Founded by Frank McMullen in 1954, Summerhill Market has been an integral part of the Rosedale neighbourhood since its establishment. Summerhill has carried on Frank’s legacy by going above and beyond for customer service. However, not an exclusively eco-friendly grocer, the staff at Summerhill have made impressive strides to reduce their ecological footprint while still providing outstanding quality to their customers. OnSide Media had a conversation with Brad Mcullen about the challenges and the rewards of carrying Summerhill Market through the generations.
What are some of the ways you honour Frank McMullen’s legacy when running Summerhill Market?
Brad McMullen: We have a plaque in our main store. Every day, we rely on good service and word of mouth that was ingrained in myself and my sister. It runs through our whole company. The biggest compliment I get the most is about our service and our staff. That is Frank and his passion for customer service coming from the top-down. When people come to work at our store, they follow everyone else. It becomes a part of our culture. We don’t do everything intentionally, other than a plaque or two, but the legacy runs through the whole business.
What makes Summerhill different from other, newer eco-friendlier markets in Toronto?
I don’t like to position Summerhill as an eco-friendly grocery store, and I don’t want to tell a customer that it’s eco-friendly. But what we like to do is what I believe are the right things for the environment and our store. What I’ve learned over the last eight years with environmentalism in grocery stores is that there are endless choices and solutions that are considered sustainable. I would like to think that I’ve taken things a step further. When I look at these options, I realize that there are a lot of misconceptions around the waste stream.
People think we know where certain items go, but we really don’t. What separates Summerhill from everyone else is that the choices we make are best for the environment and our business. We’ve made a lot of decisions that may not look sustainable, but we know they are the best decisions we can possibly make for our customers. There are a lot of examples of green washing, which are disingenuous. I do not want to participate in that.
Summerhill Market has been around since 1954 and has been making strides to be more eco-friendly since. What is the earliest initiative that the store made to reducing its ecological footprint?
One of the biggest decisions we’ve made is that we used to have our prepared foods come in plastic or foil. We spent two years looking for the best solution for our prepared foods in the manner of quality, cost, transportability, shelf-life, and sustainability. It was a huge deep dive for us. We decided on aluminum foil containers with a seal on it for majority of our prepared foods. There is no plastic anywhere because there is a seal on it. I reached out to the Toronto Waste Wizard to find out where our customers’ waste goes. If we produce a plastic container or cutlery, where does it all go? It was really revealing, and what I took from that was that aluminum foil was the easiest for them to separate. That was the premise for me to make the right decision.
Summerhill Market has been innovative in creating alternatives to plastic food storage. Which product required the most effort to make it sustainable?
BM: Figuring out the foil containers, machinery, and the type of packaging took the most effort. A lot of it isn’t so much in the effort but in sorting through the relentless number of products out there with aggressive salespeople who will tell you something is eco-friendly, when it’s really not. Or something may be sustainable in Europe or Asia, but not in Toronto, because we have a very specific waste stream. We tried to find things that were suitable for our area. That took a long time to figure out.
What is the biggest challenge to running a long-standing grocery store? What is the biggest reward?
I think the biggest challenge is also the biggest reward. In our position, we are always looking for ways to be innovative and ahead of the curve. The environment is much more competitive than it used to be. I think we are doing a good job, so that is also a reward. We try things, come up with ideas, and pursue new products. When our customers like them, that is also the most rewarding to us. I feel like the sky is the limit. There are so many avenues and opportunities. We are just getting started, in a way, because we have so much fun coming up with innovative ways to impress our customers.
For more information, visit https://www.summerhillmarket.com/