Jeff Mount was still an English major at the University of Florida when he came home to Tampa and told his grandmother he wanted to buy the family business, Wright’s Gourmet House.
Mount’s grandmother, Marjorie Coggins, and her husband, Pete Wright, had opened Wright’s as a gourmet shop in 1963.
“She knew from the start that she wanted to sell sandwiches,” said Mount of his grandmother. Today, Wright’s sells 200,000 sandwiches a year, along with some 40,000 of its celebrated three-layer cakes.
Mount bought the business in 1980 for $100,000, making monthly payments. He also agreed to pay his grandparents $100 each per week — and that’s what kept him focused.
“I was responsible for their retirement, I just couldn’t fail,” he said. Through the years, Mount expanded the cafe, bakery and catering company to its current 17,000-square-foot building at 1200 S Dale Mabry Highway.
While the business has remained a Tampa institution, Mount said it has evolved, along with its owner.
“I started working here when I was 12,” he said. “All I did was make roast beef after roast beef sandwiches. At the end of the day, I knew how to make a roast beef sandwich.”
He coaches other employees in the same way, helping to cross-train staffers to handle a variety of responsibilities behind and in front of the customer counters.
Employees are key to Wright’s success, Mount maintained. He tried a variety of business models from opening nights and weekends to selling hot meals. But his staff of 50 employees is the backbone of his business.
“There’s a part of this business that sees people as instruments but that didn’t work for me because I have learned over time that you can’t run this big of an operation and this complicated of an operation without longtime employees,” he said.
When the pandemic forced Wright’s to close, Mount kept his workers on the payroll. He continues to offer health care, a retirement plan and Sundays and holidays off. Wright’s is closed on Sundays and major holidays.
Byron Viteri, the baker at Wright’s, has been there for 32 years, starting shortly after he arrived in Tampa from Ecuador and before he learned English. Cake decorator Rosa Manzanero has 21 years seniority at Wright’s. Her favorite cake is the Alpine, a yellow cake with thick chocolate frosting and white chocolate shavings on top.
“When we were quarantined he kept us informed and asked for ideas and he made the process of coming back very safe and comfortable,” staffer Korinna Turner said of her boss. Turner started working at Wright’s several years ago, hired in December, the team’s busiest month of the year.
Mount still honors his grandmother’s husband Pete by continuing to sell sandwiches with his signature mustard sauce, like the Reuben and the double-decker Monte Cristo, both grilled on pumpernickel bread.
For many years, though, the turkey breast sandwich has been the store’s bestseller, followed by the Cuban sandwich.
Along with the Alpine cake, Wright’s sells chocolate, carrot, red velvet and other cakes whole or by the slice. Cupcakes are available in the same flavors. Seasonal peppermint chocolate cakes are especially popular in December. Cookies and brownies are on the menu, along with the favored banana nut bread, a recipe from Grandma Wright, who never wanted to waste bananas.
Ann Scott Knight started visiting Wright’s in 1965 when the owners catered her son Peter’s christening party. She is still a regular customer and her grown children stop at Wright’s on the way to her house from the airport when they visit for a Cuban sandwich and a slice of lemon cake.
“It has been a long and blessed friendship for me because I can’t think of anything nicer to give or receive than a big platter of Wright’s sandwiches and a big cake,” she said. “No matter the occasion — whether it’s happy or sad — you can depend on Wright’s to help somebody else.”
While she likes their strawberry cakes, Knight has a favorite. “One of the most delicious things that I have ever put in my mouth from there is their pumpkin gingerbread cake, which they make in November and December.” That’s what she will be ordering for her 87th birthday in December.
Originally, Mount wanted to put a Wright’s Gourmet House on every corner in Tampa. But his vision changed as he gained more experience as a business owner. Today, he prefers that Wright’s honor the legacy of his grandparents and his family tree rather than branch out too far.
“This is a hard business,” he said. “You’re only as good as your last sandwich.”
Customer Matt Smith was introduced to Wright’s cakes at a New Year’s party 15 years ago when he had just moved to Tampa. Now he visits Wright’s four to six times a week. He enjoys the double-decker club sandwich and loves the Bahama Baby, a pile of pork, ham, cucumber, bacon, Jarlsberg cheese and mustard sauce on an onion roll.
The chocolate, chocolate cake “was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten,” said Smith, a career prosecutor. “The cakes started it for me but they have a large variety and doing it all well is what is important.” Smith knows all of the staff members by their first names and he said his friends fondly refer to Wright’s as “The W.”
“Today, customer service is a lost art, but it’s not gone at Wright’s at all. They are like an extended family,” he said.
Earlier this year, Smith began working for Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.
But, he said, “If they make an ambassador to the world for Wright’s — that would be my ideal job.”
Wright’s Gourmet House, 1200 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, is open Mondays through Saturdays. It’s closed on major holidays. For more information, call 813-253-3838 or visit wrightsgourmet.com.