In Pittsburgh, locals are referred to as “Yinzers.” They’re people who perfectly encapsulate the city. You can count native Adam Golomb among them.
He’s worked at the nearly 40-unit Primanti Bros.—a 90-year-old sandwich chain born in Pittsburgh—for the past five years. Golomb came on board as the chain’s first CMO, tasked with refocusing growth and modernizing marketing. In June 2021 the executive was promoted to president, which required him to pick up operations and supply chain.
To start 2023, he achieved what he calls a Yinzers’ dream—becoming CEO of Primanti Bros.
“It’s a great brand. We’ve got great people,” says Golomb, who ate his first Primanti Bros. sandwich about 40 years ago. “Really, we built a great team here and we think we’re really positioned to set up for growth. I’ve worked for some great brands. I never worked for a brand at this level of national recognition where you run into people and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never had one, I’ve always wanted to have one,’ or ‘Oh, every time I’m in Pittsburgh, I have to get a sandwich.’ Really from that standpoint, it’s quite a dream to run it.”
True to his marketing background, one of Golomb’s primary goals as CEO is to keep the brand fresh. That starts with promoting value. Primanti Bros. offers $1.99 pizza slices and half-price happy hour. Around two months ago the company launched Slice Squad, a $9.99 per month subscription allowing customers to get one free slice of pizza per day. In terms of technology, Primanti Bros. uses Olo for online ordering (about one-third of sales are off-premises) and will soon launch pay-at-the-table devices. Additionally, restaurants offer three virtual brands based around pizza, wings, and loaded fries. The company was pretty quick to adapt to the trend. Golomb jokes about reading Chili’s rollout of It’s Just Wings at about 8 a.m. and having one ready to go for Primanti Bros. by the afternoon.
“That was the power of the pandemic and it was the ability to make decisions fast and not have any discussion or red tape,” Golomb says.
Like any other brand, LTOs also play a significant role. Golomb emphasizes that Primanti Bros. isn’t trying anything crazy—just taking an existing item and adding a new flavor. For example, the brand rolled out a Nashville hot chicken sandwich. More recently, the chain launched Hot honey-flavored wings, pizza, and sandwiches.
Whenever vendors or food partners come to Primanti Bros. with ideas, Golomb often asks them, “What was the trend two or three years ago? Why don’t we look at that?” The CEO poses that question because he knows the restaurant caters primarily to Middle America—a group of customers that are not necessarily asking for anything flashy or groundbreaking. Golomb knows from experience. He remembers Primanti Bros. testing an Impossible burger and only selling a handful.
“We’re an indulgence concept,” Golomb says. “I’m not coming to Primanti’s for health. I’m a big believer in fail fast. We try lots of marketing programs, lots of technology to see if it works. If it doesn’t work, we move out of it. But we’re always willing to try something.”
Growth and development keep the brand relevant, as well. Primanti Bros. is looking at four openings in 2023 and another four to six unit debuts next year. Golomb says, “If you’ve seen one Primanti Bros, you’ve seen one Primanti’s Bros,” alluding to each unit’s unique feel. One restaurant will be based in Kennywood, a 124-year-old amusement park outside of Pittsburgh. Some others include a 6,000-square-foot converted TGI Fridays in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a two-story 9,200-square-foot space that used to house a Mexican restaurant, and a ground-up endcap. Second-generation spaces are preferred because of favorable costs, but the company will do anything from ground-up freestanding stores to endcaps and inlines. With each location, the chain wants to keep the same sized kitchen but flex the dining room space.
Golomb explains that architects spend time examining decades-old Primanti Bros. restaurants to incorporate elements into new buildings. It brings a weathered, classic feeling. At the same time, the brand adds a modern touch by accounting for growth of takeout and delivery. The chain considers how to implement a door for off-premises or a pickup window. It also looks at how to design the kitchen and dining room in a way that to-go guests and delivery drivers can easily take away food.
Primanti Bros.’ strategy is to build future restaurants 30-60 minutes from an existing location. Upcoming units are in secondary markets. Golomb wouldn’t describe them as sexy places, but the brand resonates well. He compares it to the Hard Rock Cafe or The Cheesecake Factory coming to town. To illustrate his point, the CEO references a video from a local West Virginia reporter on Twitter who showed much enthusiasm about construction being underway.
“You would have thought this is like the greatest news of all time,” Golomb says. “The excitement in Weirton, West Virginia—the mayor is calling us. The excitement is unbelievable, and I think you don’t get that when you go to these big markets. People are like, ‘You should go to Charlotte.’ There’s a lot of Pittsburgh’s. But we’re just going to be another restaurant. So going to these secondary markets, we’re a big deal.”
Golomb is part of a growing number of marketing executives moving into the role of CEO. Within the past few weeks, John Williams, former CMO of Lazy Dog, was named chief executive of True Food Kitchen. Rita Patel, who joined Buffalo Wild Wings as CMO in August 2020, was promoted to brand president of Arby’s. Golomb believes this is happening more often because marketers understand the consumer, live by analytics, and consume large amounts of data. The most important trait, he says, is that CMOs are motivated by topline sales. With that said, Golomb knows he wouldn’t get anything accomplished without CFO Peter Chiappa focusing on finance, administration, and back office issues, and chief restaurant officer Will Bowker, who entered the brand eight years ago and started his current role in November.
Primanti Bros.’ tongue-in-cheek tagline is that it’s “almost famous.” But Golomb says the reality is that it’s a nationally recognized brand and that the legacy will continue to grow with each new store.
“We’re excited to bring growth to places that wanted that sandwich and don’t have a great casual-dining operation or a sports bar in their markets,” Golomb says. “We’re super excited, we’re very bullish, and I think everybody in the industry has been through a crazy last three years, but we feel good about where the industry is going and our place in it.”