Upbeat music is playing over the speakers, natural sunlight streams in through two large skylights, and the wooden shelving and folksy-yet-modern artwork on the walls give the store a warm vibe as you walk through its doors. Summerhill Market’s newest location in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, which opened in November, definitely doesn’t feel like a cookie-cutter grocery store. “We’re all about being different; that’s what we focus on, being unique,” says Summerhill co-owner Brad McMullen.
The Annex store is the third location for the boutique grocer, which has a history that stretches back more than 65 years. McMullen’s grandfather, Frank, opened the first Summerhill Market in the upscale Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale in 1954, and it’s been a fixture in the community ever since. The McMullen family focused on operating just the one store until 2011, when they expanded by opening a small second location, the 2,300-sq.-ft. Sherwood store not far from Rosedale on Mount Pleasant Road.
At 6,000 sq. ft., the Annex location is larger than the Sherwood store but smaller than the grocer’s Rosedale flagship (which has a retail floor space of nearly 10,000 sq. ft.). And when strolling through the store, it’s clear it has been carefully and efficiently designed to make the most of every bit of space. The aisles aren’t the traditional wide, linear ones typically found in grocery stores; for instance, there are smaller shelving units positioned between some of the aisles and the route to the checkout is lined with shelves attractively packed with products to inspire impulse purchases on the way out.
McMullen, who helms Summerhill with his sister Christy, says they learned a lot about how to maximize space from their smaller Sherwood location. “We realized you can start merchandising anywhere and everywhere,” he says, pointing to an eye-catching display of Flow Water nestled into a spot near the checkout area as an example.
The bright, warm interiors of the new location were created by Pencil Design, a Toronto-based firm that does a lot of work designing restaurants. “I like people who do restaurants to do our grocery stores, just because they think maybe a little differently, like we do,” says McMullen. “They bring a different sort of aesthetic ... Finding something that was unique, that just has a very natural, organic feel to it was important to us. Because we’re a family-run business, that was part of the atmosphere we wanted to convey; just sort of a warm, welcoming environment.”
About 700 prepared foods and Summerhill-branded items are prepared at a 20,000-sq.-ft. commissary.
Design aside, McMullen says one of the main factors that makes Summerhill stand out from the crowd is its extensive range of high-quality prepared foods and Summerhill-branded offerings. “We make everything from scratch, all our pastries, our cookies, our pies, our loaf cakes, our nuts, popcorn, chips—all these things are made from scratch at our commissary.” He’s referring to Summerhill’s new commissary that opened earlier this year: a 20,000-sq.-ft. facility dedicated to preparing food items for all the stores. Summerhill now has more than 120 cooks and bakers working full time at the commissary, preparing everything from Summerhill’s signature chicken pot pies and turkey dinners to its sauces, salads, and more—about 700 different items, according to McMullen.
All these offerings reflect Summerhill’s philosophy: “Everything we do is to save our customers time and give them the highest quality, whether that be salads or prepared foods or cookies or whatnot. Everything is designed for speed and quality,” says McMullen, noting that this philosophy extends to the store’s convenient and accessible location as well.
While prepared foods are what makes Summerhill special, so are the products that are brought into the stores. The McMullens take pride in sourcing interesting brands, including items that aren’t necessarily easy to find elsewhere in the city. “As far as finding the trends, it’s much easier now because you can follow influencers in the food business and learn what’s trending,” says McMullen. “We have people coming in who are passionate about finding the latest and greatest, and as soon as we see something interesting, we try our best to bring it in. Then when we do, we promote the heck out of it, and that’s one of the things that keeps people coming to us, that we’re the only ones who have it.”
To that end, they use the hashtag #OnlyAtSummerhill to promote these kinds of hard-to-find brands, including the likes of Banza pasta, Oatly oat milk and oat-based ice cream, Just Egg plant-based egg replacer, Miyoko’s plant-based cheeses and butter, Fage Greek yogurt and Chobani Greek yogurt, to name just a few.
Summerhill co-owner Brad McMullen
McMullen says they had been looking to buy a location in the Annex area for several years; once they found the location on Bathurst Street (in a building that had formerly been a carpet store), they knew they had finally found the right fit: it was “the right size, with access to parking and transit, and was in a good neighbourhood that we thought would work,” he says.
The Annex itself is a little different from the tony Rosedale neighbourhood— it’s known for a creative, academic demographic with many University of Toronto students and professors populating the area. McMullen says while they’re just getting to know the local customers, “we’ve had a very warm welcome.” He has already noticed a greater demand for plant-based items here than at Rosedale, which will likely shape the offerings at the Annex location as time goes on.
Summerhill is undeniably in growth mode at the moment—not only did it open its commissary earlier this year and the Annex store in late November, but it is also in the process of building a new store in Toronto’s upscale Forest Hill neighbourhood, set to open in 2020. Summerhill is also getting ready to launch a new e-commerce/home delivery branch of the business early in the new year. McMullen explains that a few years ago, the family decided together that they would use the wealth of knowledge they had gained in all their years in operation to just “go for it” in terms of expansion. “We decided, as a family, to have some fun and see what we could do to grow the business.”
Photography by Tobi Asmoucha
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s December 2019/January 2020 issue.