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Why Summerhill Market is still thriving after 70 years in the grocery business

The boutique grocery chain opened its first store in 1954, and the rest is history
bob, christy and brad mcmullen of summerhill market
L-R: Bob, Christy and Brad McMullen. Photograph by Christie Vuong

There is a bright, clean and modern esthetic to Summerhill Market’s latest store in Toronto’s west end. It makes for an ideal backdrop for the abundance of fresh ingredients, speciality products and rows upon rows of appetizing prepared meals situated throughout the space. Like each of its other market locations (there are six in total), the gourmet grocer took inspiration from the surrounding neighbourhood and building’s former use in creating this space, which included installing lamps that are repurposed pulley arms from the previous iron shop. 

“We want each store to be completely unique in its look and feel, but our merchandising and product placement to be familiar and consistent across locations,” says Summerhill Market co-owner and president Brad McMullen. All of the grocer’s new stores were designed by Pencil Design and built by Bolt Developments, and each footprint requires a minimum of 50% ancillary or backroom space to accommodate storage and staffing requirements. “This enables us to work in a much smaller footprint than what is typical and we are very accustomed to using freight elevators and accessing basements or second floors,” he says

It is a formula that’s clearly working for Summerhill Market, which is celebrating 70 years of operation in 2024. This latest venture on Dundas Street West marks the culmination of an expansion plan for the grocer that has been in the works for the last five years. On top of five Toronto-based markets and a sixth in Aurora, Ont., Summerhill has a bakery and kitchen commissary where more than 800 freshly prepared items are made daily to ship to its stores. 

The company also opened a 750-sq.-ft. event space in 2023, complete with a fully stocked, built-in kitchen, dining area with 25 table settings and a conference spot with a large screen and surround speakers. The grocer offers flower arrangements for any events hosted there and has partnered with JP Fine Foods to provide catering options, too. The space is primarily being used for corporate events and birthday parties, as well as by influencers promoting new products. There are also floral pop-up shops for special occasions such as Mother’s Day.

“Our Summerhill ecosystem is now set as we have the right number of stores to support the commissary … and it’s about balancing it all,” explains Brad. “I feel like we’re just getting started because we’ve levelled up and have proof of concept of a model that is not like other grocery stores.”

From its first location in Toronto’s upscale Rosedale neighbourhood, Summerhill has steadily grown its reputation for providing prepared meals that are far removed from typical home meal replacement fare. In addition to the No. 1-selling chicken pot pie, the markets carry everything from gourmet salads, tempeh bowls and sushi, to turkey dinners and hand-made gnocchi. Wonton soup is another current big hit. “Whereas others will bring [prepared] foods in and finish them off in the grocery store, all of our prepared meals are made from scratch ... and clean labels are really important to us,” says co-owner and vice-president Christy McMullen. 

READ: Independent minded: As co-owner of Toronto’s venerable Summerhill Market, Christy McMullen wears many hats

She says the secret to producing great-tasting prepared foods requires a willingness to keep trying and testing new recipes. “We taste everything and if we don’t like it, then we make sure it gets adjusted or taken off the shelf,” says Christy, noting that she and her team get inspiration for recipes from going out to restaurants, watching cooking shows and scoping out trends on social media. “It’s complicated because, on top of that, you have to make sure [a meal] reheats well and is packaged well ... so there is a lot of testing going on.”

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Summerhill Market through the years
Summerhill Market through the years. Photography courtesy Summerhill Market

Chefs coming on board appreciate the opportunity to work regular hours in a state-of-the-art facility, says Christy, but sometimes their ideas may not translate into a product that’s feasible at home. “It’s also about being consistent and making sure it tastes the same every time, which is also a challenge,” she says. 

“It’s insane the amount of detail that goes into every dish and I could talk for half an hour about all the things we’ve done over the years to make tweaks,” adds Brad. “But, most of our cooks have been with us for a long time, which is key because once we get it right, we can set it and move on.” 

The fact Summerhill stores are drawing in a broader range of customers than ever before is testament to more shoppers seeking good-quality prepared foods, says Brad. “I think people used to think our stores were only for high-net-worth people, but now everyone who cares about nutritious food and services will shop here,” he says. At a time when food prices are under particular scrutiny, Brad says shoppers are realizing it can actually be more economical to buy prepared foods and reduce waste rather than stocking up on bulk deals they can’t get through fast enough. Plus, with six stores in operation now, he says there is more opportunity to be cost-efficient and pass along those savings to the customers. 

The team is also keen to keep trying new ideas, even if they don’t always work out. For example, Summerhill launched a line of store-branded apparel in 2023 that has since fizzled out, says Christy. “We also stopped a daily barbecue we were doing at our Rosedale location because it was bringing in too much traffic for the space.”

A full family affair

Today, Summerhill Market employs 475 people across all its locations and has dedicated category managers tasked with finding the best products at the best price. At its helm, however, it remains a family-run enterprise through and through.

