Total number of lines: 2,000+
Speciality: Traditional sweets
and dry cured bacon
Step into Wm Wight on North Shields fish quay and be forgiven for thinking you've stepped back in time.
The small grocery store, established in 1929, is full to bursting with Berwick Cockles, Coltsfoot Rock, Comptons Gravy Salt and Jesmona Black Bullets, all sold over the counter by MD Martin Ponton, his wife Diane and family friend Dennis. “We never did get round to modernisation,” says Ponton. “It's a very personal service and as we weigh sweets or cut bacon we talk to the customers.”
Staff wear traditional grocery uniforms of white coats, aprons and hats and all over the store are displayed a large number of plaques with “daft sayings” collected by Ponton during his 33 years as MD. 'Wife and dog missing - reward for the dog'; 'Buckets of sand for sale - collect from the beach'; and 'Pay for 24 eggs and get 12' are Ponton's personal favourites.
“It's like putting on a show,” he says. “We want to cheer customers up and make sure they leave with a smile.”
The store has more than 2,000 lines and sells “just about everything” from fruit and vegetables to cakes and biscuits. Advertised as a shipping and family grocer, bacon specialist and provision dealer, it is well known for its dry cured bacon and tries to get as many of its products from local suppliers. “We only sell bacon that cooks, smells and tastes like bacon as it was in the old days,” he says, adding: “We sell food you can't get anymore. The modern alternatives are very bland.”
Traditional sweets have really taken off in the past four years thanks to the introduction of its online store.
Ponton regularly sends orders to destinations as far away as Australia and prides himself on being able to find any sweet asked for. “Our sweets come from a large number of suppliers because it is sometimes difficult to track down certain sweets. I have recently found Sweet Tobacco after searching for it for eight years,” he says.
Specialising in sweets is a far cry from the shop's traditional business after the Second World War when it was a popular shipping grocer. Now the fishing industry has collapsed from 200 boats to just a few and the regeneration of the quay has brought bars, restaurants and cafés. Tourists account for most of the store's trade.
“If we hadn't changed our business we would have gone broke,” says Ponton. “About 15 years ago when the fishing industry collapsed we nearly lost the business but have built it back up.” The business turns over £250,000 annually, helped by the growing popularity of the north east of England with tourists.
The store itself has also achieved recognition from North Tyneside Council for local architectural and historic interest. Ponton has traced the site back to 1847 when it started life as a hotel and during the World Wars was used by the Royal Navy.
Despite the quay's regeneration, the store will remain firmly rooted in the past. Ponton says he has no plans to modernise and will simply “keep going” with what he is doing now. “We want to take every day as it comes,” he says. “We will continue to add stock and if a customer can't find a product, we'll do our best to get it for them.”
Martin Ponton has been MD since 1974. The business was originally run by his father Hector, who did not want his children on the fish quay because it was a place “the general public did not care to venture to”.
After leaving school Ponton dabbled in a number of careers and was a motor mechanic and hotel chef. However, he found he couldn't settle down to one career and when his father died took over the business. He works seven days a week, and setting up the shop can sometimes take as long as four hours.