Sausage sarnies and bacon butties are recipes for success for Flora Wright, whose burger van on a Hexham industrial estate does a roaring trade
AS JOB descriptions go, it sounds rather ideal: Commuting distance? A couple of minutes at most. Job satisfaction? Well, you will be meeting people from all over the world on a daily basis with mouth-watering snacks and drinks readily available, whenever you feel a touch peckish.
And best of all, you will be your own boss, in charge of your very own empire. The empire in question may only be a few feet square but that doesn’t matter to Flora Wright who believes, without question, that she has found the perfect job.
It is 12 years since Flora hit upon the idea of opening her own burger van at the Bridge End Industrial Estate in Hexham. Now Flora’s Diner is there five days a week, from 6am to 1.30pm, in all weathers, come rain or shine. She takes two weeks off at Christmas but that’s about it and she’s never had a day off sick. Hard working and passionate about what she does, it’s easy to see why Flora has built up a loyal army of customers who cannot get enough of her bacon butties, cheese burgers, chips and home-made mince and dumplings.
It also helps that she’s a great listener, with a sunny smile on her face, even on the greyest, bleakest of winter mornings. For many a wagon driver, builder, joiner and plumber, Flora’s Diner is their guilty pleasure with packed lunches cast aside in favour of a juicy burger or butty to get them through the day.
Flora, it seems, knows a lucrative opportunity when she sees one and her business is thriving, even in this tough, economic climate.
When Flora announced to her parents Ian and Flora Fairbairn that she was going to have her own burger van they thought it was a “bit of a giggle” – but now they are immensely proud of their practical daughter who has worked hard to make her vision a reality.
A former pupil of the Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham, Flora happily confesses that she had absolutely no idea of what she was going to do with her life when she left school. “My favourite subject was art and design,” she said. “I didn’t even take food technology as an option. I just wasn’t really interested.”
Flora worked in Safeway when she left school and was beginning to think that would be it, forever, when she went on holiday to the Dominican Republic and met a woman who would change her life.
“I met this Australian woman who ran a chain of burger vans and loved it. I could do that, I thought. In fact, why don’t I do that? I took a business studies course in sixth form, just for something to do, and, ironically, one of the assignments was to set up an imaginary burger van. I never thought that five years on that’s what I would actually be doing.”
The idea of being her own boss was the main appeal of the job – that, and the sociable side of the job. “I have met so many lovely, interesting people from all over the world, and they tell me all sorts of things about their lives,” she said. “Over the years I have heard about my customers getting married, having children, getting promotion, moving house.”
One of those loyal customers would find a special place in Flora’s heart. “My husband Micky had been coming to the van for about a year before he finally plucked up the courage to ask me for my number,” laughed Flora. “We were married in Vegas last year and I have never been happier.”
Micky, a joiner, helped Flora kit out her latest burger van – her third – to her exact specification. “I had this vision of how I wanted it to look and Micky has done a fantastic job. It’s got everything I need – a fridge and freezer, four foot griddle, fryer, bain marie and counter. It’s my mini kitchen on wheels.”
Flora’s parents loaned her the money for her first van – a second-hand one valued at £3,500 – when she started out all those years ago, aged just 22. And she’s proud to say that she has paid them back, every single penny. Not only that but she was able to buy her latest van brand new in January and develop a company logo and uniform. Now Flora and her friend Sinead Millar, who works at the van part-time, look very smart in their new hats and sweatshirts.
“I have met so many lovely, interesting people from all over the world, and they tell me all sorts of things about their lives.”
Flora’s business studies course helped point her in the right direction when it came to researching her business idea. “I knew I had to find exactly the right venue and work out what my market would be. I also sampled just about every food going to find the right suppliers. I wanted to make sure it was high quality. Then I phoned the council and went on a food hygiene course. And that was it. I was ready to go!”
Slim and healthy, with flawless skin and the constitution of an ox, Flora is a great ambassador for her business, but surely she doesn’t tuck in to burgers and chips on a daily basis? “Oh yes I do,” she laughed. “I eat all the time. My favourite is a bacon and mushroom butty, but you can’t beat a good steak and chips.”
Salad is available if you so happen to have a yearning for something particularly healthy, with cheese and ham salad sandwiches on the menu. And Flora is planning to introduce baked potatoes and salad boxes for the summer months. But until then her lunchtime specials, her home-made bolognese, mince and dumplings, chicken curries and burgers, all cooked fresh in the van throughout the morning, remain the most popular options.
Flora’s day starts at 5am with the delivery of around 100 bread buns to her home in Hexham. Then it’s a case of loading up the van and driving the short distance to the Bridge End Industrial Estate.
Experience has taught her that while the breakfast and lunchtime rush can be hectic, she still has plenty of time to chop and cook throughout the morning ensuring her food is always fresh and tasty.
So, are there any downsides to this job? “Well, getting up at 5am, five mornings a week, can be hard, especially on cold, dark, winter mornings,” said Flora. “But once I’m up I’m fine. And I layer up in winter with a couple of pairs of socks and body warmer. There was one day last winter that it hit minus 15 and I packed up and went home. No-one should have to work in those temperatures.”
Word-of-mouth has no doubt helped Flora build up her business over the years –and continues to do so. And it seems that everyone seems to know about her. Even the bosses, tracking the progress of their wagons, know that a stop in Hexham most likely means a quick dash to Flora’s Diner.
Flora is undoubtedly a rare breed in these recession hit times as a young entrepreneur with a successful business already under her belt. But what about the future? Can we expect to see a chain of Flora’s Diners up and down the country? “Not just yet,” said Flora.
“I want to take each day as it comes and enjoy what I’ve got. There’s no hurry. I am perfectly happy just as I am.”