As its expands, Primanti's sandwich shop chain conscious of hometown roots
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Allegheny County Court judge removes Brentley from City Council primary ballot
- Owner of Penn Hills tombstone business pleads guilty to swindling the bereaved out of $90K
- Pgh. International leader strives to inject Pittsburgh flavor into airport
- Shortfalls sabotage promise of union retirees’ pensions
- Commonwealth Court ruling upholds Braddock mayor’s vote
- Pa. woman charged with forging docs to claim she was an attorney
- Groups seek $2.5M for North Side’s historic West Park fountain
- Washington County school superintendent charged with DUI gets probation
- Falling bricks close 2 Squirrel Hill businesses
- Wagner seeks 6 debates in Allegheny County controller primary
- Friendship mortgage broker sentenced to 20 months in prison for fraud