VOOMcart Chat with Summerhill Market President, Brad McMullen
Toronto's favourite local grocer shares the secret to their success.
The grocery landscape in Canada is not lacking for choice. The variety is huge. But even with big-box retail chains dominating in some cities, there are many boutique, family-run neighbourhood options thriving. And if you live in Toronto, there's probably no bigger success story than Summerhill Market. This uber-successful family-run grocer has been central to the fabric of Toronto's Rosedale neighbourhood since 1954. They now have four locations in neighbourhoods across the city, as well as a fantastic floral boutique, that offer high-quality produce, prepared meals and a wide variety of specialty food items.
We jumped at the chance to partner with Summerhill Market because they represent everything that we love in a local shop: exceptional quality products, community-focused service and a commitment to urban-living. We recently sat down for a chat with Summerhill Market’s President, Brad McMullen, to talk about the family business.
Q: Pretty amazing that your grandfather started what is now the iconic, flagship Summerhill Market in 1954. Things have changed so much since then. What do you think he would be most impressed with about the Summerhill of 2021? That’s such a fun question. Well Frank was very much a head down kind of guy so I suspect he would not be impressed with the quality of some items in our stores or have a beef with an employee who wasn’t up to standard. But he was also a great family man so I’m sure he would be impressed with his grandson and that we still share the same values he held so dear.
Q: We know a thing or two about launching a new product in the middle of a global pandemic. What was the hardest thing about launching two new Summerhill Market stores in the midst of a pandemic? Like everyone else, it’s been very surreal and incredibly challenging but it seems our team loves a challenge! The hardest part has been the inability to get all of our leaders in the same room together. There are so many moving parts and for people in our business, email and phone calls just don’t cut it. Hiring new people and trying to ingrain our culture is an uphill climb. Training new people with masks on and staying apart from each other isn’t ideal - but we’ve come so far, all things considered. I will say that it made construction at our newest store on Eglinton much easier. There were plenty of logistical challenges alleviated by having unencumbered access to the building.
Q: Summerhill has always been a neighbourhood grocer. How will you maintain the standard of excellence you are so known for during this time of expansion?
Well, I can speak for myself that I never relent on the quality of our products. It sometimes seems like a whack-a-mole game but I believe we have a very strong team that thinks the same way. The service aspect is more challenging in that it takes a long time to find and add the kind staff that truly care about delivering great service and becoming part of our neighbourhoods. I don’t think there is a shortcut here. These relationships take time to build and when I trust our managers I simply empower them to do what they think is right. That’s at least the plan!
Q: How would you describe the average Summerhill Market shopper?
Good question. When I’m asked about who shops at our stores it’s interesting how it changes throughout the days and weeks. We have so many different profiles I’m not sure you could describe an average shopper. We have generational shoppers, out of town foodies, some that come for one item and others who only shop at Summerhill! With the new locations our customer base has broadened. I think the common denominator is someone looking for good quality prepared foods and then supplementing that with our full offering beyond that.
Q: Last question, where do you see Summerhill Market in 10, 20 years? That’s an easy answer and not very interesting. Going from 2 stores to 4 stores has meant pretty much rewiring our entire company. I made a promise to myself to not think beyond these 4 stores and to solely focus on making sure the customer experience is even better than it has been with 2 stores. I think that when we achieve that then it will be fun to think of what could be next. If I know anything about the food business it’s that whatever you thought was right will be completely wrong in about 5 years!
We polled the VOOMteam of our favourite things from Summerhill Market. Turns out we have all been relying on Summerhill for their unbelievable ready to eat meals during this past year of lockdowns. It’s been our go-to for comfort food and countless gift baskets to celebrate new babies, new homes, convalescence... and just about any time we needed a break from cooking. So, thank you Summerhill for serving up some much needed comfort over the last 50 years!
Visit Summerhillmarket.com for store hours and location details.
VOOMcart’s Top 10 Items from Summerhill Market
CPP/Chicken Pot Pie
Mac and Cheese
BBQ Pork Ribs
Chicken Pad Thai
Flattened Marinated Chicken
Chicken Chow Mein