Small Boxes at Summerhill
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Small Boxes at Summerhill

This week’s grand opening of the first phase of the Shops of Summerhill wielded a small, but spirited, blow against the encroachment of big-box stores in urban Toronto. Previously known by locals for the past thirty-some years as “The Five Thieves,” the European-style shops (a butcher, a baker, a fishmonger, a greengrocer, a florist, and a café) have been undergoing a painstaking restoration and renovation for over two years. Instead of tearing down the previously crumbling nineteenth-century storefronts, Woodcliffe—the shops’ landlord and heritage preservation specialists—undertook the expensive and time-consuming project of retaining as much of the original structure as possible while updating the spaces for modern use. The project was long, dusty, and frustrating at times for the vendors, but by opening the new doors of four of the shops—Pisces Gourmet, Olliffe Fine Meats, sweetgrass flowers, MBCo—this week, they offer a small-box experience that will hopefully catch on across the city.

Interior of MBCo.

The Shops of Summerhill moniker is more appropriate now that two new stores (sweetgrass flowers and MBCo) have joined the old guard, and former thief (French pâtisserie Patachou) has left the fold to move down the street.
The new stores stand cozily hip-to-hip on the east side of Yonge Street, just south of Summerhill subway station, with a surprising amount of space for an old building. This was partially accomplished by overhauling the former dirt-floor basements into “hospital-style clean rooms” for food preparation and storage. By moving prep areas downstairs, all of the shops enjoy more square footage, which means more food.
The crown jewel, from a food perspective, is the shiny new Pisces Gourmet, run by mother-daughter team, Silvia and Melissa Blackwood. Facing the street, an immaculate fishtank spans the entire front window, showing off live Nova Scotia lobsters and crab. Inside is a seemingly infinite fish counter with specimens so fresh and clear-eyed they look like they’re in suspended animation. Another case contains prepared foods like homemade chowders, bisques, and Melissa’s own crabcakes made only with crab, a simple shrimp/scallop paste to bind, and Panko breadcrumbs (no milk, eggs, or fillers).
Silvia has been in the fish business for over twenty years, and Melissa has been helping her mother since she was six or seven years old. Now that they have the keys to their new shop, Melissa told us she couldn’t be more satisfied. “I’m extremely proud,” she said. “All our hard work is really paying off. It’s definitely been a long process and I’m so happy to be in the space.”

Silvia and Melissa Blackwood from Pisces Gourmet.

Another family affair is Olliffe Fine Meats, a butcher shop that has been a mainstay in the neighbourhood since 1975, and was purchased just three months ago by a trio of brothers: Ben Gundy, Sam Gundy, and James Aitken. Between the three of them, they have experience in almost every aspect of food service. Ben was most recently an executive chef at a four-star restaurant, Sam founded—and still owns—a specialty-food store based in Huron County called Forager Foods, and James worked extensively in marketing. Olliffe is the brothers’ first business venture together, and it was inspired by the pending arrival of Ben’s new baby girl. “I had a baby coming and I was working nights and weekends,” Ben says. “I always thought I’d have my own restaurant, but I’d be insane to open one and try to spend time with my family too.” So, he decided to look into retail instead, and everything fell into place from there.
Long-time regulars will be pleased to know that former owner Frank Ardanaz is staying on staff along with all of the butchers. Ben assured us he “didn’t want to change anything at all.”
The new Olliffe, designed by Brad Denton of Czehoski fame (each store employed their own designers), proudly displays a beautiful expanse of original brickwork in combination with acres of blackboards, tagged with cheeky lines such as, “We’re not fat; we’re well-marbled,” and “keeping it veal since 1975.”

The Brothers Olliffe: Ben Gundy, Sam Gundy, and James Aitken.

Yet another sibling venture right next door to Olliffe is sweetgrass flowers, run by three lovely sisters: Genevieve, Kate, and Emma Makinson, whose love of flowers began while growing up on the Toronto Islands (lucky girls). sweetgrass is in the same family of companies as Olliffe and was also designed by Brad Denton. Olliffe and sweetgrass are internally connected by a wide doorway, creating an interesting juxtaposition of flowers and meat.

Interior of sweetgrass flowers.

MBCo differs from the rest as it is a franchise based in Montréal. Patachou, the aforementioned pâtisserie that opted out of the project, would have been more in line with the other shops, but MBCo’s owners told us they look forward to a similarly long tenure on the block.
The remaining two shops, All the Best Fine Foods and Harvest Wagon, represent the second half of the restoration. They will have to wait at least one more year in the temporary pavilion at Scrivener Square before unveiling their new digs. By that time, the project will have been more than five years in the making, an investment of time and money that probably doesn’t make sense when just looking at the numbers. But, as Paul Oberman—president and CEO of Woodcliffe—told us, “This is what all retailing should be in the city. It’s not a mall; it’s not a big box. It’s about not necessarily being able to offer everyone everything, but to offer the things that are most important. And enjoying the experience.”
All photos by Ayngelina Brogan.