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As its expands, Primanti's sandwich shop chain conscious of hometown roots

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Brayden Menzel, 18 months-old, of Wheeling WV, attacks his mother, Kristen Menzel's, fish sandwich as Primanti Brothers server, Kate Scott, 25, of Dormont looks on at the Primanti Brothers' Mount Lebanon location, Tuesday.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Toni Haggerty who has worked at the Primanti Brothers in the Strip District for 40 years makes one of the restaurant's trademark sandwiches on Tuesday, November 5, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Toni Haggerty who has worked at the Primanti Brothers in the Strip District for 40 years stands in the restaurant on Tuesday, November 5, 2013.

When Pittsburgh's iconic fries-and-slaw sandwich chain attracted outside investment, some fans worried that Primanti Bros. had sold its soul.

It wouldn't take long, they predicted, for Primanti's to lose its Three Rivers appeal.

“It's a given that new ownership means things will change and probably not for the better,” one person wrote on Yelp.com.

“As long as they leave the original Strip District location alone, I don't really care what they do,” another said on Roadfood.com.

Yet even before private-equity firm Catterton Partners of Greenwich, Conn., acquired the chain, Primanti's had moved into city suburbs with restaurants that do not offer a few signature sandwiches such as tuna, knockwurst and sardine.

Menus in the 10 suburban stores — the first was Robinson; the most recent, Mt. Lebanon — contain more than 60 items, compared with about 30 in city locations. Customers in the 'burbs can choose items such as chicken wings, pizza, salads and burgers.

“It depends on what sells in various locations,” said David Head, who became CEO after the buyout.

Suburban markets don't have the foot traffic and tourism of the city and need to appeal to a wider audience, he said. “We wanted to have all the elements Primanti Bros. was known for, but also wanted to create a great neighborhood restaurant.”

Primanti Bros. will open a location in Morgantown, W.Va., in early 2014, but it is not looking to grow coast-to-coast or lose ties to its roots, said Head.

“We really want to stay close to home,” said Head, 56, a corporate restaurant veteran.

Former owners Jim Patrinos and Nick Nicholas sit on the company's board of directors. Neither could be reached for comment.

“It's not the easiest thing to take a strong brand in Pittsburgh and expand it outward,” said Terri Sokoloff, president of Ross-based Specialty Bar & Restaurant Brokers. “I wonder how well it will do outside Pittsburgh, but I hope they do well.”

Though Head would not specify places, he said Western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia present growth opportunities.

“We just want to get it right in Morgantown,” he said. “If we do a good job there, and fans tell us they want us to keep pushing out, we will see. But we're not in a hurry.”

The restaurant grew from a food cart Joe Primanti manned in 1933, slapping fries and coleslaw on sandwiches made with thick slices of Italian bread. He wanted to make eating easier for truck drivers bringing produce to and from the Strip District.

The concept caught on, and he opened a sandwich shop on 18th Street.

Patrinos bought that location in 1974 and expanded into Oakland, Downtown and the South Side. Nicholas joined as a business partner, and Sokoloff sold them the Robinson store in 1998. Primanti's has a presence at Pittsburgh's sports venues and three Florida locations.

“As Jim Patrinos would say, ‘There wasn't a specific plan,' ” Head said. “People just liked the product and wanted one in their neighborhood.”

Catterton owns all but the Florida restaurants, which former employee Eric Kozlowski owns.

The Primanti's sandwich — sometimes copied — is part of the fabric of Pittsburgh and its history, said Audrey Guskey, a Duquesne University marketing professor.

“Pittsburghers took ownership of it,” she said. “It's a piece of Pittsburgh.”

Because of that, people in Pittsburgh could resent it if Primanti Bros. grows too big or too corporate, Guskey said.

Some customers who patronized Primanti's in the city said they like having restaurants closer to home.

“The food is fantastic, and everyone is real friendly,” said Justin West, 27, of Wheeling, W.Va., in the Mt. Lebanon restaurant. His pregnant girlfriend craves Primanti sandwiches. “The Downtown one is real nice, but this one's convenient. It's easier to watch a game here.”

Mt. Lebanon resident Joe Lohman, 63, said the South Hills location is ideal.

“Because it's a family atmosphere, we can relax a little bit. There's not another bar like it around here,” Lohman said.

Suburban locations include sports bars with jukeboxes, pool tables and other games, as well as enormous TVs in dining rooms with Pittsburgh memorabilia and beer signs.

The Morgantown restaurant will get back to Primanti's roots with a center kitchen where customers can watch employees make sandwiches.

“We love that,” Head said. “You're immediately engaged.”

Sandwich chains are popular, said Robin Lee Allen, executive editor of Nation's Restaurant News, a leading trade magazine.

“It's quite hot,” Allen said, noting the growth of Firehouse Subs, Jason's Deli and Jimmy John's in addition to industry heavyweight Subway.

Chicago-based Potbelly Sandwich Shop in October raised $105 million through a public offering, surpassing its announced goal of $75 million.

None of that is in the works for Primanti Bros., Head said.

“We have no plans other than to take care of business in and around Pittsburgh,” he said.

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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