Matt Wright and his dad, John, were the first ones in one recent Friday morning. They are most days, Matt Wright said. They usually arrive at their Dunwoody sandwich shop before 7 a.m. to meet vendors delivering fresh produce or to run to the store for last-minute ingredients and to set up the stations where their employees assemble sandwiches and salads.
Their 10 employees trickled in over the next couple of hours. They set to work making soup, putting together trays of sandwiches for delivery to their corporate catering customers or putting out cookies and desserts.
“Is it 10 o’clock yet?” cashier Kirstee Teesateskie asked, looking up at the clock. It was. Time to open up. Soon, the daily stream of customers would begin filling The Wright Gourmet Shoppe, a 31-year-old family business that has become a Dunwoody institution.
“When we started doing this, there weren’t many lunch places [in Dunwoody]. None of the chain folks,” Matt Wright said. “We were one of the few places. We’ll have people who will eat here this week that have been eating here 30 years. It’s pretty neat.”
Matt Wright, who’s 44 and grew up in the business, manages it now. His dad, John, who will admit only to being “over 70,” owns the place.
Back in the 1980s, John Wright was working as a salesman and traveling a lot. He decided he wanted to get off the road, but “I didn’t know what my next career was going to be,” he said. He decided to open a sandwich shop modeled on one his dad had opened and operated in Tampa, Fla., since the 1960s. “I thought it seemed like a natural thing to do,” he said.
He copied a couple of menu items from the Florida business, including the “Bahama Baby” and the “Beef Martini,” so named because the mushrooms on the sandwich are steeped in vermouth, one of the ingredients of a martini cocktail, Matt Wright said. The Tampa sandwich shop is still operated by members of Wright’s family, but the two businesses operate independently, Matt Wright said. The Dunwoody shop also has developed a couple of its own specialties, such as the vegetarian “Napa” sandwich, the “Rebel Reuben,” a turkey sandwich, and the “Dunwoody Club,” Matt Wright said.
John Wright lived in Stone Mountain when he opened his sandwich shop. A friend convinced him that Dunwoody would be a good place to set up shop. “[I was] just looking for a good location that our merchandise and food would be appreciated in,” he said.
It’s worked out well. After a few years of operation in a shopping center on Jett Ferry Road, the Wrights settled in 1988 in the Shops of Dunwoody on Chamblee-Dunwoody Road in the heart of the town. They’ve been there since. Along the way, Matt Wright said, the sandwich shop has become “an old Dunwoody place.”
They’ve served generations of Dunwoody families. Matt Wright said he now regularly serves adults who first ate Wright’s sandwiches when they were kids who “couldn’t see over the counter.” These days, he said, they bring along their own children. “It’s really great to have made it that long in a place, where you’re starting to see generations come in,” he said.
He’s gotten to know many of his customers. “When I see them, I don’t see them as ‘customers,’ but as friends,” he said. “They become friends through the business, which is kind of nice.”
About half of the Wrights’ business usually comes from catering, Matt Wright said. The shop provides lunch trays for local businesses and sometimes caters home parties. The shop turns out 300 to 400 sandwiches a day, he said, and also sells dishes of lasagna and other foods for take-out home dinners.
“Generally speaking, we do the same things we’ve kind of always done,” Matt Wright said.
That may mean getting to work early and running a business six days a week, but the Wrights say they have no plans to do anything else. “I’ve enjoyed the service industry,” Matt Wright said. “It’s not for everybody, but I’ve always enjoyed it.”
His dad still comes in every morning. He has no plans to retire. “Why? I don’t play golf anymore,” John Wright said. “I’d just as soon keep working. I enjoy it. I’ll be here until [Matt] runs me off, I guess.”