“We couldn’t really think of a name so we said: ‘let’s just call it Sloppy Joes’. The food is messy and that’s the point – it’s part of the fun. We love food and we love to eat.”
Five years ago a married couple and their two children packed up one life in Scotland and came to find another. With nothing but a car full of stuff and a quest for adventure they headed to Wales.
Within months they started selling sandwiches from a van in Carmarthen’s outdoor market and now, a few short years later, they’ve just opened a restaurant in the heart of town, despite an ongoing pandemic that has crippled many businesses rather than forced them to expand.
Gary and Kristin Ridley had never even been to Carmarthen until 2016 but now feel part of the fabric – feeding the town with street food and becoming something of a social media sensation with thousands of followers on Facebook and Instagram.
“Me met in Margate in the late ‘90s and that was it – we’ve never been apart since,” said Kristin.
“We got married 22 years ago and decided to move up to Yorkshire to be near my parents and up there we opened a tiny delicatessen in a small village. Within a couple of months we had moved to a bigger shop and then opened a second shop.
“That was our life for about nine years but by then we had two children and decided to start afresh so we moved up to Scotland to live on a small farm near John o’ Groats. It was about spending more time with the kids. We had our own chickens and pigs but we slowly ran out of money and started selling things at the bottom of the driveway and basically started a farm shop. We also let people come and meet the pigs so by the end it was a petting farm and a farm shop!”
A need for another source of income to make ends meet saw Gary work as a gardener at the nearby Castle of Mey, the former residence of the Queen Mother, but by 2016 it was time for the Ridleys to move back down south. They didn’t envisage it would be all the way down to Wales though.
“We loved Scotland – it’s amazing and it was a fantastic place for the children to grow up – but we just felt ready for a new adventure,” said Gary, who was born and bred in London.
“Before we left Scotland we went on a bit of a road trip which was our first holiday in about eight years. Rather than go away somewhere we just decided to go and visit different friends all over the UK that we hadn’t seen for years – and that brought us to Wales.
“One day we drove all the way down to Carmarthen, which was the first time we’d ever been here, and it really appealed to us. We went round to all sorts of places but we just fell in love with the town.”
After forking out £2,500 on an old van Gary and Kristin were in business. Gary would make and sell griddle sandwiches in the local market every Friday while Kristin would help boost the family coffers by selling jam from a stall next-door.
“We saw how popular street food is up in London and that gave us the idea really and we noticed that it had become more and more popular on TV,” said Gary.
“Having said that selling food from a van was meant to be a part-time thing – or at least that’s what we thought. It was supposed to be something that we could do at our own leisure.”
The business, made up of one van and called Sloppy Joes, became too popular for that part-time dream to be a reality for long. Word of mouth spread, social media buzz followed, and soon one van became two vans, located at two nearby spots in Carmarthen town centre.
The reputation built up by this point meant that Gary and Kristin didn’t have to pitch their ideas in order to expand – they were actually approached by a shopping centre about the possibility of selling their food there.
“We jumped at the chance,” said Gary. “They knew we had this following in Carmarthen that we’d built up from the market and we agreed to open up a second van.”
This was all too easy for the couple who had never set foot in Carmarthen until 2016, who now had ambitions to expand further and solidify their street food footprint in the town. But then, in the early months of 2020, the food industry – every industry – changed forever. As coronavirus swept into Britain and a national lockdown was announced last March many businesses were left fearing the worst.
Those supplying takeaway food could remain open but where markets and shopping centres had been packed with potential customers only a few days earlier they were now empty.
“We were closed for six weeks,” said Gary. “We didn’t really know what to do but we decided to get in touch with the shopping centre and the council because we wanted to re-open if we could do so safely. Thankfully they said ‘fine’ and we were really busy again.
“I remember it being great to just see people again and be able to have a chat and ask them how they were doing and we made sure that we gave free drinks or some cakes to any staff from the NHS just as a way to say thanks in a small way for everything they were doing.”
Soon the popularity of Sloppy Joes meant a move to a bigger and permanent premises was on the cards, pandemic or no pandemic.
“The first van was tiny,” laughed Kristin. “The second was better but still not big enough to cook everything we really wanted to make.
“We just felt like we’d outgrown it all. I’d always said to Gary that I didn’t want to end up opening a permanent spot but by last year I was saying that we needed to open a restaurant.”
In October that became a reality with the opening of Sloppy Joes in Jacksons Lane in the centre of town. The couple now have their own two-storey restaurant with local art and graffiti on the walls, fully licensed bars upstairs and down, and sofas for people to sit back, relax, and enjoy their burger, hot dog, fries, meatballs, roast beef, pulled pork, southern fried chicken, banana split, or the million other things on the menu.
It’s certainly a far cry from selling a sandwich in a van.
Fearing the worst over the winter months Gary and Kristin put in a hatch at the front of the restaurant in preparation for another period of closure. This would allow them to sell takeaway food without the need for customers to even come into the restaurant to collect it.
The current lockdown has obviously affected business but it hasn’t brought it to a halt by any stretch. During an hour-long chat on a freezing Tuesday morning Kristin receives more than 15 order requests for takeaways.
They don’t even do takeaways on Tuesdays but it seems people can hardly wait.
Two people also approach the front door asking when they’re going to be open next, only to leave with a grimace when told Thursday through to Sunday.
In the coming months things should look a lot different if the local coronavirus infection rate continues to improve along with the weather.
“I hope that people will be able to mill around outside and enjoy their food,” said Kristin.
“I hope we eventually get back to a time when we don’t have to operate fully with table service because that was hard. We had 20 members of full- and part-time staff when we were open. They’re all still with us but not one of them can be put on furlough because they haven’t been on the payroll long enough so we’re lending money to staff trying to help them out.
“It’s crazy really. If you’re in full-time employment and you want to work but can’t because your place of work has been forced to close you should be able to get that support. It shouldn’t matter when you started work.
“Here’s one example of the amazing customers that we have here in Carmarthen and how they’ve all helped the business: at Christmas we set up a GoFundMe page for the staff because we had just closed and we obviously couldn’t pay them what we had been, which at the time had been about £20,000 a month in total between everyone.
“But in a short space of time our customers raised enough money so that each member of staff could have £100 just to help them out a bit because they weren’t entitled to any furlough help. That all came from customers – like a Christmas tip I suppose. People were so generous.”
That generosity undoubtedly stems from building up a trust and a reputation in a short space of time. There’s a family feel to Sloppy Joes with Gary and Kristin’s children – 16-year-old Laine and 21-year-old Molly – taking on roles within the business.
It feels like it’s been here for generations and, by the time Gary and Kristin have finished, it will have been.
“We’re proud of the reaction we’ve had here and the social media following we’ve built up but it’s a bit scary as well really.
“In all seriousness, though, to be able to move to an area and make a mark as quickly as we have done makes us feel great.
“The future will be for Laine and Molly to run this place if they want to because eventually at some point, after so long without a proper holiday, we would like to travel a bit.
“People from elsewhere always ask us if we’re going to open up a stall or a restaurant in another part of Wales but we always say: ‘No – they can come to us!’”
Carmarthen, like many towns across the country and indeed the world, may have taken a hammering since the early part of 2020 but people will always have an appetite for good food served by good people – especially those who have a passion for a small corner of the world they had never heard of only a few short years ago.
“We will never leave Carmarthen with this business,” added Kristin. “Sloppy Joes was born here and we want it to always be here.”
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