When you walk into Wright’s Gourmet House, every employee who comes within six feet of you makes eye contact and says hello.
Everywhere you turn, someone else is there to greet you. The sheer volume of kindness is almost overwhelming.
That’s just the way Jeff Mount likes it.
Mount’s grandparents, Marjorie and Pete Wright, opened the shop in 1963 and sold it to their grandson in 1981, when Mount was just 21.
“My grandparents actually charged me $100,000 to buy Wright’s,” Mount says. “I didn’t have $100,000, so I had to pay them back over 10 years. But it was genius, giving me that responsibility. This was their retirement, so if I didn’t pull it off, I knew we’d have problems here.”
He indeed pulled it off, maintaining Wright’s position as a South Tampa landmark throughout his 37-year tenure as owner and guiding it through two expansions, the latest and largest coming in 2017. The dining room tripled in size, growing from 75 seats to 225, while the larger market space now accommodates more customers picking up phone orders, grabbing cake slices to go and making their sandwich selections from the 80-foot-wide menu board (yes, you read that right).
Wright's Deli Photo Gallery
Though the company now owns the two buildings that make up Wright’s, Mount says the restaurant’s piecemeal growth was due to its renter status.
“For a long time my bake shop was over in one building, and the cake decorating was in another, separated by a parking lot,” Mount says. “When a landlord periodically said, ‘I have 1,800 square feet available, would you like it?’ I said, yes! Cake decorating [became] a lot easier.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Wright’s recent expansion is that it bucks the industry-wide trend of restaurants shrinking in response to higher demand for takeout. That’s nothing new for Wright’s, Mount says, where off-premises dining — takeout and catering — has always made up about 80 percent of the business. Instead, Mount saw the expanded seating and production space as a chance to embrace the community even more.
“It gives us the opportunity to say yes to a lot more,” he says. “We used to have a lot of folks who said, ‘I want to bring 20 people in for lunch Friday,’ and I had to say no I can’t do that, or I’ll have a riot. Now in one of our dining rooms we have a group that comes in twice a week to knit baby caps and clothes for charity. The extra dining rooms are really going to change what we can do for folks.”
Wright’s care for the community has come right back to the business, like during the Great Recession when Mount says dine-in and takeout sales actually grew.
“I attributed that to, when you have a high amount of stress and maybe a small amount of dollars, you want to make sure you have a good experience,” he says. “So there’s somebody like us that’s tried and true, you say, ‘I’m going to go to Wright’s and get that Beef Martini sandwich because I know it’s great.’ I think we’ve been able to become a touchstone for the community in terms of the experience people are going to have with my staff and our food.”
Thanks to the dedication of long-time staff members like baker Byron Viteri and general manager Tammy Lambert (“I own Wright’s, but Tammy runs Wright’s,” Mount says admiringly), Mount has a hard time seeing another Wright’s location in his future, for fear of not replicating the original’s model of near-perfection set by his grandparents.
“They really established a loyal following of people who were looking for a quality product and looking for things that had a little twist and creative aspects to them,” Mount says.
While his focus for now is on Cuban sandwiches and alpine cake, Mount is a fan of the Columbia Restaurant Group model of a variety of unique dining concepts and is mulling over a potential new restaurant or two. Looking at a wall lined with decades of press clip-pings and awards from Wright’s history, he pauses for a beat.
“Who knows what’ll happen. Anything’s possible.”