How CEO Adam Golomb keeps iconic Pittsburgh institution Primanti Bros. evolving

You likely know the recipe for the classic Primanti Bros. sandwich: Deli meat heated on the grill with cheese, topped with house-made coleslaw, tomatoes and French fries and then placed between two thick slices of fresh-baked Italian bread. But you might not realize this iconic brand is serving up that mammoth meal with a side of savvy technology. Though it might not seem obvious for a 90-year-old sandwich shop to be on the cutting edge, the Pittsburgh-born Primanti’s, under the guidance of Pittsburgh-born CEO Adam Golomb, keeps evolving with the times and has expanded well beyond its humble origins in the Strip District to become a regional restaurant powerhouse.

“We’re always talking about how we don’t want to be an oldies act,” Golomb says. “But we also want to be respectful of where we’ve been for 90 years. The question is, how do you take this 90-year-old brand and make sure it’s here for 90 more years?”

Primanti Bros. has found the answers in recent years by crafting a modern and thriving takeout business, and by building a group of virtual brands and a popular rewards program. Primanti’s has also been an early adopter of the artificial intelligence that can help restaurants operate properly at a time when the industry is experiencing a workforce shortage.

The goal, ultimately, is growth, as the cheekily labeled “Almost Famous” Primanti’s is not content to rest on its long-earned, delicious laurels. As a result, Golomb has been open to experimentation with what the full-service chain, which has more than 40 locations and counting, can offer and how it can offer it. With one major exception.

“We’re not taking fries and coleslaw off the sandwich,” he says with a laugh. “That’s where I draw the line.”

Fries and coleslaw on a sandwich was an innovative idea when Primanti Bros. first started serving it up. Now, all this time later, the brand continues to forge ahead by bringing its expanded menu to more places and in innovative ways.



A hunger to succeed

The signature sandwiches Primanti Bros. serves originated during the Great Depression, when hungry factory, warehouse and shipyard workers in the Strip District flocked to a sandwich cart run by a man named Joe Primanti. The sandwiches were such a hit that, in 1933, Primanti, along with his brothers Dick and Stanley, was able to open an all-hours storefront at the corner of 18th and Smallman streets, where Primanti’s still stands to this day.

As the legend goes, one winter someone drove up with a load of frozen potatoes. They were placed on the grill to thaw out and looked so good that a few customers asked for them. The fried potatoes were thrown on a sandwich, and the resulting concoction allowed delivery workers to eat a full meal with one hand and drive their truck with the other.

That formula was good enough to carry Primanti Bros. into the 1970s, when the deaths of Stanley and John compelled Dick to sell the business in the middle of the decade. After a brief period in which it went out of business, the brand, now owned by private equity firms and other investors, returned and survived on its status as something of a civic institution. But it wasn’t until capital infusions in 2013 and 2021 that Primanti Bros. truly took on ambitious expansion plans.

“I think we appeal to a really large swath of customers,” Golomb says. “I always say it’s the billionaire sitting next to the construction worker. We’ve got a very casual, come-as-you-are place.”

Golomb, who remembers having his first Primanti Bros. sandwich at age 5, came aboard as the company’s chief marketing officer in 2018 after working a combined 20 years in marketing, business development and other projects for Eat’n Park Restaurants and the Giant Eagle supermarket chain. What he knew was that the sandwich alone could not take Primanti Bros. to the heights it hoped to reach. 

“It was funny, when I started interviewing, I was looking at the menu and thinking, ‘When did they add pizza and wings?’” Golomb says. “I had always gone in and just ordered my sandwich. I had never even looked at or contemplated the menu. As I dug in more on the brand and what was working and not working, I felt like it was a really great fit for me to join.”

Over the past five years, Golomb has done everything in his power to make sure customers — or “fans,” as Primanti’s calls them — are aware of the full breadth of menu items and are given ease of access to them by improving the tech and the takeout.

Carrying on with carry-out

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Primanti Bros. was in the process of paying greater attention to takeout. The company invested in a first-party digital ordering program and software to coordinate to-go timing to streamline the customer experience. With an employee dedicated to the to-go orders on every shift, Primanti’s was taking takeout seriously.

