26 Oct Kubera Merchant: Summerhill Market – A hidden city treasure
Jameson Watermulder is executive chef of Summerhill Market and oversees an 80-member kitchen brigade. Here he shows off a turkey pot pie.
Photo Credit: RICK EGLINTON/TORONTO STAR
By Jennifer Bain Food Editor
Hidden in the labyrinth of residential Rosedale is a small strip of businesses that’s home to a family run supermarket with a few quirks.
Summerhill Market has an executive chef, an 80-member kitchen brigade and an 800-item menu of prepared foods. It has traffic controllers to handle its 28-car parking lot. It runs a barbecue stand with one of the best lunch deals in town.
“This is such a unique place and no one really knows about it,” says third-generation co-owner and general manager Brad McMullen.
Well, no one that is, except the people who live and work in the upscale environs of Rosedale.
Like landscaper David Pearson, who stops to chat while getting a barbecued burger.
“For five bucks you get a homemade burger with onions, mushroom and bacon — and an awesome dude cooking them,” he raves.
The “awesome dude” is Wayne Westhoff, who runs the barbecue stand weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. from March to October. (He works in the bakery the rest of the year.) He grills half-pound beef and chicken burgers, Berkshire pork hotdogs and three kinds of sausages. Cheese, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions and Berkshire pork bacon are free.
“I try to find jobs near this barbecue,” says Brendan Dolan, another landscaper.
“Let’s put it this way. I do a little dance the first day it opens for the season.”
Summerhill Market has so much prepared food that it aptly bills itself as a “neighbourhood extension of your own kitchen.” Compared to most supermarkets, its grocery prices are high. Compared to restaurants, its prepared food is reasonably priced.
Brad’s late grandfather, Frank McMullen, started the store in 1954. It’s now 28,500-sq.-ft. with a ground-floor store, a huge kitchen upstairs and a smaller kitchen/storage area in the basement. It was named independent grocer of the year in 2009 by the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.
Still, lots of people have never been to Summerhill or mistakenly think it’s the grocery store south of the Summerhill LCBO on Yonge St. (that’s Harvest Wagon). The market is on Summerhill Ave. east of Mt. Pleasant and just south of a freight-train track.
In other words, it’s on a street that people don’t just stumble upon in a neighbourhood (Rosedale) that doesn’t draw much drive-by traffic.
McMullen, 37, is grateful for his 1,200 to 1,400 customers a day. He employs 200 people spread over two locations. (A new, smaller location on Mt. Pleasant Rd. attracts 450 people daily).
The business is growing by “at least 10 per cent” a year. About 1,000 customers have accounts and pay by monthly statements.
“We try to improve a little bit every day,” says McMullen. “We try to be creative and come up with new concepts.”
Enter the kitchen brigade.
The top-selling prepared foods are pot pies, lasagnas and shepherd’s pies, but there’s also lobster salad, prime rib dinners, lamb loin dinners, pistachio pork, marinated shrimp, burritos, cold poached salmon, Thai mango salad, broccoli salad. There are homemade potato chips (sea salt, lemon pepper and Cajun), as well as prepared salads, prewashed romaine, diced veggies and sliced mangos.
“We certainly are not the cheapest store,” concedes McMullen, “but when you use what we do to make the products that we make, I think that there’s really good value there.”
Customers snap up 300 pot pies a day, mainly chicken. A large one weighs 1,580 grams (about 3-1/2 pounds) and costs $28.99.
Executive chef Jameson Watermulder shares the recipe and says the secret is using “the best chicken and the best sauce” — not to mention homemade puff pastry. Chickens are poached whole.
While pot pies are definitely an old-school favourite, Summerhill Market nevertheless stays on trend.
For the last two years, it has secured a 25,000-kilogram/per year yogurt quota from the federal government so it can import yogurt. McMullen buys thick Greek yogurt (Fage and Chobani brands) plus Siggi’s, Icelandic-style strained yogurt called skyr.
“It differentiates us from the competition,” explains McMullen.
The final thing to mention is the first thing you notice.
Two parking-lot attendants direct traffic from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., one on weekdays, another covering weekends.
“It’s an important job for us,” says McMullen.
“We’re in a residential neighbourhood. We’re really concerned about traffic, noise, congestion and safety. It keeps the peace and it keeps our customers happy, calm and organized.”