Operations

After 90 years, Primanti Bros. is still evolving

A focus on tech has the 42-unit Pittsburgh icon behaving like a much younger and bigger brand.
Primanti Bros. exterior
A strong takeout business has boosted Primanti Bros.' average unit volumes. / Photograph: Shutterstock

Ninety-year-olds aren’t usually known for their tech-savviness. But there are always exceptions.

Primanti Bros. is one of them. The 42-unit Pittsburgh mainstay is storming into its 10th decade with a full arsenal of high-tech bells and whistles, and showing no signs of slowing down.

Over the past three years, the full-service chain best known for putting fries on its sandwiches has built a sophisticated takeout business, a roster of three virtual brands and a popular loyalty program. Earlier this month, it launched a pizza subscription program.

What’s more, many of those things were in place before the pandemic, when online ordering and delivery were not yet the table stakes they would become. 

“We look super smart for some of the things we did,” said Adam Golomb, who was CMO at the time and responsible for much of Primanti’s tech strategy. 

Golomb, a native Pittsburgher who has been eating Primanti Bros. since he was 5, is now the chain’s CEO. As a lifelong Fan (Primanti-speak for “customer”), Golomb is keenly aware of the legacy that he inherited when he was promoted earlier this year.

“I wake up every day with the thought to not screw it up,” he said. 

On one hand, Golomb’s job is simple: Keep growing. The chain has been in expansion mode for years, thanks to capital infusions in 2013 and again in 2021. It’s building three stores now and is working on its pipeline all the way into 2026.

And yet those restaurants will look and operate differently than before, a reflection of the off-premise boom that began during the pandemic and has not gone away. In what Golomb called the “shock of the century,” takeout as a percentage of Primanti’s sales has remained double what it was before COVID, even as dine-in has returned. 

“Week in, week out, it’s stayed the exact same dollar amount,” Golomb said. Primanti’s average unit volumes have increased “dramatically” as a result. 

So in new stores, it’s planning to add special entrances for takeout as well as shrinking the dining room in favor of bigger kitchens that can handle the additional volume. In existing locations that do a lot of takeout, it’s pondering second makelines and reconfigured parking lots to further optimize that channel.

It’s no mystery why the chain has done so well with takeout: It has made plenty of investments there. It offers first-party ordering through Olo and uses software from Flybuy to help coordinate to-go timing. It has an employee dedicated to takeout orders on every shift. And then there are its three virtual brands, which have only added to its off-premise volume.  

Primanti’s created the takeout-only concepts early in the pandemic, when restaurants needed a way to generate revenue while dining rooms were closed. 

“We saw what Chili’s did [with its It’s Just Wings virtual brand] at about 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, and by about 3 o’clock we already pretty much had a brand developed,” Golomb said. 

Its two brands—18th Street Pizza and Wing Nut—did so well that it recently added a third, a loaded fry concept called Get Loaded. All three focus on items Primanti Bros. already specializes in. 

The chain tapped into another tech trend this year with the launch of Slice Squad, a subscription program that gives members a slice of pizza every day for $9.99 a month. That would cost about $62 at regular prices. 

It’s still early, but Golomb suggested the calculus is working in Primanti’s favor. 

“The biggest thing we’re seeing is we’re seeing people spend way above and beyond a slice of pizza,” he said. “The math works if people add items to their check.” 

Golomb’s challenge will be continuing to make these kinds of updates while preserving Primanti’s essence. And sometimes, that means staying behind the curve rather than ahead of it.

The typical Primanti’s customer doesn’t care much about the latest menu trend, for instance. The chain got a taste of that in 2019 when it launched a plant-based Beyond burger.

“I think we sold like three of them,” Golomb said. “We could not sell that thing to save our life.”

Now when Golomb talks to suppliers, he’ll ask what was hot two or three years ago rather than right now, figuring that’s the sweet spot for his customers.

Fortunately, Primanti’s has 90 years of experience to light the way forward.

“We always go back to, is this right for the brand? Is this something Primanti’s would have done 50 years ago?” Golomb said.

On that note, the brand is committed to staying close to its Pennsylvania roots. Though it is pushing into contiguous markets such as Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, it doesn’t have national aspirations. 

“We’re gonna march outward as a regional brand,” Golomb said. “There is a place in the world for these kinds of super regional brands.”

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