SOUTH TAMPA — In 1963, Marjorie and Pete Wright opened a 500-square-foot coffee and dessert shop on a side street near Dale Mabry Highway.
"We have what I call the old building on Watrous (Avenue) and we have the new shop, which we've been in since 1988, then we built the corridor that linked them up so when you drive by it looks like its all one building," said Marjorie Wright's grandson, Jeff Mount, who took over Wright's Gourmet House in 1981. "It was like a big puzzle."
After years of planning and some delays with the city and the economy, the shop is in the midst of a major transformation that will span 16,000 square feet, for selling its famous cakes, sandwiches and salads, most of which is made in-house.
When construction is complete this year, the indoor seating area will triple the number of seats, adding private rooms for business meetings and birthday parties.
Mount said dine-in is the smallest part of his business: covering only about 15 percent of total revenue, compared with about 23 percent takeout and the rest in catering.
In total, the customer area will grow from about 2,000 to 8,000 square feet, allowing for a boost in dine-in sales, Mount said. He added that the expansion will put an end to "the penguin walk," that he sees from customers as they crowd in line for the deli counter. The new service counter will be more than twice as long, with views into a newly expanded kitchen.
"I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on architects and kitchen design fees," he said. "We'll have a much tighter, much more efficient and productive production area."
One of the biggest changes for Mount is a new generator that allows him to "sleep like a baby," without worrying about his 1,500-square-foot freezer and refrigerator going out during a storm.
The additional space will also allow for a wider variety on the menu.
To sell new products, Mount said, he currently has to take one off the menu or out of the display, a risky move for a restaurant that prides itself on consistency.
Mount recalled taking the hummingbird cake (made with bananas, pineapples and nuts) off the menu a few years back, only to have a customer visit him at his home a few blocks away asking why he would do such a thing.
"I realized, oh, we've made a mistake," he said.
The restaurant, at 1200 S Dale Mabry Highway, has 59 employees, and with the expansion complete, Mount said he will likely add at least a few more.
As always, though, he said the key to staying in business for decades to come will be maintaining the quality of the product, which he attributes to the restaurant's survival during the recession.
"If someone orders the club sandwich, they want it to be the same as when they ordered it a year ago, and they want it to be the same when they order it next year," he said. "People are looking for things that are consistent."
Nearby residents Steve and Gerri Savitt have been eating at Wright's for years. They said that in addition to being a great place to eat, Wright's is an important community landmark for South Tampa.
"You always run into someone you know here," Gerri said. "Everybody knows everybody."
Contact Alli Knothe at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA.