S kitchen staff prepares everything from scratch for 600 HMR items

It’s not easy preparing all that food. An executive chef oversees 85 full-time kitchen staff (40 on a daily basis) who make everything from scratch. They hand dice all ingredients and create their own chicken broth from carcasses after the meat has been culled for the chicken pot pies. “No one knows how much work goes into the fresh products we make,” says Brad. “It translates into good quality.”

But while the focus on home-style cooking is a nod to the past, the McMullens are shaking up the sometimes staid approach grocers have to store decor and services. Take for instance the elegant chandeliers hanging in the meat department. Instead of traditional fluorescent lighting, the light fixtures give the department an upscale, restaurant ambiance that encourages browsing. Brad admits he went through seven designers before finally settling on one chandelier style that he liked. “While we suffered in some sense in layout and functionality, we made up for it in esthetics,” he says.

Services at Summerhill are also one of a kind. If they can’t find a product or service, they create it. Case in point, their floral department offers a decidedly upscale look, with Europeanstyle, hand-tied bouquets. It allows flowers and foliage to be displayed to the fullest effect. Meanwhile for Halloween, Brad introduced hollowed-out pumpkins, while Christy offered painted pumpkins. Both items proved popular to a clientele
that consists of seniors in the morning; families in the afternoon; and business professionals on their way home from work in the evenings. Christy adds they like to be a one-stop shop for everything. She recalls her grandfather grabbing one of their extension cords and giving it to a customer who couldn’t find one for sale in the store.

Adding to their already full plate, in June 2011 the McMullen trio opened a second store in another well-heeled neighbourhood a few kilometres north. The store there used to belong to their uncle Wayne. Brad says they were running out of room to grow at the flagship Summerhill location so they jumped at the venture. “We share the same customers, and there’s the proximity to this main store so it made sense.”

There were some unexpected challenges with the new store, however, such as transporting a selection of the best prepared products from the main store to the newer one. The second store will prove to be an important marker in deciding whether there are more stores under the Summerhill banner to come. As Bob says, it’s not a panacea to have 10 stores. But Brad adds, “if there’s an opportunity, we’ll look at it.”

As for the future, the elder McMullen doesn’t see retirement on his horizon yet. Brad adds jokingly that you don’t ever really retire when you’re in the grocery business. Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: every day there are surprises to keep them on their toes. “We have no idea what’s going to happen from one day to the next,” says Christy.

And that’s just the way the McMullens like it.

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