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Battle of gourmet grocers brews in Rosedale

Jameson Watermulder has returned to his old neighbourhood, where he was previously the chief executive at the Summerhill Market, to open Rosedale’s Finest last month.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Brad McMullen parted ways with Jameson Watermulder, his executive chef of eight years in the spring of 2015, he thought he was done with him.

"I just wanted him out of my life," recalls Mr. McMullen, the owner of the upscale grocery and prepared-foods store, Summerhill Market. "I just wanted it over with. I never thought he would be back."

Then last summer, Mr. McMullen discovered he was getting a new neighbour – and competitor – who knows his customers by name. After months of renovations, Mr. Watermulder opened Rosedale's Finest in February, a one-minute walk from his former employer on Summerhill Avenue.

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Though there are multiple Loblaws and Sobeys supermarkets nearby, the independent Summerhill Market, located on a quiet side street, is a busy cornerstone of the affluent Rosedale neighbourhood. Opened in 1954 by schoolteacher Frank McMullen, it is now run by grandchildren Brad and Christy.

The market's deli counter is stocked with Berkshire bacon, the seafood section with caviar, the produce aisle with organic fruits and vegetables. The prepared-food section offers duck cassoulet and lobster cakes. Not everything there is a luxury, but it's a destination grocery store for those who can afford it.

For nearly a decade, Mr. Watermulder was part of that success. He helped boost the kitchen staff (by how much is a matter of dispute), and kept loyal clientele coming back for his beloved chicken potpie. The arrangement ended bitterly, in a termination negotiation that involved lawyers and a $100,000 severance, but no competition clauses. Now Mr. Watermulder is going head-to-head with his former boss.

"If you want to open a steak shop, open next to the busiest steak shop," Mr. Watermulder explains of his location. "I love the neighbourhood and I think competition's good for everyone."

His shop has been the talk of the neighbourhood since he started setting up shop earlier last year. Mr. Watermulder says he has no partners in the venture. The building was bought in May, 2016, for $1.6-million by a numbered corporation. Mr. Watermulder is not listed on property documents.

It's not lost on Mr. Watermulder, who says he loves the people of the neighbourhood, that the move is contentious.

"People have said, 'You're crazy. Why would you do that? They've been there for 60 years. How dare you?' But we're very different. We're not producing a thousand of something at a time. We're producing 20 of something at a time. It's more boutique and tailored."

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"Although I opened my current business in close proximity to Summerhill, it is not a factor that I consider. I am not competition for Summerhill; we are not in competition with each other. We do different things and I think we will both offer something different to the surrounding residents."

Mr. Watemulder, who says he learned about customer service and quality from his time at Summerhill Market, is continuing to serve that clientele with luxurious prepared foods — duck confit pizza, gold-dusted eclairs and beef bourguignon with short rib and oyster mushrooms.

The stores are drastically different in size. Rosedale's Finest is about 2,500 square feet, less than a 10th of the 28,500-square-foot Summerhill Market, which has plans to expand and where parking lot attendants are employed to keep traffic moving swiftly. Mr. Watermulder offers delivery and plans to partner with meal-ordering apps such as Uber.

In his time at Summerhill Market (2007 to 2015) Mr. Watermulder says he expanded the kitchen from a staff of about 15 to 125. Mr. McMullen says the numbers went from 49 to 84.

"My role had turned into something different than executive chef. It turned into more of a babysitting role," recalls Mr. Watermulder. "It was just my time to leave."

His former boss remembers it differently.

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"We let him go," says Mr. McMullen, who provided The Globe with a May, 2015, document signed by Mr. Watermulder, releasing his former employer from claims of wrongful dismissal in exchange for severance pay.

Mr. Watermulder says he was not fired and that he was not an employee, but a consultant whose contract had come to an end.

"He's an interesting character," Mr. McMullen says. "When he was here, I managed him and his personality. And took the benefits. The benefits were someone who knows retail food and could manage staff. And took care of all my problems."

Mr. McMullen says Mr. Watermulder worked seven days a week and was very capable at a complicated job, but they ultimately disagreed over how the business was run.

After a falling out, Mr. McMullen asked Mr. Watermulder to collect his personal belongings and leave. And that was the last he expected to see of him.

This was not Mr. Watermulder's first business breakup. He also ran into problems with his former business partner in Winnipeg.

After studying microbiology at the University of Manitoba, in early 2004, Mr. Watermulder opened Gluttons, a restaurant and prepared-foods shop with his friend Chris Verway. In 2006, Mr. Verway quit over a financial dispute, leaving his share of the business to his father Bernie, who had provided the seed money.

In a legal battle over the business, Mr. Verway made a long list of allegations against Mr. Watermulder, chiefly that he used company money to pay his personal expenses and start another business, Cocopod. The allegations were laid out in legal documents detailed in the Winnipeg Free Press, which covered the story after the popular restaurant closed in late 2007.

According to a 2008 story in the Winnipeg Free Press, Mr. Watermulder refused to co-operate with Mr. Verway's forensic accountant. Though he denied most of the allegations, Mr. Watermulder said in an affidavit detailed by the newspaper, that he had used money from the Gluttons account on Cocopod, plus personal expenses.

"I received only a small salary for a short period of time from Gluttons. In lieu of salary, I have, from time to time, drawn specific funds to cover personal costs and expenses."

Mr. Watermulder and Mr. Verway settled out of court. In the Free Press article, Mr. Watermulder's lawyer, Jeffrey Hirsh, said "Watermulder never challenged the bulk of allegations against him because he was concentrating his efforts on resolving the dispute. Mr. Hirsh said there was no admission of liability by either side in the settlement."

Mr. Watermulder declined to comment on this period in his life and The Globe has been unable to contact Mr. Verway.

But Makoto Ono was there. Mr. Ono is the celebrated chef/co-owner of Mak N Ming in Vancouver. In 2005 he was the chef at Gluttons, helping the restaurant earn positive media coverage. Mr. Ono recalls getting along with Mr. Watermulder, who treated him well, but acknowledged it was a difficult period.

"It's surprising to hear that," says Mr. Ono, upon learning of Mr. Watermulder's opening a block away from his former employer. "But not surprising at the same time."

Mr. McMullen, who considered a non-competition agreement, but didn't think it would be effective, was surprised too.

"Why he's opened up down the street, I have no idea. It doesn't make sense, doing exactly what we do. If that makes the most sense to him, then go for it."

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