The first and now flagship store was started by Brad and Christy’s grandfather, Frank McMullen, who gave up his day job as a school principal to try his hand at the grocery business in 1954. He opened Summerhill in Rosedale alongside his brother, who was a butcher, eventually taking it over entirely and working there full-time until just before his 89th birthday. Summerhill’s focus on customer service was apparent even in those early days, with Frank ensuring every item in his store was 100% guaranteed and sourcing products for customers when they weren’t readily available.

Summerhill Market’s Dundas store
Summerhill Market’s Dundas store. Photography courtesy Summerhill Market

He encouraged all five of his children and grandchildren to work in the store, but it was his son Bob McMullen who took on the business after earning his degree and gaining some outside experience at Sun Oil. This job involved going to independent service stations to sell products and scope out new locations. “I realized that the most successful gas station operators were the ones who treated their customers like gold, washing their windows and checking their oil for free,” says Bob. He helped apply these same principles at his father’s store to ensure customer service and good quality were always top of mind. 

Bob ended up running Summerhill for more than two decades and worked in its stores until 2017. Though he has passed the reins to his children, he still weighs in on the big decisions and was critical in scoping out properties for Summerhill’s expansion sites. Bob says finding the right location at the right size—in a good area with parking—takes tremendous time and perseverance. “I must have driven the area 50 times before finding this location,” he says of the Dundas site. 

READ: There's something about Summerhill

His son Brad started working at Summerhill Market at the age of 10 and went straight into the family business after university. “I worked in every department and did every job, which helped me understand all aspects of the business,” he says. “I had a lot of ambitions coming in and it took me a while to learn that the grocery business is really difficult and it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.”

Daughter Christy, a chartered accountant by trade, worked in the store throughout her childhood, then internationally with KPMG before returning to Summerhill in 2003, where she now manages the financial and human resources aspects of the business. A former chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG), she is also an active industry advocate, earning the Federation’s prestigious Life Member Award in 2023. Christy is now chair of the Ontario Food Terminal.

“I think we bring different dynamics to the business, with different strengths and weaknesses, and I think that helps us support each other,” says Brad. “I am the go-getter and they may caution me on where there may be pitfalls … and as a team we work really great together.”

Being a grocer is not for the faint of heart

That’s not to say it’s been a painless route to 70 years as an independent grocer, cautions Bob. A key bone of contention—and one the family (and CFIG) has been fighting against the last decade—is an unlevel playing field between independent retailers and chains when it comes to taxes. Bob discovered he was paying $250,000 in property taxes for his Rosedale location, while a nearby grocery chain was paying $80,000 for a site four times the size. With chains getting big breaks on property and parking taxes, he says it’s no surprise so many independents haven’t survived. While pushing for better rates was fruitful and Summerhill’s property taxes have gone down, he says there is still so much work to be done to get independent grocers on level ground with their bigger counterparts. Another big hurdle for Bob personally was accepting his role as a grocer, where the hours are long and the challenges are daily. “You finish university and all your friends get these high-powered jobs and you’re working in a grocery store,” he says. “Even keeping two stores alive over 60 years was difficult and it’s not until I got Brad and Christy on board that we could really start expanding.”

Now, he says he wishes he had another 50 years to live to see how the business will evolve. “People like what we’re doing and are constantly thanking us for saving them time and aggravation,” he says. “It’s exciting and rewarding when people really appreciate what you do.”

summerhill market founder Frank McMullen with a bakery truck
Founder Frank McMullen with a bakery truck. Photography courtesy Summerhill Market

For Christy, a particularly rewarding part of being an independent grocer has been witnessing the team at Summerhill thrive professionally. “Seeing the people I’ve worked with for a long time take on more responsibility, develop and become better businesspeople themselves, is the exciting part for me,” she says. “They’re the next generation taking it forward and I couldn’t be happier.”

READ: How Summerhill Market’s Luka Cuvalo Takes The Lead

Another key benefit of being a smaller grocer is the constant accessibility of management to deal with staff issues as quickly as possible, say the siblings. “Our people know we’re approachable and available and we literally know about issues first,” says Brad. Couple that with the fact employees are encouraged to make decisions and play to their strengths lends itself to nurturing a happier and more productive culture. “Everyone that works here is part of our ecosystem and encouraged to do things that make the business better,” he says.

What’s next for Summerhill Market still remains to be seen. There are no immediate plans for further expansion, but there is “absolutely the potential to open more stores,” says Brad—all while continuing to innovate within the current locations. “I think there is so much potential to do unique and interesting things in food retail, especially when you have the right people in the right place,” he says.

While there are 70-year-old businesses that are certainly bigger, national and multinational corporations, “we’re small and we’re still here,” says Brad. “I think that’s a testament to making the right decisions and doing the right things at the right time.” 

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s June/July 2024 issue.

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