They come for the Wright’s stuff
The term ‘destination’ is used quite often when it comes to conversations with independent retailers, particularly those who are in more rural areas. A large farm shop on a busy A-road will tell you about how they snare punters with a combination of foodservice, retail and entertainment. That deli in a chic little market town will use it when explaining how they attract and retain customers from a steady stream of passers-by.
You would think that a former pub in deepest Carmarthenshire – north of where the M4 terminates and the roads quickly become tracks barely wide enough for one car – must stretch the concept into the realms of fantasy.
I think people thought we were a bit crazy because it’s in the middle of nowhere
But when FFD arrives at Wright’s Food Emporium in the village of Llanarthe, there are already five vehicles in the car park and a queue forming at the door – no less than 10 minutes before opening time on a Thursday lunchtime.
“I think people thought we were a bit crazy because it’s in the middle of nowhere,” says Maryann Wright. Thankfully, she and husband Simon’s track record as restaurateurs, including setting up the highly regarded eatery Y Polyn just down the road, ensured that customers were there as soon as the doors opened in 2014.
“Luckily, because we had people that already came to our restaurants, we had a following and it became a destination. Having the café helps a lot because customers have something nice to eat, and then they shop.
“It’s rare that people come for lunch and leave with nothing.”
- Location: Llanarthne,
Carmarthenshire SA32 8JU
- No of staff: 9
- Average spend: £17-£20 (café), £30 (retail)
- Average margin: 40% (retail), 70% (café)
This model clearly serves them well but that doesn’t mean running the business has been all plain sailing for the Wrights, especially during the last couple of years. That said, the couple has clearly managed to adapt – most notably shortening their opening hours and condensing their menus – without compromising on their original mission to offer good value, locally produced food to everyone and anyone that makes the trip out to their place.
When they bought the building from the Brains brewery back in 2013, it was far from the rustic, cosy space FFD enters on a rainy November day. Maryann recalls that there was damage from burst water pipes and, even though it had closed three years prior, there were still pint glasses on the bar when they viewed it.
“It was sad and really unloved but you could see it had nice features, like the floors, and it’s a beautiful building from outside,” says Maryann. “So, we scraped the money together and thought, let’s go for it.”
Having worked in the restaurant business since the ’90s, the couple had intended for Wright’s Food Emporium to be a slower-paced, retail-led business and had forecast 50:50 sales split between their shop and café.
“The main focus was supposed to be on the shop, with a little bit of space to have coffee, cake and a sandwich,” says Maryann, adding that they opened with just the front section of the building. “And yet the demand has always been for meals, which takes a lot more staff, a lot more effort and a lot more everything. But that’s what people want.”
The one consolation for the Wrights was that they certainly knew the restaurant game. Not only had they set up several award-winning dining establishments in the area over the preceding two decades, but Simon had also been a reviewer for the AA Restaurant Guide and a consultant for Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares TV show.
And in spite of customers’ desire to eat on the premises, Wrights still managed to be different from previous businesses.
“Even 10 years ago if you came out for dinner you were committing to £50 a head with wine, and you see a certain audience and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Simon. “But the reason we did this is we wanted to be accessible to a wider group of people.
“Some of the people who come in here are not well-off but they decide to treat themselves every two weeks to a couple of hours here, hopefully an amazing sandwich, a piece of cake, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. And they leave having spent £15-£20 a head.”
He is quick to acknowledge that a large proportion of the population wouldn’t be able to even stretch to this, but Simon Wright is adamant that good food should be accessible to everyone. He is also extremely conscious that price is not the only barrier and can eloquently summarise the issues with the food system in both Wales and the wider UK.
It’s very rare that you meet a deli owner that can reel off so many stats. Simon can break down the annual costs of treating Type 2 diabetes in Wales, quotes the percentage of agricultural production devoted to the meat export market and dissect the overall value that the Welsh Government puts on the food & drink sector.
A good deal of this engagement is down to his day job as a professor at the University of Wales Trinity St David, where he is charged with developing all manner of food courses and projects on the Lampeter campus. But his macro concerns also drive the approach at Wright’s.
“I’m of the view, like many people, that we need a more localised system. That’s what’s going to get us through.