So, when takeout was, temporarily, the only option available, Primanti Bros. restaurants were well-positioned to adjust to that strange, new reality. So well-positioned, it turns out, that people have made Primanti’s takeout a regular part of their meal plans long after dine-in returned. 

“We went from a decent takeout business to a 100 percent takeout business and then dialed back down to a takeout business that’s so much stronger than before [the pandemic],” Golomb says. “It’s probably 30 percent higher than it was pre-pandemic.”

During the pandemic, when dining rooms were still closed, Primanti’s very quickly pivoted to takeout-only digital brands — 18th Street Pizza, Wing Nut (for chicken wings) and Get Loaded (for its loaded French fry concept) that became quite popular.

“I think it taught us as a company to be more nimble,” Golomb says. “In this business, you can try something and get immediate reaction to it.”

In 2023, Primanti’s launched a successful “Slice Squad” subscription program in which customers pay $9.99 per month for a slice of pizza every day of the week. 

With the dine-in business having returned, Primanti’s average unit volumes have increased substantially. And the strength of the takeout side of the business has the company rethinking how the physical layout and the staffing model of existing stores and new openings are structured.

“It’s thinking through how you store packaging in a restaurant, how you design takeout doors and curbside and how you embrace the third-party delivery world and our own delivery service,” Golomb says.

Primanti’s new stores now prioritize bigger kitchens to handle the additional volume. The company also uses AI behind the scenes to automate routine tasks. Each morning, when operations directors check sales data from the previous day, AI software has mined the information and presented it in a clean spreadsheet to save time. Primanti’s also uses AI and machine learning to compile survey data from customers to identify improvement opportunities.

“A lot of it is automating manual tasks that were really time-consuming before,” Golomb says. “It’s not like we have robots cooking food in the back. You teach the bot to go in, grab the file and put the file over here. It makes us more efficient and allows us to spend time on the things that drive value to our fans.”

And in its continuing effort to grow, Primanti’s is earning loyalty from more fans in more places.

The Burgh and beyond

When retired NFL superstar J.J. Watt visited the Steel City recently to see his younger brother, T.J., play for the Steelers, he mentioned what so many visitors believe to be a must-have meal.

“Need some Primanti Bros. & pierogies immediately upon entry,” Watt posted on the social media platform X.

Primanti’s is forever associated with Pittsburgh, and it has only built on that special relationship through the years with locations at the city’s major sports venues, the Pittsburgh International Airport and, most recently, Kennywood.

“Yinzer Nation rejoice,” Golomb says of that perfect amusement park pairing. “It doesn’t get more Pittsburgh than that.”

But these days, you can find Primanti Bros. well beyond the Burgh. There are locations in Youngstown, Ohio; Erie, Pa., Morgantown, W.Va., Hagerstown, Md.; and Scranton, Pa., just to name a few. The sports rooting interests within the walls might change (and Pittsburghers might balk at the idea of people wearing Cleveland Browns or Baltimore Ravens gear while enjoying a Primanti’s sandwich), but the concept is the same.

And Primanti’s takes expansion seriously.

“We spend a lot of time and do a lot of research and have a software program that helps us identify markets that look like they might be good for us,” Golomb says. “Our real estate team gets boots on the ground and is great at working the market to find a site. And we spend a lot of time in the market trying to understand the consumer, because building a restaurant is one of the biggest investments we make, and we want to do it right.”

Primanti’s sees itself as a “super regional” brand and has no plans to scale out nationally. Golomb says the company thrives on uniqueness and brand recognition in the region. The continued popularity of the brand was especially evident in the 2023 celebration of the shop’s 90th anniversary, during which 33-cent sandwiches were offered with the purchase of a full-price sandwich.

“We ran out of bread in some locations and ran it again,” Golomb says. “I’m sure it was a very tough day for our team, but it was great to see the fans and the excitement for the brand.”

That excitement is strong enough that Primanti’s seems primed to last at least another 90 years.

Adam Golomb

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