Founder of new chain hopes Philly hoagies conquer the country

Primo's founder Rich Neigre and Audrey Neigre, his daughter, hold a whole Italian hoagie. She has a hoagie named for her.
Primo's founder Rich Neigre and Audrey Neigre, his daughter, hold a whole Italian hoagie. She has a hoagie named for her. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 03, 2011

Seth Hurwitz is neither Italian nor from Philadelphia. But the concert promoter from south of the Mason-Dixon Line is in the silent majority of Americans entranced by one of the city's signature culinary creations: the hoagie.

A Philly hoagie - a really good one, Hurwitz explained - is worth the two-hour car ride from his Maryland home. It's a Picasso-like assemblage of cured meats, sharp cheese, and perfectly baked bread. And it has no peer beyond the borders of the nation's fifth-largest city.

Heroes and subs? Impotent impostors, in his eyes.

"Hoagies are different in Philly," said Hurwitz, 52, who likes his food the way he likes his singer-songwriters: the real deal. And every year, he drives a van to Primo Hoagies in South Philadelphia to load up on trays for an Oscar party at his home in Bethesda.

"The way they do the meat," Hurwitz said, "the way they slice the peppers fresh, the bread is perfect, the seeded bread they have . . . I mean, everything is perfect."

Despite coast-to-coast adoration for this stepchild to the cheesesteak, hoagie-makers have watched idly for decades as out-of-town sandwich peddlers such as Quiznos and Subway colonized the globe with their versions of cold cuts on a roll. There is a Subway in Japan, a Quiznos in Qatar.

But the days of taking the salami smackdown on the chin are coming to an end. The bona-fide Philly hoagie, led by the little Primo store at 15th and Rittner Streets, is making like Rocky and muscling its way across America.

The business neighborhood native Rich Neigre started 19 years ago with his wife, Coleen, is franchising with fury across the Mid-Atlantic, with stores due to open Tuesday in Kirkwood and Rehoboth, Del., a lease signed for Baltimore, and a deal close for a place in Leesburg, Va.

The Little Hoagie Shop That Could has its sights set on continental domination, though its owner would hardly use such words, preferring instead the likes of braggadocio, as in, "I don't want to be braggadocious, but . . ."

Over the last three years, Primo has planted its meat slicers and oregano shakers in Shore towns and shopping strips faster than you can say capicola (gabo-GOOL, if you twang South Philly). It has 65 stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, with 10 more opening over the next three months.

Founder Neigre ("Primo" is tattooed on his chest) said his hoagies were popular because he used top-shelf Thumann's meats sliced to order and layers them onto bread made from a special recipe formulated by a trio of bakers: one Austrian, one French, and one Italian-American.

Each roll is baked at Liscio's in South Jersey, using a technique that is optimal for transport and that gives local store owners maximum flexibility, based on whether they are busy one day and need more rolls, or not.

"It gets baked seven-eighths of the way, and then we flash-freeze it," Neigre said. "Each new franchise has a small convection oven, where they can throw it in. . . . When it comes out of our ovens, it's like it's fresh right out of a bakery oven."

Becoming a big franchise player was not part of the plan when Neigre, now 54, opened Primo in 1992.

He lost his father when he was "real young" and grew up poor. His widowed mother cleaned Center City office buildings at night, and the family lived in a small apartment a few blocks from where he would open Primo.

"My mom, she really didn't make too much money at her job," he said. "I ate bologna and cheese sandwiches."

South Philly was teeming with local bakers and some of the best bread in town, and its cured meats and sharp cheeses had been inspired by the Old Country.

Newly married and in his 20s, Neigre would dispatch his wife's 10-year-old brother to pick up the finest bread, cold cuts, and cheese - prosciutto, lean capicola, extra-sharp imported provolone, top-shelf Genoa salami - and Neigre would wow buddies with his homemade hoagies.

After hopping through jobs (a sneaker store here, a sporting-goods store there), he grew hungry for a business of his own. So in a storefront barely the size of a corner candy store, he opened a grocery and called it Primo, a nod to the Italian word for "the best."

"When I first opened, there was an older man on the block who said, 'Why would you want to open a hoagie shop? There's hoagie shops all around, and this particular location never did good business.' And I said, 'Maybe I'll do hoagies a little better than everyone else.'

"Apparently, a lot of people agreed."

A decade ago, Neigre began adding stores, as customer/pilgrims begged for them.

Then he made his childhood friend Nick Papanier franchise guru. Lawyers followed, then marketing people, then exclusive contracts with Coca-Cola and Herr's.

Today, a growing team of inspectors makes weekly visits to Primo stores, to make sure each hoagie is up to snuff, whether it is sold in Wildwood or Wilmington.

If Neigre and Papanier work it right, out-of-towners from even farther away no longer will have to smuggle hoagies out of Philadelphia.

"My hoagies fly everywhere - how many people come in here on the way to the airport," Neigre said during a lunchtime chat Friday at his flagship store near 15th and Ritner, tucked into an Italian American neighborhood a short drive from the sports complex and the airport.

"Did I tell you the Cosby story?" Neigre asked. "He wanted, like, 70 hoagies from us." It was maybe four years ago when comedian and Philly native Bill Cosby placed that potent Primo order.

"His driver came in to pick them up, and he said: 'You guys must have something good; he made me drive from Queens, N.Y., just specifically to pick these up.' "

Neigre's daughter, Audrey, 28, for whom a turkey hoagie is named (the Audie), one-upped him with an even fresher tale about the Cos: "We just recently shipped them to Vegas, too, for Mr. Cosby."

Concert promoter Hurwitz, who owns Washington's 9:30 Club, was happy to hear Primo is creeping toward the Beltway. A month ago, he was in Philadelphia giving a deposition in a lawsuit against concert promoter Live Nation, and his Cozen O'Connor attorney bought him a Primo.

"He knows I love 'em," Hurwitz said.


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431, mpanaritis@phillynews.com, or @panaritism on Twitter.

 

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