“But at the moment, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation with critical mass. You’ve got to have enough quality food to put it in front of the public and at the moment, all over the UK, we suffer and don’t have enough of an offering, particularly with locally produced fruit and veg.”
- Wright’s Catsup
- Hazelwell Farm Organic Beef Mince
- Peter’s Yard Original Crispbread
- James Gourmet Coffee Formula 6 Espresso
- Mryddin Heritage Fennel Sausages
- Welsh Farmhouse Apple Juice
- Ultracomida Spanish Salted Almonds
- Marisa Olive Oil Crisps
- Jin Talog Original Gin
- The Kernel Table Beer
- Wright’s Focaccia
- Hafod Cheddar
- Coedcanlas Wild Welsh Honey
- Waterloo Tea Earl Grey
While this might all seem very theoretical, all of the thinking behind Wright’s is actually summed up very neatly (and deliciously) in one knock-out sandwich. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this establishment’s take on a Cubano is the stuff of legend.
Each generous pillowy ciabatta, baked on site, contains a combination of local pork belly, Hafod cheddar, ham from Myrddin Heritage, sriracha mayo and bread & butter pickles.
Customers regularly travel further than you would expect to eat this creation and it is rarely taken off the menu.
While the Cubano embodies the local and quality ethos at Wright’s (“We only sell things and serve things we like,” says Maryann. “We wouldn’t sell something because it sells well.”), it is also another tick against the shop’s destination strategy.
The customer base is broad – friends meeting for coffee, young mums stopping for a slice of cake, elderly dog walkers taking a pitstop – and the sphere of influence is also wide for such a geographically remote site.
Roughly equidistant from Carmarthern and Llandeilo, Wright’s is on the road that links the two towns, so it courts plenty of truly local customers. There’s a decent amount of trade from passing tourists during school holidays. And, regardless of the time of year, people will travel from as far away as Swansea, Cardiff and Bristol, whether it’s for one of those sandwiches or the shop’s curated mix of modern branded items: its range of biodynamic wines (supplied by their son’s company Wright’s Wines) or the items that are made on site, such as the best-selling Catsup tomato sauce – an homage to the Wrights’ sadly deceased cat of two decades, Castro.
Pre-pandemic, the site was impressively busy. Thanks to a dizzying 1,500 covers a week, plus the retail sales, Wright’s was turning over in excess of £1m. The flipside of this is the business had 15 full-time staff and was barely turning a profit.
The arrival of Covid, of course, changed things dramatically. Given the guidance on closures and furlough scheme, the Wrights were able to step back and considered going into hibernation before deciding to press on with a team of four (including them) and sell via delivery and click & collect. The legacy of the pandemic has been different, though.
“It made us reassess exactly what we were doing,” says Maryann. “It had got bonkers here and there were so many staff.”
The business now operates with reduced opening hours (Thursday-Sunday, 22 hours in total) – which equates just their weekend hours before 2020 – and the café menu has been reduced from a vast blackboard to just a single sheet of paper.
Simon recalls his time scouting candidates for Kitchen Nightmares when explaining the decision to pare things down.
“I’d say to them: ‘How much do you need to take to break even each week?’ and I don’t think there was a single occasion that someone could answer it. And that’s just a back of the envelope calculation.
“When are you busy? Why are you open when you’re not busy? What are you selling and what are you not selling? You do need to do that thinking because so many of us are busy fools.”
Given their strong brand and their altered business model now ticking along nicely (average weekly sales are £9,000), you might think the Wrights could see themselves opening more branches. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.
“We don’t need more chains, we need more independents,” says Simon. “I’ve been in places that have names of top chefs above the door and I think ‘I wonder what conversation we’d be having if they were sat in front of me eating what I’m eating’.”
“We’re not saintly, it’s just a decision that we’ve made.”
The big question for the couple is actually how long they’re going to stick at it after more than three decades in food and hospitality, and their sons not wanting to take the wheel.
You get the impression that they’re not willing to walk away from this place just yet.
“Hopefully we’ll find a successor at some point,” says Simon. “This could be turned into flats but I don’t want it to be that. It should be what it is. And I think it represents something that could happen elsewhere.”